With various versions of Street Fighter II, Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts, a bunch of Mega Man games and two exclusive Final Fight sequels, the SNES was a good machine to own for Capcom fans. They also released many other games on the platform including U.N. Squadron, a frantic side-scrolling shooter originally released in arcades in 1989.
The game is based on Area 88, one of the first manga translated for North America, and tells the tale of Shin Kazama, a pilot tricked into joining a foreign legion. Working as a mercenary pilot, he takes on many dangerous missions as he hopes to buy his freedom. The mission in this game is to stop the advancing forces of the “evil Project 4." In gaming terms, this means you get to blow lots of stuff up.
Gameplay is straightforward. You move your aircraft about the screen shooting both airborne and land-based foes. You have an energy meter that may appear to make things easy, but actually this is just to lull you into a false sense of security. Take one hit and the meter will flash “Danger"; take a second and it's all over. After a while the meter partially refills but take enough hits and the warning will be stuck permanently. Controls are responsive, but should the screen get too cluttered then the game does unfortunately suffer from slowdown. Thankfully it doesn't happen that often but it is a little annoying.
The SNES version is not an exact replica of the coin-op, but it is not simply a port with bits missing – although disappointingly the two-player mode is omitted. Some levels are different or modified to a degree and there are some additions too, including a wider range of weapons and the ability to purchase different aircraft.
Presentation is good, with multi-layered stages, including both background and foreground scenery. There's a wide range of enemies and some great character designs that will be familiar to fans of the manga/anime including the other two playable characters: Micky and Greg.
There are lots of sounds for the various weapons and explosions, as well as a collision sound effect that almost makes you feel the impact. The music is even more impressive with several adventurous tracks matching the exciting gameplay. It's not all action though with other (equally good) tracks taking on a sinister or melancholic sound. Many are catchy and it's a pity those pesky people keep shooting at your ship, preventing you from just lolling back to enjoy the tunes.
You begin the game with three lives and three credits and have ten main levels to tackle. Locations include the desert, a forest and the sea. All levels offer something of interest but dogfighting in the clouds is a highlight. The game steadily gets more difficult as you progress, although it does offer some flexibility in the order the stages are tackled. However, the game can seem quite tough from the start, even on the easy difficulty setting: the opening stage starts off with a few enemies for you to fire at but you quickly find yourself facing attacks from all directions and have to weave around bullets to survive. With plenty of room to manoeuvre it's not actually that troublesome, but it can be a bit overwhelming for an opening level and you may find yourself losing a life. Later levels are genuinely tough with narrow passageways and more difficult enemies. but luckily you can use your money to help out.
Before each stage you have the opportunity to purchase a different aircraft and additional weaponry such as cluster shots, napalm and powerful lasers. You can't afford much when you start but after earning a bit of money from cleared stages you will have to decide whether to upgrade your ship or stick with what you've already got. If you go for the latter option this allows you to try and save up for something even better, but does make things harder for you in the meantime. You should also give some thought to the weapons you buy as some are better suited to certain stages than others. The pilot you pick at the start of the game also offers more to consider than just which portrait you want onscreen, as each has different abilities – for example Greg recovers from damage quicker than the others but benefits least from power-ups.
A good way to earn money is from the optional stages where you attack supply convoys. You swoop down to attack, then turn around and repeat. Despite having a time limit, these stages are largely risk-free and are quite useful if you have your eye on one of the more expensive aircraft.
The highlight of each stage is the end of level bosses. There's quite a range including a Stealth Bomber, a nuclear submarine and a fortress that requires several passes to destroy. They are quite large and impressive looking and prove to be a tough challenge – especially if you had to use up your special weapons to get to them in the first place.
Working out the best way to tackle each stage, taking out the bosses and figuring out a weapon-buying strategy that works for you means the game will keep you occupied for some time – and there are three difficulty levels for you to try out. Should you be some kind of shmup master who can clear the hard mode using only your nipples, a fourth difficulty setting is available (via some button holding) to provide you with the challenge you crave.
The opening level may seem a little too tough but the difficulty curve is otherwise well judged in what is a challenging game. The occasional instances of slowdown are unfortunate but there's not much else to fault with this excellent shooter. With some great music, varied levels, exciting action and interesting bosses, U.N. Squadron is a game that's enjoyable to play through again and again.