“Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it is lightning that does the work.”
“The following is a contributor post by the Slipstream Mage.”
Let’s get some terminology out of the way right up front for the potentially uninitiated. A shoot ‘em up video game or ‘shmup’ is one where the player is pitted against a barrage of enemies and bullets, often in a vertical or horizontal scrolling direction. All the while, you are forced to dodge and/or destroy all comers often at frenetic and stressful pace. Traditionally (but not exclusively), these games involve player-controlled space ships or airplanes firing their weaponry against hostile aliens, spaceships, or other military targets. To that effect, the Raiden series of shmups is hardly unique.
Translated from Japanese, ‘raiden’ has compound roots meaning ‘lightning’ (rai-) and ‘thunder’ (-den). Not a bad title (if not a bit on the nose) for a game that has you flying some kick-ass jets slinging some serious firepower. The first Raiden game appeared in arcades in 1990 as a vertical scrolling 2-D co-op shooter, with a simple, but unique power-up system. Popularity in the arcades pushed console ports to start showing up some years later on the 16-bit platforms. Arcade sequels followed through the 90s, and into the aughts, with more console ports to follow. Surprisingly, none of the mainline Raiden games ever made it to the Sega Saturn, the console considered to have become the de facto home of the 2-D shmup, even while Sony began to dominate the market with their PlayStation.
The story of Raiden is not prominent or memorable. An alien race is threatening the Earth, and the world’s nations have pooled their resources and their hopes into two advanced fighter jets to save us. The enemy aliens seem to use a red twin pyramidal polyhedron crystal as their (sentient?) power source. This crystal is the one seemingly recurrent threat in the series and appears in multiple boss enemies. It also acts as the final boss. Destroy it, and save the planet.
In 2007, Raiden IV arrived in arcades in Japan only. The Japanese Xbox 360 received a port a year later, and this port reached North American shores in late 2009. As a shmup fan, I was one of a small group of Americans who actually preordered the limited edition of this game (including the game’s full soundtrack). Chalk my excitement up to the lack of releases in this genre. With the Saturn and the Dreamcast now defunct, and shmup releases in the US extremely limited, it was an import or ‘cross-your-fingers for a port’ situation. And if you’re wondering about the PlayStation, they didn’t get a port of Raiden IV until 2014 (Raiden IV OverKill).
Regardless of how or when you got your hands on it, Raiden IV was an excellent step forward in the series. While the formula and story were largely more of the same, the visuals and audio took large steps forward. And the home ports provided some additional game modes to play in ways the arcade didn’t allow.
The game opens with a foggy and dated-looking cutscene of your ship taking off to intercept the enemy. These are the worst visuals in the game. Now fully in the 3-D era of gaming, Raiden IV adopted the quasi-3-D visual style seen in other shmups like the legendary Radiant Silvergun (nearly 10 years old at the time of Raiden IV’s release), but now with more detailed textures. Detailed scrolling backgrounds show the speed and hovering abilities of your ship. This adds to the immersion and furthers the vertical sense of depth whenever there is an elevation change in flight.
The Raiden fighter models (red and blue) themselves are aggressive and cool. They sport the look of a bastard son born from a one night stand between an F-14 Tomcat and a Varitech VF-1 Valkyrie (Robotech). Enemy ships have lots of interesting little details and animations for firing or changing form. Bosses are multi-form with their own set of transformations and changes. Both go down with a flourish of debris and wreckage breaking away as they fall under your weapons.
The three primary weapons (Vulcan, Laser, and Proton Laser), are vivid and fill the screen with alien-dusting destructive power. Explosions and enemy bullets are bright and fill the screen. If you enjoy aerial war waged in the most colorful way, this game is for you.
And while your screen is jam-packed with sprites, you won’t experience even a hint of slowdown (for better or worse – sometimes that benefits the player!). While this overall package of visuals will hardly impress the modern gamer, they are competent and enjoyable.
Before you start shmuping, you are treated to a foggy cut scene!
The standard shmup sound effects abound here. Continuous firing of your weapons mixed with the sound of various-sized explosions as you decimate enemy ships and unleash a screen-clearing bomb all have a crisp, clear tone. But underneath all that noise is a competent soundtrack that matches tempo and tone with the level’s action on screen. It isn’t quite memorable, but it feels sufficiently Japanese and appropriate throughout.
Like any shmup should, Raiden IV controls simply and tightly. The primary and secondary weapons can be fired by holding down a button. A small detail, but one that keeps tendonitis from setting in over long sessions. Crisp and intuitive controls are here and allow you to focus on the main element of gameplay in Raiden IV – staying alive. One interesting feature of the movement of your fighter is the fact that accelerating (moving ‘up’ the screen) is faster than braking (moving ‘down’ the screen). This is a nice nod to the physics of flight when you don’t have reversing thrusters equipped. It also means that if you stick your neck out up screen, you can’t fall back to where you came from as quickly when dodging.
