Let’s kick this off by dealing with the obvious elephant in the room: It takes nothing more than a quick glance at iS: internal section‘s sharp lines, flat-shaded polygons, and abstract imagery all beautifully accompanied by a thumping techno soundtrack (courtesy of the incredibly talented Shinji Hosoe and Ayako Saso) and think of just one thing: Rez.
How dare they?! How dare Square take Mizuguchi’s baby a-
And yes, there’s no denying that it does look a little too funky-future close to the Dreamcast’s eardrum-massaging synesthesia shooter for comfort. You may now be wondering what sort of mental gymnastics I’m about to perform to wiggle my way out of this inescapable comparison… but as luck would have it any accusations of plagiarism are very easily swatted away with one undeniable fact:
iS: internal section came first.
And by over two years too: This wasn’t a game carelessly pushed out the door in a cynical attempt to pilfer UGA‘s thunder before Sega’s landmark rail shooter hit store shelves but a legitimate creative work that was intended to – and deserves to – be judged entirely on its own merits.
With that out of the way we can turn our attention to the game itself: Much like Tempest, Internal Section has you move around the edges of a tunnel, shooting at any enemies coming up the middle. Unlike Tempest (or if you prefer, like N2O) you’re not stuck sidling around the edge of a static “web” but constantly travelling through a tube, the game using this distinction as an opportunity to mix things up by throwing waves of indestructible tiles and other objects that must be avoided or skilfully dodged through every now and then. In play it feels relentless and utterly breathtaking – but never overwhelming. The screenshots may look like a swirling mass of lines and colours but in motion the action’s never anything less than crystal clear, with everything from lasers to physical blocks and serpentine enemy formations always being easy to pick out against the ever-changing background. Good colour choices definitely play their part in the construction of this easy to read visual language but it’s all laid on top of a foundation of plain old good design decisions. There are three main styles of play during the tunnel segments, giving you either enemies to shoot at, objects to avoid, or a dangerous miniboss to tackle and the game never makes the mistake of blending these individual patterns together, so you know if you’ve got a dodge-the-blocks segment snaking into view then that’s the only thing you need to focus on, and there are obvious – if brief – break points between these play types so you know when you’re done with a section and can prepare yourself for a potential shift in priorities. But with everything looking like a rainbow covered in glitter, how can you safely pick up power ups and bonus items in the heat of the moment? Easy: There’s nothing to collect, ever, outside of the end-of-stage bonus rounds and that means when you’re zooming through everything else it’s obvious that anything that’s not you is something that either needs blowing up or steering clear of.
The weaponry you’re given to do this with is a wide-ranging and unusual bunch, based on the animals of the Chinese zodiac. Sentences like that are normally a good time to run a million miles away from a pretentious arthouse game that’s spent far too long in its own company but in all honesty it’s an elegant twist on the overly familiar alternatives and makes immediate sense in practise: Rat is small and quick, Horse creates big stompy vertical shockwaves (useful when enemies are clustered in the centre of the tunnel), Snake is, well, snake-y (and also homing-y), Ox is big, slow, and can block most incoming attacks, Bunny bounces around everywhere, and so on. A quick jab of a shoulder button switches between shot types in the always-visible weapon select wheel so it only takes a little practise and experimentation to start feeling comfortable with the system and consciously choosing weapons based on the problem at hand – and if it all gets too much the limited-use “Eraser” ability clears everything out of the tunnel and gives you a little bacon-saving room to breathe.
Graphically each tunnel has its own theme and a unique boss encounter at the end to go with it; some of these stages are abstract versions of general physical locations – “the sea” or “outer space” – while others are more representations of less easily defined artistic concepts like “music” or “language”. Each stage always seamlessly flows through four “Phases” – think of them as Areas or Zones or whatever suits you best – and to the game’s merit even with locations as unreal as these you do see the change when it comes and can really feel Internal Section taking things in a new direction – one highlight even uses the shmup framework to make players solve a short series of tile-matching puzzle games. Don’t worry though, the game never forgets it’s meant to be an arcade-style shump (with a bit of effort you can shoot these puzzle pieces back far enough to make a little gap for your morphing craft to quickly squeeze through), but it is brilliant to see a game be so willing to play not just with the outward presentation but the fundamental building blocks of the gameplay as well.
