The untold story of Raiden DX

Here at World Of Stuart, we're all fans of selectively-popular videogame magazine Edge. Over its 11 years of so of publication, it's consistently provided a little oasis of intelligent and thoughtful discourse in the fetid swamp of irredeemably corrupt, sub-teenage drivel which passes for the games press. It also - at least until recently - could be counted on for honesty and integrity in its coverage, a fact demonstrated at the end of 2003 when almost the entire editorial staff resigned rather than submit to interference from the magazine's management aimed at curbing the writers' ability to express opinions which might affect its publisher's revenues by upsetting advertisers. However, in its entire history, and throughout many changes of its anonymous personnel, there's been one other consistent factor in Edge - its reviews are absolutely terrible.

From giving the original Doom 7/10 because you couldn't hold conversations with the monsters instead of shooting them (no, really), to awarding the legendary Gunstar Heroes a miserly 6/10, to the mysterious case of Grand Theft Auto 3 (where the game got a short, lukewarm review and another 6/10, passed off in the next issue as a "printing error" and amended to a still-absurdly-stingy 8) and right up to their abysmal treatment of the magnificent Wario Ware Inc - the best and most inventive videogame of the last two years, and one containing precisely the things Edge claims to be looking for in games, yet which got a piddly half-page review written by someone who didn't understand the concept and gave it 7/10 - Edge's reviews have long been the mag's Achilles heel.

Either hopelessly misjudged or loaded with factual errors, and quite often both at once, Edge reviews can practically be guaranteed to turn out to be entirely wrong when seen in the cold light of history, or even the cold light of the next month's issue. Which brings us, if you were wondering where this was going, to Raiden DX.

Japanese writing: weird.

A 1997 Japanese-only Playstation conversion of a 1994 coin-op, Raiden DX was reviewed in Edge's June '97 issue, in a small piece which dismissed it as "little more than a subtle reworking of Raiden II from the original Playstation disc...which staggers the full suite of levels between training, novice and expert modes, and in which the only visible enhancements are tweaks to backgrounds and some of the boss animations". The reviewer clearly wasn't impressed and awarded a score of 6/10, which would be fair enough if the quotes above weren't entirely factually wrong in every possible regard.

Raiden DX is, in fact, no more a "subtle reworking" of Raiden II than GTA:Vice City is a "subtle reworking" of GTA3. It's a significantly new Raiden game - though unsurprisingly one in very much the same vein as its predecessors - with a bunch of new levels, stacks of new features and some significant changes in the gameplay. (Furthermore, the training mode doesn't in fact contain any of the levels from either Raiden II or the normal Raiden DX game, but we'll get to that in a bit.) It's a far superior game to Raiden II, it's one of the best and most perfectly-balanced vertically-scrolling shmups ever created, and it deserves better than to have practically the only piece of coverage it's ever received in the UK be so woefully inadequate and wrong. Lucky WoS is here to put the record straight, eh chums?

We're sure the people of the countryside below are grateful for their liberation.

Before we start rambling on about how great Raiden DX is, it's worth spending a little time on the game's structure, in order to illustrate just how much more there is here than a slightly tweaked re-release of Raiden II. At the start, you can select from three basic games. Novice mode is a short game made up of the first five of Raiden 2's stages, but with one important gameplay change that we'll get to shortly, while Expert mode is a full-length game with eight entirely new levels (except that each stage has the corresponding Raiden 2 boss at the end) plus an Extra Stage which is unlocked by the superhuman feat of clearing the first eight levels without using a continue.

The third option, however, is one of Raiden DX's most noteworthy innovations. The misleadingly-named "Training Stage" is a single all-new level, around 15 minutes long and with only one boss, right at the end. Unlike the rest of the game, no continues are allowed, and no 1UPs are available - you get three lives with which to battle all the way to the end, and if you blow it there are no second chances. Despite the billing, this is full-on Raiden, no easier than the normal games, and it'll be a long time before you make it through your "training" in one piece. It's perfect burst gaming, hugely addictive but also ideal for when you just want to blow things up in a highly satisfying manner for half-an-hour rather than start wading into some weeks-long epic RPG quest or exhausting stealth FPS.

