Sunday, July 22, 2018

R-Type (1991)

Box art shamelessly stolen from The Game Boy Database.
Even when it's rendered in a slightly less menacing art style,
the Dobkeratops boss is nearly always awesome and scary looking.

If I haven't made it abundantly clear on this blog, or on my YouTube channel, I love shmups. You know, shoot-em-ups. Shooters. STG's. Scrolling shooters. Space shooters. Pick your term, whichever you like - I could care less. What I do care about? Shooter games. And no, not those first-person games, where you run around, toting a gun, shooting anything that moves. I'm talking about the kind of shooter where you fly a plane, spaceship, or similar craft, and blast everything that moves with an assortment of fantastical weaponry. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a good FPS game now and again, but my heart is with the classic scrolling shooter.

The alternate logo, used in a lot of arcade posters, and some ports,
looks awesome here, atop a rendering of the Dobkeratops.

I don't wish to belabor the point, but for the uninitiated, a brief treatise on the genre's origins: Space Invaders is where the shoot-em-up was born, followed by Galaxian, Gorf, Galaga, and many other "G" games, but it was potentially Konami's Scramble that defined the shooting game as it would come to be known, in that, it wasn't just a ship that could move along a single axis, firing at incoming enemies, but one that could move along both axes, while the screen scrolled to reveal more enemies and changing terrain. This innovation was quickly followed up by multiple developers, namely Sega with Zaxxon and Namco with Xevious, and the modern shoot-em-up was born. These early examples brought different innovations with them, and helped solidify some genre conventions, but the still rudimentary graphics meant that some of the elements didn't quite have the same kind of effect. In 1985, Konami followed their initial scrolling shooter game with a spiritual successor, the legendary Gradius. Not only did this game give birth to the modern shooter, but it also brought additional innovations and improvements to the genre. Irem brought their own shmup innovation to arcades just 2 years later, with R-Type.

Yep. Still awesome and scary looking, even on the tiny Game Boy screen.

It's not a stretch to say that R-Type was a unique beast, back when it was released. Up to that point, most shooter craft had little in the way of protection, other than the player's own skill and dexterity in dodging oncoming fire. Gradius introduced a front-facing shield power-up, that allowed the Vic Viper to withstand a handful of shots directly to the nose, which offered a much needed respite to the hail of bullets that often occurred. With R-Type, however, the R-9 was equipped with the Force Bit, a new innovation made possible by harnessing the flesh of one of the Bydo's own bio-mechanical menaces, that would not only provide shielding from enemy fire, but also absorb that fire indefinitely. The Force Bit could also be upgraded with one of 3 different weapons, up to two levels, and even thrown at enemies and used as a destructive weapon itself. Plus, the Force Bit could be coupled to the ship either in front, or in the rear. Needless to say, this innovation was quite forward thinking, and proved to be the unique element that catapulted the game to success.

Stage 2's alien graveyard and "intestines in giant test tubes" motif
just might be the most impressive thing, graphically speaking, in the game.

Naturally, when an arcade game became a hit in the 80's, it was almost inevitable that it had to be ported to some kind of home computer or game console. In the case of R-Type, it went everywhere. From the woefully under powered ZX Spectrum, to the fledgling TurboGrafx 16, many gaming platforms received a port of the game. Irem's little shooting game wonder didn't see release until mid-1991 on Nintendo's monochromatic handheld wonder. The port was handled by BITS Studio, who did a number of Game Boy conversions during that period, and is an admirable attempt at trying to bring the arcade experience to the platform, despite its limitations.

Unless you're a shoot-em-up wunderkind, expect to see this screen
quite a bit, like I did. It's okay, though; you have unlimited continues.

The general story is, the bio-mechanical Bydo creatures, and their conquering empire, have attacked humanity, and it's up to you, and your trusty R-9 ship, to repel the attack. As previously mentioned, you stand a better chance in a "one ship versus the whole armada" scenario than you might otherwise, because you have the Force Bit, an interesting invention that combines technology with some actual fleshy material from a Bydo creature. This gives the R-9 additional firepower, shielding from some enemy fire, and additional offensive capabilities, since the Force Bit can be hurtled from the ship's front or rear, directly into enemies. Using the R-9, the Force Bit, and some combination of the 3 weapons available in the game, it falls to you to defeat the Bydo menace. What's a space pilot to do, other than the task set before them?

