12 December 2005






























































The WoS Game Of The Year 2005

You start to bargain with yourself, after a little while. "That one didn't count, I got killed stupidly on Mission 1 so it was just a practice", you say. Then it's "Well, I was going to stop at 10 o'clock, but now it's five past and I've missed the start of the programme I was going to watch, so I might as well have 25 more minutes till the next one's on."

Next, you tell yourself "Oh, look, there's only one slot left on the high-score table - I'll just fill that before I quit." And eventually, a broken shell of hollow promises and addict's self-loathing, you're reduced to this: "Okay, my thumbs hurt so much I can no longer move right without crying out in pain. No more Raiden 3 tonight. After this game."

Lighting effects: pretty.

There's already been one lengthy hagiography for a Raiden game on WoS, so your correspondent apologises in advance for the one that follows in a moment. But hey, it's Christmas. Raiden 3 is this reviewer's Game Of 2005, and Heaven knows, in one of the poorest years in videogaming memory we could all do with something to feel good about. But first, let's get something disturbing out of the way.

This sequel's been a long time in coming. Raiden 2 was released in arcades in 1993, and the Japan-only semi-follow-up Raiden DX appeared on the PS1 in 1997. (In between, the series took a diversion down the "Raiden Fighters" line, a trilogy of games featuring some elements from the two originals but actually more closely resembling Psikyo's "Strikers 1945" titles gameplay-wise, and which Raiden aficionados rightly don't regard as true parts of the Raiden canon.) And the first things you notice are that in the intervening eight years, (a) not very much seems to have changed, and (b) one of the things that HAS changed is a huge and catastrophically-wrong butchering of the previous game's most iconic and loved feature.

In the entire historic catalogue of videogaming offensive armament, across all game genres and styles, it's doubtful that there's ever been a more fun, more popular weapon - or one less in need of mucking about with - than Raiden 2's famous "Toothpaste Laser". A wide, snaking whip of pinky-purple plasma, the remorseless, twisting death beam darted its way around the screen seeking out any enemies it could find and locking limpet-like onto them until they succumbed to its lethal energy. It could handle scores of targets at once, contorting itself into elaborate and beautiful loops and bends and freeing the player to concentrate simply on staying alive, knowing that his attacking force was in safe hands. It delighted bystanders with its spectacular acrobatics, and gave even novices the feeling that they were wreaking heroic havoc on the hideous hordes of whoever it is that you're actually fighting anyway. (Raiden doesn't bother with even the most cursory backstory.)

And now it's gone.

The new green laser, in just about the only bit of the whole game where it's good for anything.

The half-arsed wavy line you see above is the most dramatic extent of Raiden 3's wholly-inadequate replacement for the Toothpaste Laser. Swaying across the screen in much the same way, but crucially lacking the lock-on capability of its predecessor, the new weapon is a waste of space. Duck over to the left to avoid a squadron of attacking enemies on the right, and where the Toothpaste Laser would have wiped out all the bad guys for you while you dodged their fire, the Crap Green Laser comes with you, diligently concentrating its powerful beam uselessly into empty space in the direction you're moving, away from the very thing that's causing you to flee in the first place. The replacement of the Toothpaste Laser with this abomination that you'll never willingly employ in play is one of the most inexplicably stupid design decisions in videogaming history, and it's frankly a miracle that despite this mind-numbing dumbness, Raiden 3 somehow still manages to be utterly brilliant.

The reason for that is probably that, Toothpaste Laser aside, Raiden 3 doesn't mess around with a proven formula. This is absolutely classic-style Raiden, leaving the Raiden Fighters misadventure behind (they're not bad games, they're just not Raiden) and reverting to the core gameplay values that made the series such a hit in the first place. And for newcomers to the franchise, or less alert viewers, it's probably worth explaining what those values are.

Raiden isn't like most modern shmups. There's no "bullet hell" here, no screens full of geometric snowstorms of enemy fire through which you have to pilot a ship with a "hit box" that's actually only one pixel square. Unlike the baddies of Giga Wing or Mars Matrix or Espgaluda, enemies in Raiden games don't just unleash a monstrous barrage of shots and hope vaguely that you blunder into one. These guys might only fire a couple of bullets, but they fire them right at you, with an assassin's precision and a sniper's economy. And it's that smart, aware opposition that sets Raiden apart from pretty much every other shooting game on the market. Let's expand on how that works, shall we?

