Saturday, February 22, 2014

Shine on You Crazy Genocidal Diamond: The Ballad of Radiant Silvergun

You can also get Ridge Racer Unbounded in
the Xbox sale... but you don't want that.
(image courtesy of D-Pad Magazine)
For those of you still using these things, I just thought I'd point out that we're in the middle of Microsoft's Xbox 360 Ultimate Games Sale. Dozens of titles have been, will be, or currently are heavily discounted from their usual retail prices on the Xbox Live digital store. That not only includes obscurities like Viking and the critical darling Brothers, but blockbuster hits such as Batman: Arkham City and Skyrim as well. My advice is to get as much as you can until your overburdened hard drive screams for mercy!

One game that found its way onto the sale was Treasure's classic shooter Radiant Silvergun, although that was probably not Microsoft's intention. Shortly after it was offered to Xbox Live Gold members for $7.49, it jumped back to its usual fifteen bucks. There's no official explanation for the quickly rescinded price cut- Microsoft's Xbox support team seemed just as confused about it as I did- but it's been suggested on CheapAssGamer that Microsoft intended to shave the price for Japanese Xbox 360 owners, and that it had been offered to Americans by mistake.

(Heh, a likely story! Nobody in Japan owns an Xbox 360!)

Whatever the reason for the brief blue light special, I finally scored myself a copy of Radiant Silvergun, which makes a nice bookend to my digital copy of Guardian Heroes. Both games were by Treasure, both were originally released for the sadly neglected Sega Saturn, and both go for monstrous prices, should you be so unwise as to purchase the discs on eBay or from a used game shop. However, while Guardian Heroes is an exhilarating but ultimately hollow beat 'em up, Radiant Silvergun holds up remarkably well for its age.

Everything looks better in the Xbox 360
version of Radiant Silvergun, especially the
animated video clip that plays
before the game begins.
One reason for the game's graceful maturation is that it was rewritten for the Xbox 360 hardware. With older games like this one, it's customary for developers to just dump the original code into an emulator and call it a day. However, the Saturn hardware was cobbled together with two processors, which don't play nice with each other, would-be developers, or emulators. Treasure saved itself the trouble of working with the system's notoriously difficult hardware and built an entirely new engine for the game. The result is more than just a faithful port of the Saturn release from 1998; it's actually a better game.

Authentic transparencies replace the ugly latticework of the original, your ship's blasts exude a warm glow as they flow from its cannons, and the screen regularly fills with enemies and their bullets without the Xbox 360 breaking a sweat. One of the members of the Talking Time forums observed that Radiant Silvergun really shines when it's on hardware that can actually handle it, and as much as I respect the Sega Saturn and all it did to keep 2D gaming alive in the late 1990s... well, I'd have to agree. The Saturn had trouble keeping up with the high ambitions of Radiant Silvergun, but the more advanced Xbox 360 runs rings around them.

Radiant Silvergun's three button
control is an awkward fit for
the Xbox 360 controller.
(image courtesy of Ikotsu's
Blogspot page)
There's only one thing the Saturn version of Radiant Silvergun does better than its Xbox 360 counterpart, and that's the control. Obviously, the Xbox 360 controller isn't as well suited to 2D gaming as the Saturn's exceptional gamepad, but there's more to it than that. Radiant Silvergun was designed for three horizontally aligned buttons, and the Saturn pad has them, with buttons to spare for combined weapons and swipes of your energy sword. The Xbox 360's cluster of four face buttons makes using your arsenal of weapons less convenient and more confusing. An arcade joystick isn't absolutely necessary for this game, but it'd be a smart investment.

(By happy circumstance, this game perfectly maps to the Saturn controller I'd cobbled together years ago to play fighting games on my Xbox 360. Why Sega didn't officially release one of these for the system is a mystery for the ages.)

So for those of you who didn't catch Radiant Silvergun the first time around, here's what you missed. RS is an embryonic danmaku, or bullet hell shooter, with massive enemies that fill the screen with elaborate patterns of hot white death. Luckily, you're pretty well armed yourself, with three base weapons that can be combined a'la Gunstar Heroes for even more attacks. There are no power ups per se, but blasting chains of like-colored enemies will raise the strength of your base weapons.

A single swipe of your sword sweeps away all
your troubles. Well, most of them, anyway.
Oh yes, there's one other thing! Pressing all three buttons at once (or the right trigger on the Xbox 360 pad) produces a laser sword which trails behind your ship, slicing through foes and catching otherwise deadly clusters of pink energy. Grab enough of these with your blade and it becomes a weapon of mass destruction; twin swords that clap together, purging the screen of smaller ships and cutting the larger ones down to size. Even on the humble Saturn, this deadly pair of scissors was a stunning spectacle that left my friends screaming with delight. It looks just as awesome sixteen years later on the Xbox 360, but more importantly, it forces players to work for their salvation, rather than handing it to them with each new ship.

The game is well balanced like that, but it's rarely merciful. It lays down a heavy spread of fire that can be tricky to avoid, even with your ship's extremely lenient hit box. There are also set pieces in some stages that are tough to muscle your way through, like the rotating electrical fields which retract when you fire at their ends... and quickly snap back in place as you try to slip past them. You can take a different route through the game in arcade mode, but in the Saturn mode, you'll have to finish all the stages, no matter how nasty they get. At least you can farm for credits, if you've got the patience for it.

So, to make an extremely long blog entry short: Radiant Silvergun, the pinnacle of both the vertical shooter genre and the Sega Saturn library, is finally here on these shores, and it's never been better thanks to the power of the Xbox 360. While the $7.49 I paid for it is certainly preferable, anything Microsoft is charging for this game is a deal. You can get a used Xbox 360 and Radiant Silvergun and Guardian Heroes for what the Saturn disc will cost you on eBay, so unless you're a rabid collector with no intention of actually playing the game, the choice is obvious.

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