Stage 2's snake enemy has far fewer segments, which is to be
expected, given the small screen size and sprite limitations.

The game scrolls horizontally, and you'll notice from the outset that the R-9 is a rather sluggish craft. You'll need to watch out for "S" power-ups, which will increase your speed. As for weapon power-ups, there are 3 types: the helix laser, the reflect laser, and the crawling ground laser. In the arcade original, these were represented with red, blue, and yellow power-up icons. Here, of course, that had to change to accommodate the Game Boy's lack of a color palette. The icon with a "1" in the center is the angled laser, that with a "2" is the helix laser, and the "3" is the wall crawling flame. When collecting an initial power-up, the R-9 is granted the Force Bit, and subsequent power-up icons either grant level 1 of a power-up, or level 2, if your ship is already powered up. Also available is the Round Bit, which auto-equips to float above your ship upon initial pickup, and acts as a shield against enemy fire and collision. Much like the Force Bit, this can also be used to damage enemies. If a second Round Bit is collected, it will equip to a similar position below the R-9. Round Bits will also fire single shots of the R-9's main cannon. Conspicuously missing from this port is the Missile power-up, which auto-fires missiles from the R-9 in the arcade port.

"Shot through the heart, and you're to blame,
You give aliens a bad name!"

The R-9 has full 8-way movement via the D-pad, as one would expect. Pressing the "B" button will fire a shot from the main cannon, and rapid pressing will yield a fast succession of bullets. Press and hold the "B" button to charge up the cannon, indicated by the gauge at the bottom of the screen, and when you release it, will let loose a powerful blast that does far more damage than any normal shot, or even any of the lasers. The "A" button acts as your Force Bit control. If the Force Bit is docked with your ship, press "A" to release it, which will send it shooting out in whichever direction corresponds with which side of the ship it's docked. If the Force Bit is undocked, pressing "A" will call it back to the ship. The Start button pauses, naturally. Select is only used at the title screen, to bring up a handful of options, including a difficulty selection, between "Easy" and "Hard" modes.

The battleship of Stage 3 can seem a bit tricky at first, but if you can see
how I have my ship positioned, versus where the Force Bit is sitting,
you can see that this version of the game gives you a way to complete
cheese the central core, allowing you to defeat it with zero risk.

With most shoot-em-ups, you need fast reflexes, good hand/eye coordination, and a knack for interpreting on-screen events, so you can adjust what you're doing, in order to best power up and survive. These are all useful things in R-Type, but the key to success in this game, and indeed, its successors, comes down to memorization. If you know the layout of a level, which enemy waves are coming and where, which power-ups are where, and which weapons work best in a given area, you will stand a much better chance of success. Developing a pathway through each level, so you can position the ship where it makes the most sense, in terms of being reasonably safe from enemy fire or obstacles, and also allowing you to maximize enemy destruction, is essential for survival. This made R-Type somewhat unique for its time, because most other games in the genre allowed you to get by mostly on twitch reflexes and good power-up management. Irem had other plans for this game, however, because you can't just fudge your way through; you need to know where you're going, what you're doing, and which weapon you need at various junctions, because otherwise, you're not going to get very far.

Unfortunately, your high score in this version of the game is kind of a
moot point; at no point does the high score table ever display again,
and you can't even see your final score when you opt not to continue.

Visually, this port looks pretty good. The R-9 is recognizable, the switch to a numbered power-up system works, and most of the enemy sprites and level designs match their arcade counterparts pretty well. Most of the levels have very little in the background, but what's there works well to accent the foreground graphics, so it's not overdone. Animation is sparse, but it works well enough, despite a fairly high degree of sprite flicker, due to the number of sprites on screen sometimes, or the way the weapon power-ups are rendered. The BITS team should be commended for capturing, as well as could be expected, the look and feel of the arcade game.

In the absence of the original Stage 4 from the arcade, what was
Stage 6 becomes the de facto difficult level in the Game Boy port.