Commander Vragnor, in the bottom-right tank, felt somewhat victimised.

Raiden's enemies (like much else about the game) are actually descended from Namco's 1982 classic Xevious. For almost the first time in the history of shoot-'em-ups, Xevious' baddies didn't just follow preset attack patterns - they reacted intelligently to what you did. If you moved menacingly towards a wave of incoming fighters, they'd try to swerve out of your way. If you failed to kill them all, they wouldn't just cruise past and disappear - the survivors would swoop back round and harass you from behind. Shooting sparingly but relentlessly at your current position so you couldn't stay still for a second, the Xevious forces would herd you into a corner until you had nowhere left to run from the unerring hail of fire.

And so it is here. More often than you'll believe possible, and humiliatingly early in proceedings, your ship will be blown out of the sky in Raiden 3 when there are no more than half-a-dozen enemy bullets on the screen. You'll stare in baffled consternation, unable to accept that you could have fallen victim to such a feeble onslaught from such cannon-fodder opponents. You must have blinked. The d-pad must have momentarily failed. The bullet must have been hidden by an explosion or something. But it wasn't. Raiden 3's bad guys killed you because they were smarter than you. With unfailing aim, they shot at where you were, and like an idiot you didn't get out of the way. But you won't fall for it next time. Next time you'll be ready, and you'll get them. Oh yeah. You'll show 'em. You'll show 'em good.

You won't, of course. You'll fail, again and again and again, and you'll keep coming back for more punishment, because your failure is never anyone's fault but your own. The enemy attacks are so sparse, so obviously avoidable (unlike in a bullet-hell game, where you often can't see how you COULD have survived), that clearly all you need to do is concentrate more. How hard can it be? But the genius of Raiden 3 is that while it looks like you've got the baddies massively outgunned - with your colossally powerful laser, your deadly homing missiles, and the scores and scores of bullets your Vulcan cannon spews out with every press of the fire button - the simple, terrible truth is that the maths is on the enemy's side.

Was it something you said?

Don't panic, viewers - we're not going to go too far into the science bit. But suffice to say that in a finite manoeuvring space, a strategy of bisecting that space with "lines" (representing the trajectory of an enemy bullet) which are aimed directly at the target is a remarkably efficient one (compared, that is, to even a 50-times-bigger spray of non-aimed fire). In a typical bullet-hell shmup, you can survive for a long time simply by constantly alternating your movement slightly left and slightly right. Try that in Raiden and - because moving back in the direction you've just come from will almost certainly result in a fatal collision with the bullet that was just fired at that spot - you'll last about five seconds. Not only can you never sit still, then, but you can never go back where you've just been.

Combine that with enemy craft that react to your movements rather than just following a pre-programmed movement course, and a few larger enemies which do fire in preset patterns (to some extent, and nothing like as severe as the ones in bullet-hell shmups), just to mix things up and disturb your rhythm, and you've got a recipe for extreme danger.

This, ultimately, is the heart of what makes the Raiden games different to the bullet-hell shooters - in most of those, the majority of each level is merely a prelude to the showpiece showdown with the boss, populated by easy-meat drones who are only really there to give you points, drop power-ups and provide a comforting respite from the jaw-dropping, screen-filling geometric-death-flower assaults of the bosses. Raiden 3's bosses, while they get increasingly fearsome as the game progresses, aren't actually much tougher than the levels that precede them - indeed, by focusing all the danger on a single source, in some respects they're a welcome relief from the constant-attack-from-all-sides of the rest of the level. (The guardian of Mission Two, for example, can be despatched in no more than about 15 seconds, and is substantially less terrifying that what you've just had to go through to reach it.) In Raiden 3, every single enemy is actively, directly, fervently trying to kill you, and that means that every single second is a life-or-death battle. It's intense, man.

Carving a path towards the Mission Two boss.

At this point into the review, having described the core gameplay mechanic that identifies Raiden with its predecessors and separates it from most other shooting games, we probably ought to make some mention of the rest of the structure which that mechanic fits into. (We're old-fashioned like that, right?)

