R-TYPE FINAL (PS2: Fresh Games/Canadian import)
Bought from www.videogamesplus.ca for about 14 (inc shipping)
(UK release due March 2004, 18 inc shipping from www.play.com)

As far as this reviewer knows, he owns every game ever released in the illustrious R-Type line, and the moderately remarkable truth is that there isn't a single duffer in the series. Creators Irem have either exercised a diligent level of control over every single licence - from the famously technology-defying ZX Spectrum conversion of the seminal coin-op to the first steps towards non-arcade-originated sequels like the magnificent R-Type 3 on the SNES - or they've just been really really lucky. Admirably, they've even managed to avoid creating the ugly, confusing tangle of names and numbering that so often afflicts long-running series (Konami's Gradius line, for example, is now on around its 20th different game, yet the forthcoming Treasure-created PS2 sequel is called "Gradius 5"). Dubbing this latest release "Final" is therefore a pretty chancy move, but against all instinct, history suggests that they might just have the integrity to stick to it.

So if this really is going to be the last ever R-Type, any gamer with a heart and a soul would hope, nervously, that Irem would give it everything they'd got, pull out all the stops and come up with a spectacular, valedictory farewell to this much-beloved and thus-far-untainted family. And jiminy be blowed if they haven't gone and done just that, too.

"Seen it all before, seen it all before, given time these things won't change."

It's difficult to put into words just what a heart-warming piece of software this is. Irem have chucked the kitchen sink, all the crockery and most of the tiling and pipes into it, and come up with a monster of a game which will keep you occupied for weeks, but is instantly accessible and offers something to do even if you just want to dip into it for half an hour at a time. It's all-new, yet contains enough little nods and references to the previous games that it feels like a properly-connected evolution of what's gone before. It's lovely.

In addition to the basic main game, which we'll come to shortly, there's a whole bunch of extra stuff tucked away in R-Type Final - in fact, in a lot of ways it's kinda like a Gran Turismo take on the scrolling shmup. There are over 100 differently-weaponed ships to collect and use, each of which can be further customised with variations on the trademark R-Type weaponry like the Force energy shield and the Bit support drones (as well as painted your favourite colours). You can swap fighters from your "garage" between stages to choose the one best suited to a particular level, or if you're hardcore/purist you can stick with a single ship for the whole game and learn its strengths and strategies inside-out.

As well as extra craft, there's all manner of "gallery" material to collect too, from simple artwork to technical and historical data about the sinister Bydo enemy, and it's rare that you'll have a game without unlocking something or other new to look at or play with. There's also a score attack mode pitting you against individual stages, there are different routes to take through the game - uncovering new levels depending which way you go - and finally there's a bizarre "AI Battle" tournament game, where you go head-to-head with other R-series fighters (either against the CPU or another human), programming in your ship's attack and defence strategies in advance, then just sit back and watch the outcome.

But it's the main game that really matters, and it's the main game where R-Type Final really shines. After a low-key first stage with only a few baddies and some gloomy dark grey scenery, things start to open up in the swampy second level, with underwater sections, giant plant enemies and a really odd boss resembling a boxing punchbag. But it's in Stage Three that R-Type Final bursts into glorious life, with perhaps the single most impressive level seen in any scrolling shmup to date.

"Sorry mate, you're not coming into the club with heavy assault weaponry. Rules."

It's the classic R-Type "giant spaceship" stage, with a gigantic boss craft bearing a noticeable resemblance to the one from the very first game, but with all manner of extra stuff bolted onto it. As the stunningly-rendered monster ship cruises low at night over a busy city (cars in the streets below diligently obey traffic lights even as the titanic life-or-death struggle is played out just a couple of hundred feet overhead), you have to fly all around it, destroying the superstructure, defence ships and general debris, while avoiding both secondary dangers like engine exhausts and tractor beams, and the gun emplacements which bristle from every inch of its surface. It's a massive task, and you'll get your arse handed to you in a gift-wrapped box many times as you learn the ship's movements (there are never any moments where you get killed by something you couldn't possibly have dealt with, but your chances do improve a lot after a few practice runs).

The feeling of finally dispatching this behemoth into oblivion is sheer cathartic joy, and from then on R-Type Final is on Easy Street. The next level is another beauty, an inventive assault from the inside on a Bydo-infested tower-block research lab, culminating in a boss that... well, let's not spoil all the surprises for you. Suffice to say that you're not done meeting old friends and their descendants yet, by a long chalk. (Incidentally, the very last boss has one very small irritating aspect which isn't really in keeping with the game's spirit, so here's a small hint for it: keep a very close eye on your Beam weapon's charge bar.)

Another of RTF's heartening qualities is that it's not afraid to be hard. At the default middle difficulty setting (of five) they'll be mopping you off the walls with a sponge at regular intervals, and the game's uncompromising challenge is reinforced by the fact that you get just seven credits initially. (Though after the first time round, the number gets generously bumped up to 14, which should be enough to take you through the seven main stages after a little practice at normal difficulty, and the lower two settings are easy enough to be accessible to the rampantly drunk or just plain terrible player - at "Baby" level, for example, the enemies are less well-armoured and you get to keep all your weaponry when you die, though the tradeoff is that you don't get an ending sequence when you beat the last stage.)

"Ah... ah... ah... ACHOO!"

It's also not afraid to be slow-paced (though it switches adroitly between intricate, mazy stages that you have to pick your way through inch-by-inch and frantic all-out dogfighting, and also between levels featuring mostly organic enemies and then big metal robot ones), or to suffer from quite frequent slowdown, or have music so insignificant (certainly in the earlier stages) that without going back and checking I couldn't actually tell you with any certainty that there was any.

Its only real concessions to the modern age are the impressive graphics (while the screenshots on this page make Final look very much like the earlier 2D games, it's actually very 3D visually, though the gameplay is still strictly in the flat plane), the huge array of unlockables and, above all, the phenomenal lighting effects. Firing the "DOSE" superweapon (which charges with every bullet or enemy absorbed by your Force, and which you'll be lucky if you get to fire once every two stages) in the middle of the giant-battleship stage unleashed the most extraordinarily beautiful pyrotechnic display this side of Tempest X3's secret "Trippy Mode", and almost brought a tear to this old writer's eye. Combined with what can only properly be described as the game's choreography, the overall artistic effect of the game is, for want of a less inappropriate-sounding term, practically balletic. (Fittingly, the codename for mankind's final mission against the Bydo is Operation Last Dance.)

But what really matters about R-Type Final, and what its developers have thankfully spent most of their time concerning themselves with, is the gameplay. This is a thoughtful, studied and painstaking refinement of the 17-year heritage of the R-Type series, expanding it massively in depth terms while evolving it only slightly, because if ever a game's core play dynamic wasn't broke and didn't need fixing, it was R-Type's. If this is truly to be the series' headstone, it's an exquisite memorial carved from the finest black marble, with the inscription picked out in diamond dust. For less than 20, go and pay your respects.


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