Monday, February 20, 2012

What I've Been Playing #1: Radiant Silvergun

Radiant Silvergun for Xbox Live Arcade

It's good, but it's not the Holy Grail of vertical shmups by any means.

The hook here is that, instead of having to collect weapon upgrades and power-ups, you're equipped with seven different guns--standard, homing, wide-angle bombs, rear spread, lock-on missiles, remote electric charge, and close-range sword--at all times, which you level up simply by using them. A veritable Swiss Army knife, your ship theoretically has a tool for every situation, although it will take a while to figure out the right weapon for each job, and some guns are definitely more useful than others. Eventually, along with memorizing the stage layouts, you'll learn when to use which gun, and you should become quite automatic switching between them. When I recently went back to play Ikaruga, I actually felt really weak, limited as I was to only a standard forward cannon, after having grown accustomed to the more versatile load-out in Radiant Silvergun.

Otherwise, the game is a shmup--better than most, but nothing revolutionary. The stages are never random but very meticulously constructed, and they demand that you be likewise meticulous and precise as you shoot and dodge your way through. It's difficult, but never overwhelming, except perhaps in its length, approaching an hour. The game progresses at a somewhat slow pace, and boss encounters are frequent. Unfortunately, many of the earlier bosses are not so inspired; some are little more than stationary bullet sponges. It gets better as you get further in, but the front-loading of tedious battles hurts replayability. It is kind of exhausting, especially compared to the incredibly brisk twenty-minute experience of Ikaruga.

The game is also kind of ugly. It's a few years older (1998) than Ikaruga (2001) or Gradius V (2004), so it understandably doesn't look as sharp as those later Treasure-developed shooters. But, more than anything else, it's the art direction, the game's marked lack of any visual personality, that really lets it down, especially compared to those other classics. The game is just really drab throughout, with undistinguished space backgrounds. Regular enemies are red, blue, or yellow shapes--mostly unassuming circular or rectangular sprites. It's nowhere near as striking as the black-and-white look of Ikaruga. Ugliest of all are the generically cartoony hand-drawn characters in the story mode, though thankfully you don't have to deal with them in arcade mode.

The music, composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto at his Final Fantasy Tactics-era best, holds up better. It's nothing like his really surprising electronica stuff from Gradius V, but rather sounds almost like leftover material from Final Fantasy Tactics. In fact, although it's good, the fact that it sounds so much like Final Fantasy Tactics yet again reinforces the feeling that the game has no artistic identity of its own, much in contrast to the thematically unified Ikaruga, where the music was handled by Hiroshi Iuchi, who also did the backgrounds and served as director. Also, the Radiant Silvergun soundtrack, being in that trademark martial style of Sakimoto, can become somewhat repetitive and, within an already exhausting gameplay experience, witheringly relentless in its own right, especially as the game has almost no hard breaks between levels, and so the score just keeps pounding away without ever letting up.

At this point, you might be wondering what makes the game good, as I claimed at the beginning of this post. Well, it's a shmup, one of the simplest forms in gaming, and I think what's fun about a good shmup is properly basic, thus hard to explain or break down any further in words. But I will say that I've been playing Radiant Silvergun every day for the last two weeks, and, through a bleak and senseless season, it has been a daily comfort that I keep coming back to.

Part of this may be on account of the story mode. Although the story itself is stupid, and the subtitles (no English voice track, alas) impossible to read while taking enemy fire, the story mode is unusual for a shmup in that it keeps a cumulative score for every time you play. As mentioned before, your weapons in Radiant Silvergun grow more powerful as you level them up through usage (basically, through scoring with them), and this is also cumulative, so, although you technically still have to beat story mode in a single session, you can save your weapon level progression, so that you'll start every session more powerful than your last. So, even for a player of my meager shmup skills, there's a real tangible sense that, with each attempt at this once seemingly unwinnable game, I'm getting stronger and ever closer to reaching the end. Even more important than the weapon levels, the game also rewards you for each hour of play by starting you with an extra life on your next attempt, and this too is cumulative, apparently up to a total of 99 lives, which should be far more than even a terrible player would need.

As I said, the game can be kind of exhausting, so I can only play it about once a day, and I still haven't beaten it. And yet, in a weird way, there's a hopefulness when playing Radiant Silvergun, and, despite all the hundreds of deaths I've already died in this game, it never seems mean or unfair in the way that, well, real life can be. It isn't random, it doesn't cheat, it always gives you a chance, even if you can't always see it, and, even at its most cluttered, it's still more manageable and makes a heck of a lot more sense than real life. And, no matter how many times I fail, I can keep coming back, and there is always that promise that, if I stick with it, eventually I will succeed. But, in the meantime, even dying in the game is a kind of catharsis. Life and death in the fake world of a video game has no real meaning or consequence, so they say, but sometimes reality doesn't seem to have any meaning. At least with a game, since it's all pretend anyway, I can pretend that there's something at stake, that I'm actually living and dying for something.

In fact, a part of me is terrified at what will happen when I finally do beat the game. I can't imagine I will continue to play once having achieved that objective. Then will hollow reality kick back in? I guess I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.


Czardoz said...

Yeah, you say it doesn't cheat, but then why does it get lucky all the time?

Henry said...

Not only that, but I should also mention that my comments only apply to the normal-and-below difficulties. After unlocking free play on arcade mode, I tried out very hard just to see what it was like, and it's far more sadistic. Some of the boss fights are significantly different and, in my opinion, cross way over the line past being reasonable.