You'd think they'd take the hint, wouldn't you?

If the Training Stage was the only new addition in Raiden DX, it'd frankly still make the game worth buying for owners of the Raiden Project release. But in fact there's a lot more to RDX than that. Playing and beating the normal games unlocks all sorts of extras, including a beautiful gallery mode in which you can view all the major player and enemy vehicles and installations in full moveable-camera 3D, right down to changing the lighting. More interesting, though is "Master Of Raiden", a demonstration performance by the CPU on the full Training Stage, which you can watch in order to feel totally depressed about your hard-won high score, as the PS illustrates how you could actually have racked up six times as many points without breaking sweat or even changing from the initial weapon. (The CPU completes the entire stage with only the basic powered-up Vulcan cannon, just to rub in your laser-using-nancy-boy inadequacy.)

The key to the CPU's big scores on the Training Stage is the same as the key to big scores in the normal games, and is the core gameplay change mentioned earlier between the previous Raidens and Raiden DX. In the first two games, destroying certain ground targets reveals a medal (either gold or blue) which can be collected for instant points, and also affects your bonus at the end of each stage (where you get a bonus comprising 1000 points, times the number of medals collected since you last died on that stage, times the number of smart bombs you have left). However, in the earlier games, the medal just sat there and waited for you to collect it for a set number of points (eg 500 for a gold). In DX you get the same end-of-level bonus, BUT the medal's shine begins to swiftly fade the moment it appears and the instant points value for collecting it decreases accordingly, down to just 10 points if you delay picking it up for three or four seconds until the point where it loses all its gleam and turns grey. But there's a twist.

A couple of seconds after the medal has first faded to grey, it flickers momentarily back to full power, at which point a gold medal will net you a big 3,000 points, and a blue one a whopping 10,000. Given that there are a couple of dozen medals in a typical stage, and a total game score of 1 million is a pretty impressive achievement in Raiden, the attraction of a potential 100,000 or so extra points per stage is a major temptation. And that finally leads us to just why Raiden DX is such a great game. (And why Edge reviews are so hopeless.)

All that money on armour, and hardly any left to bolt on some guns. Poor little enemy boss.

The main reason Raiden DX, even when compared to its own predecessors, so admirably still represents the state of the art in game design even a decade after its release, is that the key to good videogame design - in any type of videogame - is the delicate balance between risk and reward. The Raiden games, particularly RII, were already accomplished in this regard. (The first game less so, since when you die the game stops and moves you back a little way, rather than continuing uninterrupted amid the same hail of fire that killed you.) The most critical points in Raiden II aren't when you meet the big bosses, but the moments after you die, when you have to decide whether to just quickly and blindly grab all the power-ups released by your destroyed ship (running the risk of ending up with a hopelessly underpowered weapon, since collecting two differently-coloured powerups consecutively will change your weapon without increasing its strength), or whether to dodge frantically around in the continuing enemy onslaught until the powerups agonisingly-slowly cycle round to the right colours, whereupon you'll have enough firepower to have a decent chance of getting back on top of the baddies.

Raiden DX takes this theme and expands it enormously, with the single simple addition of the decaying bonus medals. Now, from only having to make the risk-reward decision (and the skilled manoeuvring it requires) when there are powerups to collect, you have to make such decisions more or less constantly (since there's rarely a moment in the game when there isn't either a medal or a powerup on screen). The frequent occasions when there are both, and you have to plot and navigate a perfectly-timed path, through a blizzard of fire, to collect a moving powerup while it's the right colour and a fading medal in the tiny fraction of a second that it's worth the big points, may well blow a fuse in the brain of anyone who isn't extremely good at spatial mathematics under extreme pressure. It's the videogaming equivalent of talking someone through solving a Rubik's cube down a mobile phone in a foreign language while you're running across a rickety rope bridge over a 300-foot river canyon juggling Molotov cocktails, as 500 angry Aztecs fire arrows at you from both sides.

(Of course, you could just pick the medals up whenever, stay alive and only get 1/300th of the points. But if you're not trying for the high score, why are you bothering to play the game at all, you wimp?)

 A cameo appearance from the little-seen Player Two, there.

