Red Alarm is a 3D shooter where you take your Tech-Wing Fighter and battle through five enemy-filled levels, each ending with a showdown with a boss character.
When it was originally released the first thing people noticed were the wire frame graphics, bringing to mind games such as Battlezone and Elite; although these were both excellent titles, they had originally been released in the previous decade and this made Red Alarm seem technically limited with many commenting on the “out dated” visuals. This is unfair, as everything here runs faster and smoother and there’s a lot more happening on screen, both in terms of variety and numbers of enemies. Red Alarm also gets described as a “wire frame Starfox” which is fairer - though again, it's not completely accurate.
Although there is just the one route from level’s start to level’s end your ship has some degree of freedom as it is able to turn back on itself to either collect a power-up you may have missed or just to pick off an enemy that annoyed you. The ship has two forward speeds with a third available should you collect a booster power-up and you can also bring your ship to a standstill or even reverse. This car-like behaviour seems a bit odd for your space fighter but it does come into play against some enemies so it’s not a pointless addition.
Despite being just wire frame, there are many different types of enemy. You will find yourself up against fighters, walkers, mechs, giant faces, floating hands, flying creatures and much more. When destroyed they break apart like some delicate matchstick model and the opening level even features matchstick men running to their ships.
The levels themselves are varied as well; although the game begins and ends flying through the corridors of an enemy base, in between there’s a cave level (with waterfalls), an underwater level and a level with Aztec-like architecture.
At the end of each level you enter a “Danger Zone”: a large round room that houses a boss character. The trio of beasts that await you at the end of level 3 are simple looking but the rest (such as level 6’s flying mech or the totem pole of level 4) look great.
The 3D effect gives a real feel of the size of the surroundings but you can only see so far in front of you, after that it’s just black with the rest popping up as you move forward. It can at times lessen the effect but it’s rare for anything troublesome to appear without warning.
The only other minor grumble with the visuals occurs following a frantic battle with lots of enemies. If you haven’t been paying full attention to your surroundings, suddenly you find yourself looking at several shapes in front of you unable to tell which is an opening and which is a solid wall. Thankfully crashing in to walls does not cause damage – you just bump against them and, again, it’s not something that happens often.
Aside from the standard view there are three alternative camera views available: directly behind, cockpit view, and ¾ view. With the 3D effect, the cockpit view has obvious appeal although it doesn’t offer you any advantage. The ¾ view is completely pointless. It looks good as the camera looks back at your ship but it’s impractical to play that way.
The controls feel very natural. By default (four set-ups available) the left D-pad controls your ship and holding the L button allows for tighter turning. A and B control speed, R fires and the right D-pad is used for strafing moves, just like you would find in your typical FPS shooter. Strafing initially seems pointless but as you progress it becomes very handy for avoiding objects or enemy fire you find yourself hurtling towards.
With Red Alarm making use of every button on the control pad, missiles have to be fired using the same button as your cannon. Your ship - if not firing at oncoming enemies - will try to get a lock on nearby targets. When it obtains a successful lock on you tap fire to launch a missile. Obviously missiles do more damage but there's a delay which means if you have a lot of enemy fire heading your way you’re better off performing an evasive move and using your cannon.
Like far too many Virtual Boy games there is no save function to keep track of high scores, but it’s less of an issue here as your score is not something you pay attention to. You just enjoy working through the levels aiming to get to the end. There is a final boss battle after level 5, but the game feels a couple of levels too short. Playing through however is a lot of fun and there are 3 difficulty levels so it’s a game you will keep coming back to.
The sound effects in the game are good with effective noises for the changing speeds of your ship and standard cannon firing effects and explosions. There are also a few speech samples in the game such as “Fantastic” (heard upon completing a level). They hiss a bit but are clear and overall they add to the atmosphere. The music is very good and manages to match the excitement of what’s happening on screen. There’s a different track for each level and boss so audibly things are as varied as the visuals.
The difficulty is well judged. The opening level is a gentle introduction, giving you time to pick off the enemy as you get used to your ship, but with each level the number and difficulty of your opponents increases. There are shield, missile and booster powerups available to make things a little bit easier and you have 3 continues – although annoyinglu, you have start back from the beginning of the level when you die as there are no mid-stage checkpoints. Aside from your shields being depleted the only other way to die is to run out of fuel. Although there are no fuel pickups, you have plenty on-board and it's unlikely that you will run out (although it should be mentioned that level 4 features a maze-like section where it's easy to become lost).
When you complete (or die on) a level you can choose to watch a replay. Using the two d-pads you can move the camera round your ship and zoom in and out as you admire your work. You can fast foward the action but strangely the programmers forgot to include the ability to rewind. Still, it’s a neat addition to an already impressive game.
There are a few things to fault with the visuals, but the 3D effect is impressive and there's a lot of variety in the wire frame graphics. It’s a little on the short side but Red Alarm is a blast to play and remains one of the best reasons to own a Virtual Boy; the fact that it's cheap to pick up these days is a bonus.