Once you’ve survived to the end of Phase D you’re treated to a boss battle based on the level’s theme: The second beach-themed stage has an arena surrounded by palm trees and literally fires rainbows at you (a personal favourite), while the rocky sixth stage has you chip away at a spectacular arena-tilting chunk of stone, for example. You’ll always lose at least one life to these impressive opponents on your first run just because you’ll be too busy thinking “Ah, that’s clever!” to concentrate on avoiding their attacks – but if you’re going to go down, it may as well be to a spaceship with rocket-powered boxing glove arms and a teddy bear face (stage 7). Unlike the undulating infinite tunnels used everywhere else in the game these one-on-one matches take place in a circular arena and the controls adjust ever so slightly to take full advantage of this, allowing you to not only spin around the full circumference but control to a certain degree how far or near to the centre you are. Whatever you’re fighting always remains in the centre, with the difficulty from these scuffles coming mostly from avoiding their attacks over dealing vast quantities of physical damage.
All of this excitement is backed up by a soundtrack that practically demands it gets turned up as soon as it starts, suiting the style and pace of the game well. Should the game’s tunes somehow not do anything for you then this is one of those rare games that officially allows you to swap out the game disc with one of your own music CDs (and even select which track to play via an in-game menu), although I’d recommend choosing something that matches the rush of these endless tunnels (and the decade they were created in) for the best effect.
It’s not just the music you can tailor to your own personal tastes but to a certain extent the game as well, with six (one of which needs to be unlocked) ways to experience Internal Section’s fast-paced shmupping. To nobody’s surprise “normal” is the standard way to play the game, making players go through all eight stages in one run and in order. Enhanced mode is a more difficult version of the same thing – always a welcome option in a game you’ll want to revisit as often as this one. However when forcibly grouped together like this the game feels a touch over-long for an all-or-nothing hi-score action experience: It takes the best part of an hour to clear even if you’re able to effortlessly sail through everything Internal Section can throw at you, and as the game forces you to restart a Phase when you die (which only takes a single hit from anything, by the way) that length of time between you and the credits sequence only increases with every death.
If they’d left the game with just those two ways to play then it would have been the sort of thing you’d play through once and have a good time with… but never quite get around to putting on again. Thankfully it all gets easier to pick up and play when you start looking at the “ambient” modes, accessible from the main menu: ambient2 allows you to pick any stage (even ones you haven’t reached in the main game yet) and is a little easier than “normal” mode, but doesn’t allow you to fight the boss at the end. “ambient3” also allows you to select any stage regardless of how far you’ve got in the main game, only this time the enemy difficulty is the same as “enhanced” mode, and again no bosses are present… but you’re completely invincible. “ambient1” is basically a practise mode for the normal game – you are only allowed to play stages you’ve already reached (the game does have a save function – you don’t have to unlock them every time you put it on) but unlike the other ambient modes this one does include the boss battles. The final unlockable mode (it popped up for me after clearing normal mode once) is called “full auto” mode, a computer-controlled run through a stage of your choice. It’s not a perfect play so don’t go looking for survival tips here, but if you’d like to keep the game running as a sort of elaborate screensaver then this is the mode you’re looking for.
On the whole the difficulty’s on the more forgiving side of the genre umbrella, allowing players to continue as many times as they like meaning any determined soul can push through with some practise and patience. But by putting you back at the start of the Phase (or boss fight) every time Internal Section still retains some of its bite and a sense of accomplishment even for those not interested in playing for score – nobody who reaches the end did so without playing well enough to clear every last stage and boss for themselves.
When compared to Rez, as it will inevitably and somewhat understandably be by anyone looking at the game after 2001, it falls short. There is no thread or thought tying Internal Section’s stages together beyond “look amazing, be exciting” and the game’s slick journey through these dazzling almost-worlds ultimately has nothing to say – as good as it looks and sounds these details are just window dressing and have no meaningful interaction with the game itself. Having said that it’s a shmup that simply by virtue of its existence will feel fresh and invigorating just because there are so few games of this type around: It may not be clever but it is well designed, and what it does, it does well. It’s a game content with being itself, unconcerned by any potential competitors – not that it ever had any. The overall simplicity of this tunnel-riding adventure works out as a point in the game’s favour: No, you aren’t going to be able to spend months learning enemy patterns so you can safely point-blank targets and get game-long chain bonuses, but on the other hand you aren’t going to need to spend months learning enemy patterns just so you can safely point-blank targets and get game-long chain bonuses either. Some shmups feel like you’ve been set bullet-dodging homework, but Internal Section is always happiest when you’re enjoying the ride.