Game of the Month: April 2016
R-TYPE - Arcade / Multi Format
If ever, someway down the line, someone was tasked with drawing up a poster or flyer to illustrate what exactly made Arcades special during the 1980’s that person would struggle. Not because it’s a task impossible to do, far from it, but because how on Earth would one person ever be able to speak with one clear voice to the memories of millions. From Atari, Bally, Data East, Capcom, Konami, Sega and Williams a soul could spend years just learning the names of all those shiny cabinets and still there would be hundreds more from another dozen or so manufacturers. The 1980’s was special, if the 70’s was where video gaming was born, it’s the 80’s where it crawled like an infant, stood on it’s own two feet then before you could blink, it went ahead and ran the 100 metres faster than Usain Bolt. Possibly the single most exciting and fast paced decade for the industry it’s where so many of the games we refer to as ‘Classic’ come from.
Were it a mission tasked to RGG there’s one game that most certainly would be placed proudly into the mix, that game? R-Type
If your eyes just lit up or the hairs just stood up on the back of your neck then chances are you were just like me, a nice but easily distracted young guy/girl who spent most of the decade mimicking a Meerkat as my head was continually spinning from all these new, wondrous experiences. Every so often though a game would come along that wouldn’t just turn my head but keep it firmly locked on it, mesmerized by it as if it was the only brightly flashing screen in the room. In 1987 Irem gave not just me but everyone one of those rare moments where time stands still and suddenly it all just makes sense, this is why we come here, this is why we will always come here, R-Type was released.
Initially appearing in arcade halls in North America and of course Japan R-Type was in many ways just another of those shoot ‘em ups that were so massively popular ever since the days of Space Invaders and Asteroids turned a generation of toy lovers into videogame fanatics. A side scrolling affair with space being very much the backdrop regarding it’s back story and waves and waves of alien enemies from a distance this seemed like just another cabinet in a room of choice, step up and whack some coins in though and Irem would in fact take you on a journey to videogame Nirvana.
Taking command of the experimental R-9a ‘Arrowhead’ space craft in the 22nd century you are the last hope against an invading and supremely powerful Alien that goes by the name of the ’Bydo Empire’ There’s not that more too it really but it’s made very clear that you either defeat this menace or it’s lights out for civilization. No Pressure then eh? The name of the spacecraft is cleverly made up of it being the first working version of the design with 8 previous prototypes and the letter stands for ‘Ray Of Light’ indicating it’s importance in the struggle. With a small touch like that nailed down it was clear this was gonna be so much more than that first impression. Gameplay consisted of controlling your state of the art fighter through several missions, each with boss battles, and then facing down Bydo itself.
Where R-Type stood out from the crowd however was on three fronts, the first being how absolutely amazing it all looked, absolutely miles ahead of it’s rivals it was instantly iconic. The boss battles themselves are often spoken about in retro conversations because of how unique or flat out awesome they were with one battle taking place around the entirety of a massive mothership. Such was it’s intensity that for many it was a game all on it’s own and it wasn’t even the coolest part. Enormous alien mega sized embryo’s, over sized heart type entities and more stood between you and that final mission over screen. If you got to it that is, because R-Type was hard… very hard, insanely hard in fact for the time. For most arcade goers this was a game that would have to wait until it’s home conversions before completion was obtained, the arcade game is a superb example of requiring pixel perfect muscle memory and reflexes. If you ever meet someone who can complete the arcade on a single coin, make that person your new idol.
The third highlight of the game was how your ship powered up it’s weapons and the use of the added little toy called ‘Force’ This was an orange and white ball that would come to your ship once earned and act as both an offensive weapon and supremely importantly, a hugely needed main line of defence. The force could attach itself to either the front or the rear of your R-9 ship depending on where you positioned yourself and either deal out more laser based death and destruction or defend you against the insane amounts of enemies and their laser attacks on you. Not only did you have to pilot and fire, collect power ups and not hit scenery but on top of this you have to learn how to effectively use this cool little ball. It was not just a game changer but a game maker. Whilst not original as either a concept or primary use with games it completely evolved and perfected how to make powering up your craft in a side scrolling shooter work to help both new players survive longer and experienced players better. Fans of the genre flocked to it and for a time it was an essential play for those venturing into those dimly lit and loud halls with many a kids pocket money ending up in the coin slot.
