Simply put, this is the finest example of the genre you will find on any platform, home or arcade, to date.
Announced just this past winter, Radiant Silvergun makes a conspicuous debut, not only because of the speed of its arrival, but also for its platform of choice - the Sega Saturn. Radiant Silvergun was developed by Treasure (the legendary team of programmers responsible for old-school classics such as Castlevania 4, Contra-Hard Corps, and more recently Guardian Heroes, Silhouette Mirage, and Mischief Makers), surprising most people who assumed that Treasure would move on to full-time PlayStation development after the port of the now classic Saturn hit Silhouette Mirage. Instead, Treasure developed Radiant Silvergun using Sega's St-V board (basically an arcade-modified Saturn with extra RAM), with the intention of releasing it first in arcades. Released in Japanese arcades only a month before the home version, Radiant Silvergun arrives as a fitting testament to the true power of the Saturn. Simply put, this is the finest example of the genre you will find on any platform, home or arcade, to date.
Usually known for their innovations in the platforming genre, Treasure, like Square, decided it wanted to try its hands at a top-down shooter. A bold move for sure, as interest in vertically-scrolling shooters has dwindled since the halcyon days of 16-bit gaming. However, not only did the gamble pay off, it practically blows the lid off the Saturn. Like Square's own Einhander, Radiant Silvergun is an unqualified success of a shooter, but, to compare the two games really isn't fair - Radiant Silvergun completely destroys all competition. Some may scoff at this, but to see is to believe. Einhander, Raystorm, G Darius and Thunderforce V, all of these play second fiddle to Radiant Silvergun. In fact, the only shooter within a photon torpedo's reach is Soukyugurentai, and even that pales next to Radiant Silvergun's considerable merits. Here's why.
You're the pilot of one of the galaxy's most lethal starfighters: the Radiant Silvergun. You're travelling through various time periods, along with your captain and crew, in search of the Origin, a being who's been disrupting the fabric of time and space. Following a well-done animated intro, you'll find that gameplay is, predictably, based on navigating the southern regions of the screen while swarms of enemies swoop down from above, lacing the screen with all sorts of gunfire.
Less mundane are your methods of attack. There are no shields or screen-clearing super bombs; instead, you're armed with an innovative control interface. Each of the three main buttons (A, B, and C) triggers a different weapon: A fires a straight shot, while B activates a homing laser, and pressing C will release a damaging spread shot. Pressing any combination of these (also conveniently configured on the X,Y, and Z buttons) -A+B, A+C, B+C, and A+B+C - will result in all sorts of pyrotechnics.
Tracking lasers, a rear firing scatter-shot, lock-on lightning attacks, and a plasma sword all make appearances, courtesy of your little blue (or red) ship. For those of you concerned with the lack of a super-bomb, you should know that your plasma sword can be used to absorb certain types of enemy gunfire. Once your sword-meter is filled up, you can then unleash a Mega-Slasher, which looks like a huge polygonal pair of scissors that pretty much wipes out everything nearby.
While this may sound unnecessarily complex, it, in time, becomes second nature. As well it should, because using specific weapons at the appropriate times will be the key to your success in the game. For example, when you find yourself navigating steeply diagonal tunnels, you have little choice but to use your spread shot, as it is the only effective means of clearing out the battery of cannons blocking your way. In certain boss encounters, you will find yourself dodging what seem to be thousands of projectiles, leaving you unable to get a straight shot at your antagonist - but quick thinking and an accurate thumb will land you on the homing laser, increasing your chances of dispatching your foe to a fiery death. Other times, you will have to make with some fancy handiwork, switching from one attack to another to compensate for swarms of enemy fighters AND bosses all gunning for your demise.
As far as challenge is concerned, you'd be hard pressed to remember a game where you didn't blink for five minutes at a time. This is Visine country, folks. Prepare to watch in sheer amazement as you attempt to dodge gazillions of scatter-shots, missiles, flame-throwers, solar flares, lasers, you name it, all at once. Treasure throws the kitchen sink at you, and laughs. In the world of vertical shooters, there's nothing more satisfying than maneuvering your way through a screen full of gunfire, and in Radiant Silvergun, you have only the most minute of spaces with which to make your escape. Essentially, it's one false move and you're dead. Everything depends on your level of skill.
