The old-school shoot ‘em up has mutated over the last four decades from its simple origins, and in Radiant Silvergun, Daniel Driver believes Treasure created the perfect monster.
What lies beyond the edges of the screen? Ever since the skills of our adversaries surpassed those demonstrated in Space Invaders – affording enemies a wider array of attacks than “drop down, increase speed, change direction” and hiding their numbers beyond the borders of the display – it’s surely the question on every gamer’s lips when playing an old-school shoot ‘em up.
If Treasure’s sublime Radiant Silvergun is anything to go by, the answer to that question is everything from skyscraper-sized modular mechs and giant, heavily armed floating tank turtles to humanoid personifications of raging creator gods.
Is this the real reason why gamers invest in larger and larger displays, in the vain hope they may find greater distance between on-screen ships and the merciless monstrosities that lay beyond? Perhaps.
Be attitude for gains
In 1998, the Saturn was on life support in every region other than Japan, by which point even the UK’s official Sega Saturn Magazine was urging readers to mod their Saturns to play the exciting titles that would remain exclusive to the Land of the Rising Sun. The first time I clapped eyes on Radiant Silvergun in that publication, I caught a glimpse not only of one of these monstrosities, but a window into Satan’s domain. Shoot ‘em ups are affectionately known as shmups to fans, but there are also those that fit into the so-called “bullet hell” category… Radiant Silvergun was such a game, and it looked wonderful!
Shoot ’em up
From the moment I saw Radiant Silvergun, I had to have it. The game was featured plenty of times in previews and I would pore over its gorgeous-looking screens and re-read the articles for hours on end. Eventually a friend and I did the right thing and had our Saturns modded to play imported games. When we finally brought the jewel case that contained my most anticipated game home one fateful day, we were not disappointed.
Bearing in mind both the N64 and PlayStation had been putting out graphical tours de force by the time it was released, Radiant Silvergun still looked absolutely stunning. Its perfect blend of the Saturn’s 2D mastery and its underutilised polygonal capabilities yielded a true feast for the eyes.
For a start, the futuristic technological metropolis was beautifully realised. The adventure took our heroes through cities, factories, foundries and military bases, all stunningly rendered, vibrant and colourful. This was the apocalypse brought to you by Sega and Treasure; a blue-sky techno armageddon.
Your ships, the titular Silverguns, and your on screen enemies were a mix of detailed sprites and vivid 3D models, with impeccable art design blending the two seamlessly. The end result resembled a kaleidoscope view of space-age warfare. Colourful enemies would swarm all over, larger foes filled outrageous portions of the screen, and every enemy spewed bullets, missiles, bombs, lasers and every other type of munition in all directions while the backgrounds shifted, morphed, pulsed and cascaded beyond.
The Saturn was pushed to its limit as slowdown did rear its head, though that did grant a slight reprieve from bullet hell for me and my friend, slowing the action to allow us to move more intricately as we, our ships and the console began to get overwhelmed.
We need guns, lots of guns
Overwhelming is an apt description of Radiant Silvergun: overwhelming were the enemies, as well as the weapons to combat them. There were seven different types available, each one unique. Unlike its many peers, the game didn’t force you to pick up new weapon types or upgrade them via floating power-ups obtained from the wreckage of enemy ships; instead, you had access to all seven from the start and they all levelled up as you played.
This in itself presented quite the learning curve. I imagine Noah felt the same when God tossed a bag of tools at his head and expected him to become carpenter, farmer, zoo keeper and sailor as he screamed “I’m floodin’ the place”. As I said, overwhelming.
The game was tough. I’ve mentioned before that the first game I played was a Space Invaders clone, and since then I’ve been a fan of the genre, albeit a fan who is pretty useless at it. Radiant Silvergun didn’t just reaffirm my uselessness, it kicked me while I was down, leaned over and emptied a whole packet of granulated Saxa into my wounds.
It started simple enough: a handful of ships flew in from the top, then a few more, then a third wave. But things soon escalated; as our ships flew over an enemy carrier, swarms of smaller enemies flew underneath, larger ships filled the top of the screen firing lasers while the smaller foes weaved in like a plague of angry wasps with projectile stingers. This all happened in the first 20 seconds, and it only ramped up from there.
Fortunately, the game offered helping hands to those who couldn’t cope. There were two game modes: Arcade and Saturn. Arcade gave you infinite continues allowing you to bumble through till the end, though this mode is missing some of the penultimate bosses.
Saturn mode gave you a fixed number of continues, but saved your weapon levels. This allowed you to continue using your now six-pronged level 15 Vulcan – which had somehow managed to become wider than the ship itself – from the start of your next playthrough.
Additionally, Saturn mode included the aforementioned bosses that were missing from its Arcade counterpart. It also forced you to play through every stage in turn, whereas Arcade mode allowed you to select between stages two and four at the end of stage three. In either case, both modes start at stage three then go through stages five and six before ending at one. Oh, confused, would we?
One year has passed since… then
To the surprise of no one, the seemingly random stage order was a result of the plot, which includes some time travelling and a flashback. While the flashback (stage two) could be played in both Arcade and Saturn mode, Saturn mode went one step further by including cut scenes and dialogue during play.
The dialogue, I thought, was a great touch and impeccably delivered, though obviously I didn’t understand it. It struck me as something akin to Lylat Wars (AKA Star Fox 64 everywhere except Europe), but with the language set to Lylat, and no subtitles. Despite this there is so much emotion in the voiceovers that really did convey the drama.
