There’s a lot to love about Radiant Silvergun: Treasure’s good name alone conjures up warm thoughts of imaginative action and quality, but even when judged in its own little vacuum it’s still a shmup that’s hard not to like whether your first encounter with it is in arcades, on the Saturn, or via the Xbox 360 dashboard. Even today, one spiritual sequel and plenty of time for other developers to produce their own homages later (strangely enough, they never have), there’s still nothing quite like its story-shmupping-hidden-dog mix, and its now “easy” graphical excesses continue to shine because they were always used to heighten the inherently epic nature of rushing at high speeds across dangerous landscapes rather than flexing for flexing’s sake.
And so it’s easy to get caught up in the point-chasing mechanics of colour chaining, the pleasure of untangling its looping plot, or the sheer thrill of blowing lots of things up, and gush at length about any or all of those things because Radiant Silvergun does them all so well.
But the game has another, and I’d argue often overlooked, joy up its sleeve – it’s opening stage is perfect.
You’re thrown straight into the thick of things on what the game calmly informs you is the third stage, taking part in a concerted assault against… well, everything, really. As this is happening soft clouds give way to metallic structures which then scroll away to reveal an endless plain of dirt and industrial architecture far below. Just like their earlier Mega Drive title Alien Soldier, for all the wonders that happen in these segments the time spent in them can often be measured in seconds.
It’s true – I even went to the trouble of timing it: In arcade mode if you play through the practise stage in full and then patiently watch the entirety of Stage 3A’s introduction sequence you’ll see your first screen-wide WARNING: DATA INSTALL message in 1min 13, and the boss, AKA-O, will fire it’s opening volley around the 1min 20 mark.
So just eighty seconds in – and that’s including two skippable sequences – and you’re already in a one-on-one battle against a large 3D enemy with its own health bar.
As hinted at in the “BE ATTITUDE FOR GAINS” text – “Plain Shoot-Tech, Plain Evasion-Tech, Tiny Valor” – AKA-O only has a small number of very ordinary attacks, stays more or less in one place on the screen (although this is disguised well, the giant machine almost constantly spinning over a rotating background), and requires little bravery to approach without dying. It explodes (or self-detonates) in a satisfying fiery ball after a short fight, and as that plays out the land below seamlessly draws closer and closer until it’s somehow now a highly detailed scrolling background, every pixel impeccably placed.
This is how Radiant Silvergun says “hello”.
A short segment later and you’re up against another colossal foe, MIKA-L (BE ATTITUDE FOR GAINS: Evasion Tech, Decide Weapons, Fellow Feeling). While AKA-O was a chunky self-contained unit, MIKA-L is the exact opposite, a set of separate parts spread out across the top of the screen with a clear gap between the four larger cannons and the main unit. It’s time to sit up and pay attention, because Radiant Silvergun’s going to teach you a lesson.
MIKA-L is made up of six very clearly defined segments, each visibly different from the other and performing different tasks, with the main component – the bit you need to hit to deplete the boss’ health bar – sitting right in the middle. This layout makes it easy to learn purely through shooting at things that almost all of the game’s bosses are made up of discrete destructible pieces, practically inviting you to Decide Weapons (see?) and either blast away at what you feel is an easy target or focus on whatever cannon’s killing you the most. Even if you have no interest in milking bosses for score – and playing for playing’s sake is always a perfectly legitimate way to engage with a shmup – MIKA-L’s design shows there’s still clear value in destroying additional weaponry; that big laser can’t hit you if you’ve blown it up, after all.
After a bit of wiggling through some tight gaps the third boss of the third stage (which if you remember is actually the first), GALLOP (BE ATTITUDE FOR GAINS: Anxious For Return, Gamely Fight, Tender Hearts), rears their head, and once again hiding in the heart of this relentless stream of arcade action is an important lesson designed to help set players on the right path for the rest of the game. GALLOP’s a compact and aggressive unit with no permanent safe spots, its shots creating undulating waves of fire running down the screen, throwing out mines that are even more dangerous when shot, or bouncing thick lasers off the walls. You’re here to learn how to dodge, to learn how to watch for those tells – and there are always specific tells – that let you know what a boss is about to do before it’s too late so you can anticipate the attack and position yourself accordingly. Compared to the previous two encounters the shot-free spaces you’re offered here are quite tight and demand precision flying, mimicking the narrow spaces you had to fly through to reach this point; Radiant Silvergun quietly but firmly letting you know from now on you must put in a real effort into your positioning – or die.
A brief burst of action later, including a few tense moments sandwiched between two long ships bristling with guns, and the ground falls away to reveal the circular arena hosting the fourth boss, UNDO (BE ATTITUDE FOR GAINS: Initiative, Cool Temper, Tight Discipline), below. It only takes one look at UNDO’s enormous laser beam and the conspicuously convenient beam-wide pillars spread around the screen to realise what needs to be done here – hide. The shadows make it clear where the safe zones are, and the thrill of ducking into one just as that laser sweeps across the screen is like little else in shmup-dom, always defined enough you can reliably pull it off, always woolly enough you worry you’re not quite safe.
And just when you think you’ve got the hang of it the stone pillars start to rotate and the boss might swoosh its deadly ray of light back and forth rather than in a blind, predictable, circle. In that moment it feels like Treasure started the boss at ten and then decided to crank the exciting-o-meter dial up to a dizzying twelve (that’s how game design works, isn’t it?). So you’re weaving and dodging and dying because you keep crashing into those damned pillars and then…
And then you realise you don’t have to hide behind the pillars at all. So long as you don’t touch the bosses lasers/shots or come into contact with any part of it that’s on the same height as you (it sounds weird, but in practise you do get a feel for UNDO’s wedge-like shape) you’re safe. Suddenly you’re out in the open, firing backwards A+C shots as you pirouette around a gigantic enemy and its cannon fire big enough to swallow you whole, Radiant Silvergun showing you have all the tools you need to go on the offensive from any angle, that you don’t have to sit at the bottom of the screen firing straight ahead, and most important of all – that this isn’t expert-level behaviour reserved for re-runs, it’s nothing more than how the game should be played.
Finally, five bosses later and after a mini-gauntlet of enemies that at times seem to cover every inch of the screen with bullets, the last boss of the first stage – UE2A-GAL (BE ATTITUDE FOR GAINS: No Repine, Never Shrink, Satori Mind – essentially “Be brave, you’ve got this”) – makes their appearance as a sort of elevator of death, the entire fight taking place on the side of a building.
This is a test of everything you’ve learned so far; UE2A-GAL encouraging you to quickly identify the function of particular parts, how to keep out of the way of whatever they’re throwing at you, and whether it’s worth ignoring it all in favour of a risky sword-based quick kill. Yet even though this is a cumulative test it still has something new up its sleeve: replacement parts. Destroy something here and it falls away… and then a new attachment slides into view to replace it, each fresh part more deadly than the last until you’re dealing with screen-long multi-laser arms hemming you in on either side and accurate turrets firing gravity wells that hold you in place as the main cannon fires a fatal beam your way. From a survivalist’s point of view the new question this boss asks is “Am I better off with the devil I know?” and those playing for score now have to consciously eke out the fight and avoid defeating the main unit too soon, putting themselves in harm’s way to do so.
Then it’s all over at last, and for a brief moment it’s just you and the “stone-like” staring at each other across an empty battlefield, as if the game’s as exhausted from the ordeal as you are.
And then Radiant Silvergun takes a deep breath and pushes on, utterly determined to outdo everything that’s gone before…