What was I supposed to think? Can you imagine the ambivalence I felt when I heard a new R-Type game was coming out, but it was to be the last? Even as I excitedly started up the game, I thought to myself:
This is the end.
“This last song is dedicated to all the lovers…”
For the uninitiated, R-Type is a series of games dating back to the late 1980s, which, from its inception, was always completely indifferent about being different. It was typical where it needed to be, offering the usual eight or so levels, side-scrolling shooting missions centering around repelling the Bydo alien hordes, your one-man mission aided by weapon power ups and heeded by gargantuan bosses protecting the tiniest of vulnerabilities.
Where Irem’s game differed was in its employment of an indestructible spherical ally called the Force Device. Your R-9 could wear it on its nose or tail to act as a shield from oncoming projectiles and thinly protected enemies alike, and thus annexed it would also augment your firepower. Still more ingenious was the Force’s ability to detach and be sent off to do damage semi-independently, say inside the tiny vulnerabilities of those aforementioned giant bosses. The delicious functionality of the Force allowed the sadists at Irem to flood already claustrophobic levels with more bullet spewing enemies–at your back as well as your front–than would seem fair in such close quarters. But you’ve got that Force; see what you can make of it, Irem seemed to suggest.
Cold, futuristic stages fraught with biological aberrations featured not only the sort of panicky bullet slipping you’d expect from a shooter, but problem solving–nothing short of planning would see you through sections that would at first seem impossible. Legions of fans and haters were born of the uncompromising R-Type blueprint, which culminated in R-Type Delta, Irem’s tour de force that won begrudging praise from even the haters for its flawless balance.
And so: R-Type Final. It certainly had its work cut out for it.
Get Your Ship Together
How do you uphold a legacy and follow one of the best games ever made? Final is inferior to Delta, there’s no doubt of that. The actual gameplay isn’t on the same level: Delta boasted seven ideally crafted stages with beautiful music and detailed background designs. Given the PS2’s greater capacity, Final is almost a step backward, only managing an inspiring CGI intro, a handful of standout stages and possibly a single great tune. Final seems to concede level design to its older sibling, concentrating on something else entirely to be its unique selling point.
I kid you not. You’ve seen the cover of the game, which shows a good number of the models off? Right then. As a playing ground, Final is inconsistent–that’s the best word for it really–but it boasts the most incredible and soul-stirring collection of ships to hold your hand and take you through both the surprisingly banal and the shockingly good.
The unlockable crafts are not simply palette swaps by a long shot. In fact, you can customize the colouring of each one! Ships and their accompanying Force Devices from every previous instalment are here, along with the experimental ships they were ostensibly born of, as well as follow ups arrived at through further tweaking. Tack on to those a host of outright new designs, including some of Bydo origin! Combat experience begins to unlock for you the first smattering of ships, and experience with those begets you others, and so on. While some of the ships require a ridiculous amount of flight time in others, the unlocking is mostly fun and rewarding, offering a very high replay value beyond what almost any shooter I can think of could furnish.
Irem wanted Final to be all about the ships, so as to tug at the heartstrings of their fans as players discover newcomer after newcomer: “Hey, this is my favourite ship, the one from R-Type III with the Cyclone Force!” That was me, and Final’s collection of spacecraft has kept me riveted much longer than your typical shoot-em-up should.
A New Path to the Waterfall
What’s unfortunate is that we should be introduced to such a grand host of tour guides on hand to take us through such an inconsistent–there’s that word again–tour. Final seems bland at times, often utterly devoid of real music, often utterly devoid of anything going on at all. And yet it contains level two and five. These levels are so amazing in both concept and execution that they help compensate greatly for the lows experienced in say, levels one and some of three. (Their brilliance also begs the question: why aren’t all the levels this good?)
Stage two introduces the flag-path system. It’s the prototypical R-Type bio-level, featuring a nasty assemblage of aliens such as the massive storks after a fashion, which somehow also manage to remind us of AT-AT walkers from Star Wars. The beehive-esque boss wears both red and blue flags, as well as its weak spot. If the red flag is destroyed, the next time you launch a mission, your level two conditions will change, from swamp to scorching desert. Hitting the blue flag will effect colder, wetter change, manifesting first partly submerged conditions on your next play, fully submerged conditions the next time out, and finally, a fully submerged and partly frozen environment. The varying paths on display here are only bettered by the awe-inspiring options available through level five.
The eye-confounding backdrop of warping purple space settles when your ship is moving slowly, but flick your speed up on the fly from setting one to setting four, and watch outerspace twist and contort and watch bullets become near untraceable as they carry unpredictably on invisible ripples. The boss is a complete bastard, with his network of red criss-cross lasers and the tractor beams that try to welcome you to their trajectory. He wears flags too; and your decision to hit the blue, the red or neither, will decide your sixth and seventh level fate, and ultimately your ending. This is absolutely brilliant stuff, and playing through it will make the memories of earlier vapid moments distant and unreal.
Level two, the later levels with their surprising twists and special visual treats (what were they thinking!), the varying endings–being able to play all of this out with the ship of your choice (unlocked through hard, rewarding work!) from your favourite old school R-Type game, amounts to the ultimate enjoyment on offer from R-Type Final. For serious fans, it will be more than enough to give the game their most wholehearted endorsement despite the game’s obvious flaws. For non-shooter fans though, the game should probably not even be a consideration. Such players will find it too slow, too uncontroversial, too 2D. (Though it’s worth nothing that the five difficulty levels will make Final approachable to anyone, where previous instalments were inaccessible, offering all but insuperable challenge to the casual gamer.)
As for myself, as one of those serious fans, I will return to the game now. I will easily endure the boring bits in a quest to unlock my now third favourite ship, from R-Type Leo. I will continue to work at Final’s most elusive ending and its more elusive unlockable campaign ‘awards’. Indeed, after ten hours of play, there’s still plenty of game left:
This is only the beginning.