While not quite a true bullet hell like some shmups (though it does have its moments against some bosses), the change of pace of incoming enemy shots will keep you on your toes. The hit detection box for your Raiden fighter feels fair and accurate. Levels are not excessively long, but boss fights can be a bit prolonged and unmemorable.
The Vulcan cannon.
Stacking power-ups of the same color to maximize your primary damage is a bit of a fun risk-reward situation, with each power-up drop being either red (Vulcan), blue (laser), or purple (proton laser), and if you want to get it to a different color, you need to wait it out as it cycles through until picking it up. This often puts you in a bad spot with enemies when you are ready to grab it, and you may need to risk your safety to extend up the screen to nab another level of weapon power.
Scoring is also a big part of any shmup’s gameplay, and Raiden IV employs a unique Flash Point scoring system that rewards players for killing enemies quickly as they appear. Take too long, and that multiplier drops quickly, along with depositing more bullets all over your screen. Your point totals will rack up quickly by maintaining your power-up levels to aid in the quick dispatching of enemies. This couples nicely with the goal of staying alive, and feeds into the score attack mode available. Shoot down more enemies faster and you will succeed. A basic tenet for any shmup.
The Proton Laser.
Perhaps the most unique and daunting gameplay element is the optional dual control mode. No buddy to team up with, but you want the double the firepower? In this mode, one player can use both the right and left analog sticks to control BOTH Raiden fighters simultaneously. If it sounds difficult, you’d be right. But start out on the game’s easier difficulty levels, and you might be surprised how well you do. What feels awkward at first became a fun challenge in negotiating enemy fire while trying to balance power-ups between the two ships appropriately.
Like all Raiden games, IV has the option for two-player mode with player 1 on the red fighter, and player 2 on the blue. It plays as well as solo mode, but makes for a much easier time and you’ll likely find yourself bumping up the difficulty level to have a bit of challenge. Communicate well and share the power-ups appropriately and the game becomes substantially easier. There is no online co-op multiplayer mode, so it’s couch co-op or nothing.
As far as shmups go, Raiden IV isn’t the most difficult in its genre, but provides a strong challenge that is customizable. Low difficulty levels allow you to shoot some bullets down, while the higher levels remove that ability and enemy shots have increase velocity. Bullet speed deltas (there’s that changeup pitch) also throw you off pattern learning as well. Allowing too many enemies to survive on screen for too long is almost assured death at any difficulty. Keep firing and moving, focusing on the most dangerous enemies and you’ll amass some nice scores and continued level progress.
I’ve always felt that the initial hump of resistance that stops many gamers from getting into shmups is difficulty. Shooters that don’t allow you to turn the difficulty down low enough to get used to patterns and enemy tendencies can put a lot of gamers off. Raiden IV can be customized to allow a wide range of difficulties to reduce this initial aversion to a perceived bullet hell freakout. If a single boss or level is giving you trouble, you can isolate those areas of the game and work on them at whatever difficulty you prefer. Because of this, I find Raiden IV to be a strong entry point to the 2-D shmup genre.
Shmups by their nature, begged to be played over and over again. You can also unlock all the 3-D models for every variant of every enemy in the game as you continue to log time and score points. Setting high scores, seeing how far you can make it on a single credit, or attempting to master the dual control mode are all reasons to keep playing. Milquetoast boss fights and eventual burnout to excessive repetition are not.
Keep playing, and you’ll unlock all the 3-D models in the game.
My Personal Score: 7/10
Raiden IV is a worthy addition to any shmup lover’s collection. It’s fun, colorful, and entertaining. The dual control mode and the inherent ambidextrous challenge is almost worth the price of admission alone. However, it’s also a bit bland when compared to some predecessor or contemporary shmups out there. It doesn’t have the interesting power-up system of the Gradius series. It lacks the variety in ships and firepower of a Battle Garegga. It doesn’t quite have the flow or soaring soundtrack of 1943. But it is a nice package on its own, and one I still enjoy playing to this day. If you are not familiar with the genre or are looking for an entry point to more modern shmups, this game might be an inexpensive spot to get your feet wet.
Aggregate Score: 6.8
The Slipstream Mage has been a gamer for over 35 years and got his start begging for quarters from his parents at a hotel pool game room. Though he currently focuses his time on racing games and 1st-person shooters, he is a recovering shmup addict who occasionally relapses. Find him @JTorto40 on Twitter.
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Categories: Game Review