The fun didn’t stop there though because shortly afterwards home conversions on just about every major home computer came bursting out of the woodwork and everything great about the game was now here for all those video game fans to now enjoy from the comfort of their armchairs and computer desk chairs. The 8-Bit Micro computers which in Europe we so important that we didn’t even know or care about the Atari crash of the 80’s in North America were treated to superb ports with the Sinclair Spectrum version being rightly praised as the standout entry. With crisps and detailed sprites and an incredible use of colour it was a master class of programming and design. Often seen in top 10’s of best game ever created for the system from noted and respected magazines of the time such as Crash, Your Sinclair and of course Sinclair User. Amstrad CPC 464 users and Commodore 64 fans were not left out as both had great versions as well with similar high praise from their monthly scene journals like Zzap 64 and Amstrad Action.
When it came to the 16-Bit computers the Atari ST and the mighty Amiga 500 both had conversions that totally turned heads. Because of both systems impressive technical specs each version looked so close to the arcade it was crazy. For the lucky gamers owning these (at the time) very expensive computers it was as close as you could get to the arcade experience in Europe especially because unfortunately the stunning PC Engine version never saw the light of day there. All 3 versions from these computers / console were magnificent however one games console that was also making waves and turning heads in Europe got a quite special version indeed.
The Sega Master System was an 8-Bit games console that for it’s time was a bit of a tech beast. It was also very much the choice for arcade game lovers in Europe especially as Sega at the time were very much on top of their game so to speak. R-Type for this system is quite simply a technical masterpiece. A few moments of sprite flicker aside it’s better looking than all of the 8-Bit computer versions and plays just as great as the 16-bit entries. A sort of one foot in each, it’s a complete joy to play and also, like several of the other home conversions, has a much more pleasing difficulty curve meaning that it was much easier to see all the levels and of course get that final victory moment.
With box cover art to match the game inside each and every single version of R-Type is like a love letter to those who would one day look back on those childhood moments and look for a picture that would take all those memories and sum it all up in a single, iconic image. It’s impossible to not see the Spectrum big box cover and not want to immediately play it, somehow that same exact arcade hall first impression was perfectly translated for the home. It really is difficult to fault anything about the game or anything else connected to it. Sequels would arrive and other games in the expanding franchise would appear on consoles such as the Playstation, PS2 and even the original would one day hit the digital networks of the 360 etc. The only real surprise is that the arcade original never hit either the Snes or the Megadrive / Genesis console, that’s a real shock for sure. The closest we would ever get would be Super R-Type on the Super Nintendo but let’s be honest, it’s not a patch on the original.
As a teenager I had a poster of R-Type on my bedroom wall, a poster I got from one of my games magazines. Around it I would eventually place dozens more but my eye would always catch the one with Bydo on it. Like many of you reading this, I stood in those arcade halls, waiting in line to get a go and I also made sure the Spectrum, Amiga and Master System versions were purchased as soon as humanly possible. I completed the Master System version but never managed to ever do the arcade version but I never felt I needed too, completion was never and never has been the requirement for love. To play R-Type is to know love, because it embraces you as a soul mate, speaks to you like a mentor and stays with you like a best friend. Eventually I took down that poster on my wall but I never took it down in my heart, it stays on that wall forever. I imagine a great deal of people feel the same way and I guess that’s why it has always been and will forever be a classic in every possible sense of the word.
So for that person in the future who has to look back and sum up arcades in the 1980’s please make sure you save a place of honour for Irem’s finest moment, my advice is ever so slightly to the left of centre because after all, that’s where the heart lives, that’s where the love comes from…