In 1998 I had no translation for the game and had to interpret the plot myself. Essentially, 500 years from now, the government – I think it was the government– uncovers an octahedron-shaped stone and the corpse of an ancient android. This android happens to be the same model and have the same serial number as one aboard our hero’s ship, the Tetra.
It turns out that the stone thing is actually some sort of demi-god, and it’s kind of pissed off. Fifteen minutes after being identified, it spawns an army of ships and starts attacking. Thirty-eight minutes after that, it wipes out all life on Earth. Let’s face it, we’ve all felt like that after being woken from a deep sleep.
I won’t spoil the remainder of the story, but the game began a year after the day when all humanity – bar our heroes – was made extinct, before flashing back to when the crew of the Tetra attempted to help stem the tide of the diamond-shaped demigod’s initial attack in their Silvergun ships.
It set the scene well enough, and added another incentive to push through the more challenging Saturn mode. Repeat play allowed me to not only memorise boss and enemy patterns, but also figure out what the hell was going on.
Gonna fly now
And repeat play I did, with a friend, or just flying solo. Getting that little bit further each time, my weapons got that little bit more powerful, and the enemy movement etched its way deeper into my memory – and every play gave a slight improvement that would have been perfect for a montage. Shoot, die, repeat (only with less Tom Cruise), until finally Saturn mode was conquered and the fully animated true ending played before my eyes. And then I started again.
I didn’t stop playing Radiant Silvergun for months. It goes without saying that the control is absolutely sublime. The ships are incredibly responsive and the collision detection is surprisingly generous, so if you die – and you will die a lot – it’s only your fault. Even after months of play, I still didn’t manage to ‘git gud’. My initial Saturn mode triumph had been done on ‘very easy’ and with the maximum number of lives available. Eventually I worked my way through normal difficulty, but I still relied on my overpowered weapons to do the job.
Yet to finish the game was just a fragment of the vast challenge Radiant Silvergun presented. Surely, dear reader, you know that the true challenge of any shmup isn’t to see the end credits, but to obtain the highest possible numerical value possible under that disarmingly short label of ‘score’. The most obvious way to do this is to shoot bloody everything, but it’s far from the best.
One of the reasons the game was more colourful than a pack of Skittles is because of the way you could increase your score. Enemies were coloured in a shade of red, blue or yellow, with the frequency of enemies of that colour increasing in rarity in that order.
Chain bonuses were added if you killed enemies of the same colour, so killing all of one colour will yield more points than just blowing away everything that moves. However, red chains give the lowest bonuses based on their frequency, and yellow the highest, so as few yellow ships as there were, it was possible to attain an incredibly big score bonus just by targeting them – that is if you could survive the red and blue hoards baying for your blood without firing a single shot back.
Warning! Encountered assailant!
This brings us back to the games bosses: vast, heavily armed killing machines that guarded not only the end of each stage, but the sub-stages within. Typically, there are were five per level and most of these hulking foes filled large portions of the screen. Unlike standard enemies, these were fully rendered in 3D and featured multiple sections; these promised another score boost. Each boss possessed a weak point that you could hit for massive damage, but if you were daring, you could destroy each section of the boss to obtain a perfect score with a huge bonus.
Both score boosts were tantalisingly addictive and, while I lacked the skill to really pull off the colour chain, I couldn’t help but try to achieve a 100% destruction bonus – there was a real weight to the achievement. Furthermore, when a module was destroyed, the boss changed tactics, produced another attack or another module, and added to the surprise and variety.
For me, the bosses were the headline act in a near-perfect Saturn production that featured everything: beautiful visuals, an intriguing story with engaging cutscenes, tight, addictive gameplay and a phenomenal soundtrack. Yes, the soundtrack is absolutely sublime and well worth a listen on its own. In game, it adds heft to the game’s space-age apocalyptic atmosphere, drama to the intense gameplay, and emotion to the cut scenes.
A god among shooters
As you may have guessed, this game is incredibly special to me, emblematic of a time when the console I’d chosen from the era’s “big three” was pretty much dead in my part of the world, though my decision to mod it and go down the import path had given it a new lease of life. That period was magical as I discovered games that I never would have played otherwise, and Radiant Silvergun was both the gateway and its crown jewel.
It’s a game I still play on an annual basis, minimum. I’ve been playing it over the last few weeks. It’s still outstanding, and it demonstrates Sega and Treasure at the peak of their creativity, taking an established genre, evolving it to near perfection.
There is, of course, an Xbox 360 port which looks very nice. It’s also fully translated and compatible with the Xbox One. If you want to give Radiant Silvergun a blast and don’t want to pay the outlandish prices it commands online, that’s your best bet. Still, I feel it still doesn’t quite have the magic of the Saturn original, with the scores and stats moved to the side borders and the textures just a little too clean.
But whichever way you can, I urge you to try it if you haven’t already. It still holds up as one of greatest shoot ‘em ups of all time. To me, nothing else comes close.
- Stunning visuals in terms of design and execution – simply gorgeous
- Outlandishly addictive, with the tightest, most responsive controls in the genre
- The soundtrack is one of the greatest of all time
- A real challenge that keeps surprising, even when conquered
- Engaging story and cut scenes
- Japan only, so no English dialogue (unless you go for the remaster)
- Might be too overwhelming for some
Radiant Silvergun is not only one of the best shoot ‘em ups ever, but one of the greatest games, full stop. Even today, few games match its scope and majesty. Whether you’re a fan of the genre or not, you need to play it.