Radiant Silvergun (1998, Treasure for Sega Saturn)

Question: Was 1998 the greatest year in the history of videogames? It certainly stands among the top five dates, for sure. Consider only a handful of candidates: Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time; Tony Hawk Pro Skater; Starcraft; Half-Life; Grim Fandango; Dance Dance Revolution; Panzer Dragoon Saga; Radiant Silvergun. What a year.

For many years, Radiant Silvergun was known as the Great Lost Sega Saturn Game, a genre-bending audiovisual masterpiece that overturned all expectations of Sega’s troubled 32-bit system, but left in Japan to obscurity and fiendishly high import prices. This was probably the console’s first $100 software title on the import scene, and has always remained in high demand. The rise of emulation and internet downloads only added oxygen to the legend. Today, you can download the game in vintage and remastered form for Xbox Live Arcade for the price of a couple movie tickets, a true bargain. Yet the Saturn original remains in very high demand, a holy grail for the devout fans and collectors.

Today, I believe the game’s reputation has lessened somewhat; some of the shine and polish of the legend has faded in the wake of experience, tempered by more realistic assesements. Two decades ago, Silvergun was universally hailed as a masterpiece, a living legend, the greatest shoot-em-up ever made. Today, well…the game is greatly respected, but its place in history has become more debated, which only adds to the legend.

What sort of game is this? It is presented as a vertically-scrolling spaceship shooter, as you guide a team of pilots against an endless array of enemy spaceships, gun turrets, urban installations and enormously powerful bosses of all shapes and sizes. But looks can be deceiving, and if you attempt to play in the classic style, by shooting everything that moves and everything that doesn’t, you will find yourself overwhelmed by enemy forces. You’ll scratch your head wondering when the power-ups will arrive to save the day. You’ll probably wish to retreat to another round of Galactic Attack where everything made sense.

But looks can be deceiving, and Treasure are, if nothing else, masters of usurping and fusing genres. Silvergun presents three main weapons, with three combined variants, that begin very weak but gain strength through experience. You will notice that nearly all enemies are painted red, yellow or blue. When you destroy three enemy ships of the same color, that creates a chain bonus; if you destroy three more, the chain continues and bonus points multiply. Once you have scored a set number of points with that weapon, its power level will be raised by one.

In addition, there are other ways to collect bonus points. If you shoot one red, yellow and blue ship, you will score a 10,000 point bonus. Each weapon has its own hidden technique for scoring bonus. Your ship is even awarded a bonus for narrowly dodging enemy attacks (a trick that can be exploited by expert players). All of these factors contribute the leveling up of your arsenal over time. Even the epic boss battles can be carefully dragged out for the purpose of raising power levels by dismantling the vessels piece by piece.

Here we have something very fascinating and unique: a shooter that incorporates elements of RPGs and puzzle games. If you simply fire upon everything that moves, your weapons will remain dangerously underpowered for the later, more difficult stages. Skilled players learn to study the layouts of each stage, learning where each attack formation lies and in what order, planning which targets to strike for maximum impact. Treasure presents this as an open-ended challenge; there is no one “correct” path to victory, and this gives you a great sense of freedom.

I must admit that I am not as good at Silvergun as I ought to be. The challenge is extremely high, as you are constantly beset by enemy ships of all sizes, each of which is firing an immense number of bullets, lasers and rockets in your general direction. Your ship has a very small “hit box” (meaning the part of the ship that can be destroyed), which is your only salvation. These elements are a hallmark of the danmaku or “bullet hell” sub-genre, but this game is far slower and methodical than, say, DoDonPachi. Its pacing is measured, tactical. You are required and encouraged to think and plan several moves ahead. And yet you are always at the edge of your seat, narrowly escaping certain doom and cheating death six ways before breakfast.

For all of these reasons, this game was considered trailblazing when it was new. Its innovations and designs set it apart from every other shooter on the scene, and it was hoped that a new paradigm shift was at hand, that shoot-em-ups were about to evolve into some new exciting form for the 3D era, just as Super Mario World had evolved into Super Mario 64. Sadly, this evolution never really happened, apart from Treasure’s own spiritual sequel Ikaruga. Arcade spaceship shooters faded from the mainstream videogame landscape for good, despite a few good danmaku titles here and there. We really never saw anything close to a full-blown masterpiece ever again, much less something that dared to take risks and push the envelope. But the same could be said for the videogame industry in general.

Visually, Radiant Silvergun is gobsmacking, fantastic brilliance. Even two decades later, it has lost none of its power to amaze and dazzle. It must have knocked the socks off gamers in 1998, especially those who had long since written off Sega Saturn as a second-rate contender. These graphics would be spectacular by Nintendo 64 standards; heck, by Dreamcast standards. Treasure were famous for being master programmers who knew how to push any machine far beyond its assumed limits; it’s practically their calling card, and this title is one of their strongest examples.

These graphics are probably the finest example of Sega Saturn’s strengths, a fusion of 2D sprites and 3D polygons. The spaceships are all rendered in highly polished pre-rendered CG, most of the weapons are hand-drawn sprites, as are the richly saturated explosions, and nearly all of the backgrounds are multiple VDP2 planes. Polygons are used sparingly, sometimes to enhance the background graphics, usually for the big boss fights, where they are highly fluid and polished and illuminated. There are many moments where it feels like the screen is spinning out of control, like a roller coaster car that has jumped the rails, and nothing like this had ever been seen. The thrilling planetfall stage in Soukyugurentai feels rather pedestrian by comparison.

The final showdown involves a large diamond crystal that shatters to reveal a giant polygon man who runs across a spinning dual-plane realm. He reminds me a lot of Nausicaa’s God Warrior, as he runs, dodges and attacks from a multitude of directions as your ship scrambles to catch up. I get a slight sense of vertigo when playing and even feel a touch dizzy when I replay the episode in my mind many years later. Please don’t ask me to recreate the feat again; the only reason I ever reached the running man was because I was playing the arcade (Sega Titan) version on MAME and could furiously abuse the extra credits.

Oh, I forgot about the sword! Your ship is equipped with a wire-frame sword that can slice through enemies. It’s useful for getting out of a tight jam, but its best power is the ability to scoop up pink bullets, an act that fills a special power meter. Once that meter is full, you can unleash a massive dual-sword attack that shatters everything in sight. It’s a terrific thrill when you can destroy a boss in one wide swing, defeating your foes in a flash of light and shattering of polygons. What a sensational thrill ride. We’ll never see the likes of this sort again.

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