Insomnia | Reviews

R-Type

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By Alex Kierkegaard / June 10, 2005

"R-Type from Irem Corporation is, if possible, even more playable than its best-selling predecessors [Defender, Nemesis and Salamander]. ... Other than the incredibly addictive nature of the game, the stunning graphics will take your breath away. They are far larger than those in other similar games, and are higly imaginative and very colourful."
--Computer & Video Games, Aug '87

"... Irem's R-Type was probably the most talked about arcade game of 1987 for its amazing graphics and its exciting gameplay."
--Sinclair User, Apr '88

"R-Type is undoubtedly the most impressive coin-op of the lot, and one of the hardest to get to play -- because there's almost always a crowd round the cabinet! Graphically it's stunning: some of the later, more organic, palpitating levels are truly revolting. As for the game itself, it is simply second to none..."
--Crash, Oct '88


It's hard to overstate the impact Irem's now-legendary shooter had when it first appeared, almost two decades ago. Without warning, R-Type invaded every half-decent coin-op establishment from East to West, and went on to dominate the shoot 'em up scene for many years afterwards. It was the kind of game that was impossible to ignore.

Hype was not easy to generate before a game's release back then, but once R-Type was out it made its own. You'd walk by as someone was taking on the third stage, and catch a glimpse of the mothership, stretching across several screens, brimming with cannons, turrets and jet engines; a hulking monstrosity moving through dark space with astonishing smoothness. The game was so gorgeous, it made contemporary shooters, such as Konami's Gradius (1985) (known as Nemesis in the West) and Salamander (1986), look positively prehistoric.

It was developed on Irem's brand new M72 hardware, which offered a large palette of colors, and was able to push around the screen sizeable sprites in great numbers. More importantly, it drew everything at a high resolution: 384 x 256 pixels, in contrast to the Konami shooters which were displayed at 256 x 224. That made for a huge difference in detail -- in both the enemies and the backgrounds -- and enabled the artists to infuse the game with more of their art, something that Irem exploited to great effect. Horror in space was R-Type's theme, and it was masterfully realized. You'd face slithering metallic snakes and giant robotic monsters; lumps of creature flesh intertwined with the cold steel of an alien technology. And during the course of the game you'd see all those abominations torn apart by the great bolts of lightning and the waves of pink/blue laser beams emanating from your spaceship.

Wrapped in all that great artwork and pyrotechnics was a nuanced, highly addictive shooter. It commanded you to "Blast off and strike the evil Bydo Empire!", and gave you an agile, compact spaceship, the R-9, and a versatile power-up system to play with. This revolved around the Force, a glowing, spherical pod, "an indestructible living weapon", that could be attached either to the front or the back of your ship, or flung across the screen to fire at enemies autonomously. This pod was the game's most famous and unique feature. It could be upgraded three times and fitted with a variety of diverse weapons, which were both highly inventive and satisfying to use.

By picking up various items, the ship could also be fitted with up to two so-called 'Bits' -- small, floating orbs, resembling miniature Forces in appearance, that hovered a short distance above and below the spaceship -- as well as up to two homing missiles. The ship's speed could be controlled by collecting speed up and speed down items.

If the inspiration for the Force and Bits was to be found in the Options of Gradius, the Wave Cannon was certainly Irem's invention. By holding down the fire button the player could slowly build up energy (reflected by a charging bar at the bottom of the screen) and then discharge it as a destructive beam. At full power the beam could tear through waves of enemies, but had the disadvantage that the player could not fire normal shots while charging it. It was an elegant, highly useful device, that made the fighting more fun without unbalancing the game. Moreover, it was such a natural action -- charging up and then releasing -- that it was duly adopted by countless other games, even outside the shoot 'em up genre.


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It is fascinating that in its relative infancy Irem could shape a game as finely tuned as R-Type. It reeled you in with its inspired art and cutting edge graphics, and then it slowly eased you into its outwardly simple, yet intricate system. But what kept you dropping coins was its masterful level design.

R-Type's real strength was its series of meticulously planned -- almost choreographed -- scenes, starting from a brief encounter with waves of enemy ships outside a space station, and ending in a freaky alien's lair, pulsing with crimson hues and sinister life. The stages were kept short and tight, with no extraneous segments. Even the few brief pauses served a purpose: to set the scene for bigger and more dramatic showdowns.

R-Type moved at a slower pace than most other shooters, with a deliberate, almost leisurely scrolling speed. The idea was not to simply destroy everything on screen -- though many players instinctively tried. The idea was, quite simply, to survive. Given the claustophic nature of the stages, with enemies rushing you from every angle and dense fire often criscrossing the screen,that was a daunting task.

Sitting in the smoke-filled half-light of the arcade, you would inevitaly die, again and again, at the same damn spot, until you figured out the correct path to follow (oftentimes there would be only one), or the winning strategy.

Unleash the Wave Cannon at the belly of the giant alien; destroy the crab-like creatures before they get a chance to move; attach the Force to your back when you reach the end of the giant mothership -- and so on and so forth.

Sometimes you'd stumble past a tough spot without quite knowing how you did it. Other times you'd blindly walk into the only bullet on screen, cursing all the way back to the start of the stage. But you'd go home and take a break, and you'd inevitably return the next day and make it that much further. You kept coming back because you had to see what would happen next -- how the hell would they top that giant mothership? (Those who never managed to beat the game might still be wondering about this. The answer is they didn't.)

Quitting was never really an option, because what else would you play? That's not to say there weren't any other good shooters back then. That is to say R-Type totally demolished them.

Gradius had come out two years earlier, but by 1987 everyone had already beaten that. Those who hadn't probably never would. Its successor was still in the making, leaving the shoot 'em up landscape filled with many half-finished thoughts and weak ideas. Darius, Gigandes, Sauro -- those were the kinds of games R-Type went up against, and boy they didn't stand a chance.

I recently got hold of the Japanese flyer for the game, which proclaimed in broken English that "It lets you feel thrill, excitement, shock all at the same time." The shock may have worn off for most, after all these years, but the thrill and excitement are still there.