Did we mention the secret targets yet? The DX-only, Xevious-inspired little towers that are hidden underground in all the game's modes and only pop up to be lucratively destroyed if you happen to fly over them, giving you another risk to take even in quiet moments? Sorry, must have forgotten those. What about the big secret bonuses, for example the 50,000 you get every time you pick up a smartbomb powerup when you've already got eight of the same type on board your ship, forcing another awkward timing issue when collecting things (grab whatever comes, or wait and dodge until the bomb cycles to the type you've already got) and another tricky decision (about whether to use your bombs for tough bosses and emergencies or stockpile them in the hope of a giant points bonanza in the latter stages)? Or the way the game judges how bravely you've played and awards a bonus at the end accordingly, so that to score well you have to get stuck right in toe-to-toe rather than hiding in a corner and smartbombing all the big enemies? We didn't mention any of that? Dang.

If all that still isn't enough challenge for you, don't worry. After more play, you'll also unlock the Special Stage (yet another exclusive-to-DX addition), in which the nervous player must face all ten of the game's bosses one after the other, with generous power-ups but again without the benefit of continues, in a round which is played not for points but against the clock (you get awarded a "lap time" for each individual boss, and for the stage as a whole should you finish). The only way to get on the Special Stage's high score table is to complete it, a task which will keep even the most hardcore expert shooter busy for many an hour.

Raiden DX's high-score tables themselves are pretty uncompromising in general. Unlike some lily-livered recent shooters, you don't get to enter your name if you continue - your score still appears on the table if you get enough points on any particular credit, but under the name "=C=". The only way to get a proper, credited high score is to take the game on from the start - and don't think you can cheat by ramping the difficulty down either, because DX keeps and saves separate tables for each mode and for each of the five main difficulty settings. (Which are rather cruelly denoted Easy 1, Easy 2, Easy 3, Normal and Arcade.)

However, if all this sounds terrifying and you think the fancy bonus stuff might as well not be there because you'll never unlock it in a hundred years, don't panic. The lowest difficulty setting - Very Easy - pioneered a feature that's now quite common in modern shmups, whereby you tackle the level as normal except that absolutely none of the enemies are allowed to fire at you. Obviously, this makes it somewhat simple to beat the game in one credit and thereby unlock all the extra content, and then you can put the difficulty back to something more grown-up without having the high-score tables disfigured by your cheating.

The blue straight-ahead laser looks oddly wimpy in screenshots, but isn't.

Interested yet? Of course, the point of this feature is that these are only the traits and characteristics that are exclusive to Raiden DX. This piece doesn't even touch on any of the excellent qualities that are shared by all of the Raiden games - the simple, well-balanced selection of weapons, the timeless graphics, the relentless action, the painstaking fairness of even the most demanding enemy attacks, the full-blooded sound and the memorable music. Heck, we haven't even mentioned the inclusion (pioneered in Raiden II) of the single best weapon in shoot-'em-up history, the purple Plasma Laser (variously known to dedicated Raiden aficionados as either the "Wiper Laser" or, more picturesquely, the "Toothpaste Laser"). The appreciation of that particular work of art will have to wait until another day.

Naturally, here at World Of Stuart we understand the difficulties faced by fellow journalists in trying to convey the amount of information contained in a sprawling, extensive piece like this one in a tiny 150-word round-up review in a busy working month, especially when it's of an obscure import game that almost none of your readers are likely to be buying anyway (or indeed, would be able to buy even if they wanted to). But when you haven't got room to say much, you really ought to make sure that at least what you DO say isn't totally wrong. Games as good as Raiden DX deserve to be treated with a little more respect than that.

The mighty Toothpaste Laser, seeking out enemy "plaque" with tireless vigour.

(All of this, of course, is somewhat academic, since the chances of anyone being able to locate a copy of Raiden DX and discover its majesty for themselves now are significantly worse even than they were in 1997. It's a particular shame given that the game runs so well in Playstation emulators like
ePSXe. If only the 81MB zipped BIN/CUE file, which the emulators will run directly without it having to be burned to a CD first, could be even briefly available for download, so that people could play it and share it on P2P networks and ensure it wasn't lost to history forever, eh?)



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