The audio department takes a bit of a hit, unfortunately. I'm not sure if it was a ROM size limitation, or what the reason was, but there are only 2 primary stage music tracks in the game that just repeat every other stage. Stages 1, 3, and 5 use the music from Stage 1, and Stages 2, 4, and 6, use that of Stage 2. The boss encounter music remains the same, and there's a separate ending theme, but the music selection in the game is quite sparse. Thankfully, what's here is at least translated reasonably well to the Game Boy's sound hardware. Sound effects are roughly what one would expect. They work for the port, and aren't annoying or offensive, but nothing stood out to me as being either particularly noteworthy, or specifically bad. They're merely utilitarian in that respect. The one exception is the sound effect that plays at the end of a stage, as your bonus score is being tallied. For a game that doesn't show your score when you die, it's a rather grating sound effect to count down that point bonus.

This spot tripped me up many times, having to try and navigate between 2
descending, basically indestructible enemies, and it's easy to crash into one.

As you might expect, concessions had to be made to fit this arcade game onto the Game Boy. I previously mentioned that the missiles were omitted from the weapon set. This isn't a big loss, since the strategic advantage they gave you in the original is mostly gone, given the more compressed level layouts and smaller enemy count. Rather than the original arcade game's 8 levels, the Game Boy port is comprised of only 6, cutting out stages 4 and 5. This was necessary due to the nature of those 2 areas. Stage 4 had enemies flying onto the screen that left obstacle trails you had to shoot through, and the sheer number of sprites and on-screen objects would have been overwhelming for the handheld. The same goes for Stage 5, which saw you pitted against giant robot snakes that split off into multiple sections when the head is destroyed. The Stage 5 boss would be too sprite-heavy as well. These necessary omissions make the game quite a bit easier as a result, especially since Stage 4 is generally considered the hardest area in the game.

Thankfully, the checkpoint in Stage 4 isn't too far from the boss, and you
at least get an opportunity to power up with a Force Bit & weapon beforehand.

R-Type has always been challenging, but while this version is no pushover, it is considerably easier than its original arcade incarnation. As previously mentioned, 2 levels are missing, so that cuts out a fourth of the game you need to memorize and learn. Also, there's a strategy you can use to more easily beat some bosses, whereby you throw the Force Bit at a boss, then move your ship out of reach enough that when you press "A" to call the device back to your ship, it instead will find the weak spot. Case in point: the Stage 2 boss can be easily defeated by throwing the Force Bit toward the right side of the screen, then moving the R-9 to the lower-left, and calling the bit back. Instead of traveling over top of the boss, it will go right to the center of the top of the boss, which is its vulnerable area. A similar strategy can be employed in Stage 3 at the end of the battleship. Needless to say, while you likely won't beat this game on a single credit your first time through, it shouldn't provide too much trouble, even in the game's second loop.

Just for the sake of contrast, you can see how much better R-Type DX
looks from this one screenshot. Imagine how much better the rest of the
game looks. It also sounds much better, with enhanced music & effects.

Though this is a reasonably solid conversion of the arcade hit, it's difficult to recommend it. Not because it's not a good game, but because it has been supplanted by R-Type DX on the Game Boy Color. It collects both this game, and the Game Boy port of R-Type II, which we didn't get in the US, and offers both the original black & white versions, as well as colorized versions that are enhanced on the Game Boy Color and Advance systems. In addition, the "DX" mode is a mix of levels from both games, which changes the experience enough to add additional replay value. As of the time of this writing, the original R-Type on Game Boy is going for around $10, which is probably close to what I paid for it. R-Type DX, on the other hand, is only going for around $12 loose, which is a much better deal, considering all the extra content. I consider myself lucky to have held onto my copy of the DX version which I bought as a new release, so my only interest in picking up the original port is as a Game Boy collector and reviewer, and ultimately, to see if there were any differences between the 2 versions that would make for an interesting discussion. There aren't any notable changes, to speak of, so unless, like me, you're a hardcore collector or shmup fan, and have to have them all, this is one I'd consider passing up, in favor of its Game Boy Color iteration. Either way, this is an easy game to recommend checking out, if you're a fan of the original, or the genre.

PS - As an aside, R-Type was the first game I chose for a new shoot-em-up club I've started at RF Generation, where I'm a monthly contributor, and staff member. The RF Generation Shmup Club looks at one shmup every month, and we all pick the version/port we want to play, try for good high scores, and see how far we can get in the game. For each monthly game, there's a discussion thread, where we talk about the game, share scores, strategies, and just discuss the game in general. If you like classic shooters, or even modern shoot-em-up games, consider checking it out. Head over to RF Generation, go to the forums, and you'll find the threads in the Community Playthrough section. New members are always welcome, so if you're reading this, I hope to see you there as well!