In most respects this is pure old-school Raiden - seven levels, split between land, sea and space, all populated by the same fairly narrow selection of enemy craft, comprising tanks, planes, warships and ground installations. You fly the classic Mark II fighter plane (the bewildering choice of up to 14 radically different types of ship from the Raiden Fighters game is consigned to history) with three basic weapons and three missile attacks (the traditional powerful non-guided missiles and less-powerful homing ones are joined this time by a handy new "Radar" missile that's a sort of halfway house - it homes in a bit, and is between the other two in explosive power) backed up by an all-obliterating smart-bomb.

There are a couple of important changes, though, and like Gradius V (a game Raiden 3's designers clearly took notice of in more ways than one) they're changes in favour of the player. Firstly, this is - at last! - a Raiden game which comes with rapid continuous autofire as standard on all weapons, so there's no more painful perpetual pummelling of the fire button. Secondly, you no longer start out with a feeble pop-gun firing only a couple of weak bullets - your initial Vulcan cannon is the equivalent of the original Raiden's one powered up about four times, pumping out a quite formidable three-way spread of fire from the word go. And most significantly of all - finally fixing one of the most annoying quirks of the original games - your weapons' power levels are now interchangeable. What?

Previously, if you powered-up your "red" Vulcan and then collected (say) a blue laser icon, your weapon switched to the most basic version of the laser without increasing in power. If you then picked up another red icon, you switched back to the Vulcan at its "stored" power up level - that is, you'd just collected two power-up icons just to get back to where you were, without increasing your offensive strength at all. Raiden 3 doesn't care what weapons you happen to be using - as far as it's concerned, a power-up is a power-up. So if you've got the Vulcan cannon at Strength 1, then pick up a blue icon, two green ones and a red, you'll now have a Vulcan cannon at Strength 5. Result!

A Vulcan cannon at Strength 5, yesterday.

As with Gradius V's allowing you to pick up your Options when you die, this simple change makes a massive impact on the gameplay. Previously, losing a single ship in a Raiden game often meant you were effectively scuppered. Amidst the deadly hail of fire that had taken you down in the first place, it was so difficult a task to retrieve the power-ups left behind in the wreckage - in such a way as to not waste most of their value by collecting different colours and simply swapping weapons without powering them up, that is - that many players would lose all their remaining lives within seconds of losing the first one as they braved the barrage of bullets while waiting for the power-up to cycle to the right colour. Now, though, you know that by simply grabbing everything as quickly as possible, you'll end up with a fairly beefy weapon no matter what. There's still skill to be employed - in making sure you get the right colour last, and so end up with your weapon of choice - but you've got much more of a fighting chance of recovering your game after your first death than you used to. 

(There's one final change which similarly reduces the game's complexities of timing. In earlier games, the "medals" left behind by some destroyed enemies had a complicated points-value equation depending on when you collected them. Here that's gone, replaced by a straightforward score, in addition to the bonus you get for your medals at the end of each level. Really hardcore players might bemoan this change, but it makes for a much purer game. You lose all your accumulated medals every time you die, so it's still a risk to go for them if you want to maximise your end-of-level bonus. There's a new way for the hardcore to show off anyway, which we'll get to in the bit after the next screenshot.)

Raiden 3 borrows from Gradius V in its credits system too. You start off with a measly three credits, with which you'll be doing well to see much into Mission Two. But as you rack up play time, the game slowly awards you extra credits. It's a genius system, which gets round the problem of many shmups being devalued by players being able to continue through to the end on their first go, and hence gives the game meaning. (With infinite credits, of course, being killed is no more than a minor inconvenience. With a limited supply of credits and therefore lives, every ship you lose hurts you.) So it's unfortunate that Raiden 3 undermines it with what looks like a clumsy oversight - in order that steelier viewers can avoid temptation, I'll discuss it in a spoiler space (highlight the text to read it, if you must):

If you play at the lower difficulty levels, including "Practice" where none of the enemies are allowed to shoot at you, you'll still be awarded Free Play for beating the final boss. SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER

The hot-knife-through-butter blue laser in full effect.