The Saturn version of Radiant Silvergun provides you with a couple ways to play the game. The first would be arcade mode, which, as the name states, is a direct port of the version found in the arcade. The place where you'll find the real action is in Saturn mode, which adds in voice-acting, additional levels and bosses, and cutscenes featuring you and your Radiant Silvergun teammates in full polygonal detail. There's a full list of options at your disposal as well, i.e., the number of lives you start with, difficulty, etc. Once you've beaten the game, an 'options plus' menu opens up, with a number of secrets waiting to be unlocked. For stat freaks, there's a full documentation of how many times you've played arcade mode and Saturn mode, and it also keeps track of how long you've had the Saturn on while playing the game. Other statistics are featured in the ranking mode, but perhaps the most interesting thing is the presence of the Dog Master ranking. Strange, but true, Radiant Silvergun has hidden 30 'Merry-chans,' which are essentially dogs, throughout the entire game. You need to use the lock-on laser in order to find them all, and only in one-player mode. Presumably, something good unlocks once you've found them all. Which won't be easy, since you'd be hard-pressed just to finish the game your first couple of times through. Thankfully, Treasure has implemented an interesting way to compensate for the extreme difficulty of this game. Instead of offering power-ups, your weapons gain power like you gain experience points in an RPG. The more you play in Saturn mode, the stronger your weapons get. When you finish the game, it will prompt you to save your status. The next time you play, your weapons will be powered up at the same level as when you last played. For example, at level 1, your guns are only moderately effective against the larger bosses, but at level 32 your guns are knocking them out of the sky so fast it makes your head spin. This enhances the incentive to play the game after you've beaten it: There's nothing better than some serious firepower.
Forget that, says you, how does RS stack up graphically? In a word, outstandingly. Radiant Silvergun does things you don't expect out of the Saturns aging gear-box. Gorgeous transparencies, tons of Mode-7 effects, fully polygonal bosses, tons and tons of sprites, and layers of stunning parallax are present. Textures and all the 3D effects are clean, highly detailed, and hi-res - all at the same time. Level designs are the best seen in a shooter - tricky, ingenious, and awe-inspiring. Take as an example the level that reduces everything onscreen to a vector-based outline that invokes memories of Asteroids, or the huge polygonal buildings (a la Raystorm, but better) that zoom by at 60fps, and you'll start to imagine the variety at hand.
The level bosses and their sub-bosses (some levels have three or more) are all unique and offer their own individual challenges; some are so huge they can fill three television screens. The first time you see the final boss (interestingly called the Origin), a three-mile-high polygon man who looks like a cross between Spider-Man and an Area 51 alien, start to run after you and karate kick you as the screen turns upside down, only then will you know the true meaning of panic. Set over six levels of sheer madness, each with tons of sub-sections, Radiant Silvergun isn't a game that's over too quickly. Finishing the game on Saturn mode, depending on difficulty level, can take anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours.
As is the case with most of Treasure's work, the soundtrack is of extremely high quality. A full orchestral score accompanies this game, and majestic it is. Available as an import CD, the soundtrack is worthy of a stand-alone purchase. Sound effects are wonderfully punishing and show the attention to detail that Treasure has given this game. Explosions are ear drum crunching, and every weapon has its own particular sound. Sonically this game is as good as it gets.
Conspicuously absent, however, is analog control. Anyone who's played Soukyugurentai with a Nights pad will attest to the sheer brilliance of its control. Considering that the ships in Radiant Silvergun don't move all that fast, your thumb gets a lot of exercise using the D-pad all the time. Though it's certainly not necessary to enjoy this game to the fullest, analog control would have been appreciated. Another small detail is that the Silverguns could have used a couple more animations themselves - maybe jet exhaust or something like that - but no one will miss it considering how much is going on at all times. Small gripes, really.
To call Radiant Silvergun the best shooter out of all the next-generation consoles is to do it an injustice. It is simply one of the best games, period. That said, since the likelihood of SOA bringing this one to the States is absolutely nil, the next course of action would be to pick up the import. This game is an absolute must-buy. Never has a shooter combined relentless, thoughtfully-designed action with such stunning graphics and sound. Mix in a moving storyline with exceptionally well-done voice acting (in Japanese) and beautiful real-time cutscenes, and you've got a shooter experience unmatched by any that have come before. Few games stay with you after you've turned the system off, but Silvergun does, and it's more powerful for it. The game has a polish and finesse worthy of a Ferrari, complete with a trunkful of secrets that only the best will discover. The true beauty of the game only reveals itself after numerous repeated plays. With an addictive gameplay, and the necessary incentives to keep you coming back, Radiant Silvergun makes you feel as if you've never really played a shooter before. It's a whole new experience.