Wednesday, July 8, 2009

AA & X360 look: Raiden Fighters Aces

This compilation of all three Raiden Fighters is a necessity for all fans of 2D shooters. If you haven't purchased it already then either you have better plans for that $20 or you live in Europe. For the unaware RFA is a compilation of all three Raiden Fighters games. These games date back to Seibu's first standout title Raiden 1 which at the time was one of the most popular 2D shooters in the arcades. After Raiden 2 and some arranged version Seibu went on to do Raiden Fighters 1, 2, and Jet. While based on the Raiden lore and featuring a number of the same ships & power-ups the gameplay underwent a number of changes. 

To start with while Raiden games typically only have one or two selectable ships, Raiden Fighters has an assortment of them all with varying speeds, weapons, and even bombs(the kind that make a big explosion and can be used to escape deadly situations). The stages in Raiden games are longer but less active, with a lower number of enemies and bullets flying around. Fighters condenses these things into shorter yet more intense levels, with a greater emphasis on scoring. Aside from these major changes as well as others Raiden fans will have little trouble adapting to Fighters as they share the same vertically-scrolling shooting & dodging we've come to expect from the genre.

The ships of Raiden Fighters have a standard shot and a secondary weapon. Grabbing an M(issile) or an L(aser) powerup will increase the strength of the secondary weapon along with the standard, giving most of the ships two different weapons. Some ships can actually powerup both M & L levels though it's necessary to reach the ship's optimal strength. Bombs are handed out fairly regularly as well and are good for either escaping or for scoring opportunities. Lastly there are the Slave ships which the player can carry two of at any time. These handy ships can take a bit of damage as well as dish out some of their own. Furthermore by grabbing certain combinations of weapon, medal, and slave powerups the ships will enter new formations(like homing in on enemies, firing at an angle, increased firepower, and so on). 

All three Raiden Fighters are very similar to one another in that they share various sub-systems and objectives though the level layout & design is quite different. The slight differences are usually attributed to how each game handles scoring and stage progression. The later games also have more to offer in terms of selectable ships but there's really nothing that makes one title better than the others(though gamers are free to have their own preferences). Though you only get three lives and no extras through hidden locations or score all three games are actually not too hard to complete(that is beating the game without continuing). Granted there are additional difficulties that make enemy bullets move faster as well as cause them to spawn bullets when destroyed but on a normal playthrough it's almost easy to complete this game(especially if you use the "slave ship" or the "fairy", which are easily accessible and combines small-size with heavy firepower). Since completion isn't an issue we can focus our attention on the scoring system as this is what makes the series work.

Getting a high-score is distributed through a large number of sub-systems that must all be exploited to their full extent. Destroying enemies is fine but bonuses are handed out for destroying larger enemies quickly as well as destroying certain enemies at near the same time. Medals(the "coins" of 2D shooters) are constantly appearing through destruction of ground targets as well as flying enemies. Not only can these be collected for points but they can also be chained for an ever-increasing bonus as long as none slip past the bottom of the screen. Last but not least is the existence of hidden micluses(a Seibu mascot..who is playable in RFJ) and fairies. Micluses dole out tons of medals while fairies dole out bombs(you can also collect the fairy for massive points but don't shoot her!). Learning where these critters are and how to trigger them is another essential aspect to scoring. If that wasn't enough all bullets that don't destroy your ship but get close enough to scratch it lead to points. Throughout all of this you still have to be aware of the fact that you're more likely to be killed since you're focused more on scoring than survival, which is where the challenge really sets in.

The structure to the first two Raiden Fighters is rather unique. On the third and sixth stages the player must contend with a massive bossfight(like a battleship, a train, a huge ship, and so on). This puts a bit of a spin on the traditional vertically scrolling stages and can lead to the player essentially circling the huge bosses while seeking out various points to destroy. It's nothing drastic but can take a bit of adjustment since enemy placements are more likely to come from behind or the sides. This does however show off one of the many great features RF employs. Though the game scrolls vertically the player can move the screen a short distance to the right or left. Enemies at the sides will become hidden and while you can still hit them(for the most part) they won't fire upon you. It's also good that if you're on top of a cannon it can't hit you(this is necessary to uncover some micluses actually) and if you're playing on expert mode suicide bullets won't spawn if you're close to an enemy when you destroy it. Unfortunately despite all of this the developers forgot to note that same stages make it difficult to see enemy fire. All bullets are a yellowish color and tend to blend in with like-colored backgrounds. Furthermore some stages have foreground effects(like clouds) which can make some deaths rather frustrating in a "I didn't see that!" kind of way. This is somewhat dealt with by being extra cautious in those situations and it also even helps to pay attention to the announcement that the player has speedily destroyed an enemy. Why this announcement is important is because it lets the player know that they destroyed an enemy before they could fire a shot. Needless to say this can be very useful. Regardless of the issues the RF games are really short(about 20 minutes apiece unless you can trigger RF2's second loop) so memorization of the basics of a level shouldn't be too much trouble.

Simply put all three of these games feature phenomenal gameplay. If you're the kind of person who likes taking five minutes to kill a boss while dodging an endless deluge of pink vomit this isn't your game. Raiden Fighters moves quickly and most bosses go down in less than a minute. Course on that same note you can hold back your attack and attempt to get some extra points by letting bullets scrape your ship but that can be risky as RF bosses toss out more and faster bullets as time passes(before they ultimately self-destruct to prevent milking). The pacing of these games is excellent and you're never left without something to destroy or get destroyed by. Even if you're able to attain the highest possible score you still have other ships to play as, giving further reason to continue playing. There's certainly quite a bit of depth but it's all very accessible and aside from possibly requiring an FAQ to find those micluses/fairies there's no overly complicated sub-systems that'll require you to adapt to some bizarre and overly unique style of gameplay. Probably the most confusing at first is triggering the X-medals in RFJ(which is extremely important for scoring). Once you get over that hump however it's fairly smooth sailing though.

If your experience with Raiden Fighters is limited to an emulator you're doing yourself a severe disservice by passing on Raiden Fighter Aces. This port knocks it out of the park with an absolutely insane number of options. Aside from the previously mentioned difficulty settings there are video options that handle multiple resolutions and even framerates(yes there is a noticeable difference between playing these games at 54 and 60 fps). To add to this there are additional modes such as a Boss Rush and a score attack(try for the highest score in a short amount of time). The leaderboards are absolutely impressive in that they account for every possible ship, difficulty setting, and mode. There's more than enough content to justify for the completionist and with three of the best shooters ever made there's hardly a reason not to pick this up(unless of course you can't). 

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