The incrementing-credits system lends Raiden a lot of its addictive appeal, because even when you're playing badly you know you're making "progress", by earning yourself more credits for the next attempt. But at heart this is a high-score game, and it's compelling even once you've fought your way to the end. The most fun way to play is simply to get as far as possible on one credit, but the home port of Raiden 3 also adds a Score Attack mode, in which you can play individual levels (each one unlocked after you've beaten it in the normal game) for max points. Maximising scores is achieved not via the complicated medal-collection of the previous games, but by using the new score-multiplier feature.

The points value of each enemy is determined by how quickly after its appearance you destroy it - blowing something up the instant it appears on the screen is worth double points, with the multiplier decreasing closer to 1.0 the longer the enemy survives. To help you out, beating levels in the normal games also unlocks demonstration videos of the CPU achieving the maximum score in that level, from which you can learn while watching in dismayed awe. Cutely, though, you can also save replays of your own best attempts at each level, so you can see yourself edge closer to the CPU's model score. (The final unlockable gameplay feature, while we're here, is a Boss Rush mode, obtained by beating the whole game. It does exactly what it says on the tin - one big tough level, all bosses, no cannon fodder. You can also unlock the usual "Gallery" modes and so on, where you can zoom in on and rotate around the 3D models of all the craft in the game, if that's the sort of thing you enjoy.)

Raiden 3 also finds time in its busy schedule of nailing your guts to the wall to gently mock the gimmicky scoring mechanics of other, less pure, shmups. Games like Psyvariar make much play of the "buzz" feature, where you have to deliberately fly as close as possible to enemy fire in order to boost the power of your own weapons for the best possible score. Brush up against enemy bullets here and you'll notice the same grating, metallic scraping noise. You will, however, score no extra points and obtain no other benefits, and since all the enemies are firing at the same target, you'll probably get yourself killed into the bargain. "Why would you want to deliberately get near lethal enemy bullets?", Raiden 3 seems to be admonishing the hapless player. "What are you, stupid or something?"

This game is actually now in full 3D, and this section is rather lovely.

We should probably wrap the review up now, not least because your reporter's trigger finger is starting to itch again. (And also because I want to have another try at the twisted, evil "Double" mode, in which you play a two-player game by yourself, controlling one ship with each analogue stick and using the shoulder buttons for firing and bombing. Thankfully, Double mode has a separate high-score table, as do Boss Rush and Score Attack modes, although disappointingly each mode has only one table encompassing all difficulty settings. It does at least indicate which difficulty level was used alongside each score, though.) Blah blah blah the graphics are nice, blah blah blah typical Japanese-rock soundtrack that you'll either like or you won't, but actually you'll barely notice that it's even there. Blah.

Raiden 3 is the WoS Game Of The Year not because it's "retro" (it isn't, unless good game design is now a historical curio), not because it's bigger or prettier or has more polygons or unlockables than anything else, not because it's got an expensive licenced soundtrack and real player names, not because it's a realistic simulation of anything, not because it's full of muscular black guys swearing and stabbing each other, and not because it lets you "pimp" your "ride" with go-faster stripes and the vehicular equivalent of embarrassing tattoos. It's the WoS Game Of The Year because it's a videogame that remembers it's a videogame. Lord knows there are precious few of those coming out these days, and we should clutch such ones as there are dearly to our chests, especially when they're this good. It isn't trying to be a movie, it isn't trying to create an online community, it isn't trying to be part of a lifestyle choice, and most importantly of all it doesn't have any fucking orcs in it.

It's out on Japanese import now, but it's coming out in the UK in February, and on a budget label to boot, so it'll almost certainly be mostly available in supermarket aisles as an impulse buy (which, if you were wondering, is the shameful justification for the pun in the headline). If you've got any soul at all, set aside some cash. Like 2004's Outrun 2 and Gradius V, or like this year's Meteos and Tsuukin Hitofude, Raiden 3 is happy to be a videogame, without feeling the need to masquerade as or piggyback on some other, more "respectable", form of culture. It's not football, it's not music, it's not a film, it's not a Star Trek convention where you can go to meet other pathetic nerds. It's you against the bad guys, with a laser gun and impossible odds - just the way you like it. Be proud of your culture. Enjoy videogames.

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