Making it business to boycott sensible business practices, Treasure’s commitment to dying consoles once cemented it as Japan’s most revered boutique developer. A practice that gave rise to some of gaming’s most significant works, Radiant Silvergun is a product of both spectacular overachievement and unapologetic showboating.
Once the Sega Saturn’s most sought-after import prize, this Switch debut is actually a port of a port, cloned wholesale from the excellent 2011 Xbox 360 release. Lending itself well to the Switch's control scheme — and excellently so to a Pro Controller — an on-screen HUD details button functions, helping you get comfortable with your ship’s diverse arsenal. The training mode is indispensable and excellently configurable too. Sadly there’s no new content for Switch owners, though; some artwork galleries or similar would have been welcome, as would an in-game quick reset.
It does particularly shine in handheld mode, however, as this is a vertical-scrolling shoot-em-up in a horizontal format. That means you can keep your Flip-Grip shelved and enjoy a broader screen-estate while on the move. Elsewhere, options to customise and sharpen graphical assets are interesting, although the high-resolution settings do render the sprites somewhat plasticky-looking. For our money, pairing the authentic grit of LOW-RES 1 with ALPHA for clean transparencies provides the best overall aesthetic.
Even though director Hiroshi Iuchi cited Irem’s Image Fight as the motivation behind Radiant Silvergun, many consider its disregard for shooting game conventions to almost divorce it from the genre. Radiant Silvergun bravely abandons ideas of power-ups or collectable weaponry, and your ship is instead fitted with three fixed classes of weapon: Vulcan, Homing and Spread. Each has two variations, making for six shot types in total, the strength of each steadily increasing with use. Additionally, a craft-encircling sword allows you to sweep up special pink bullets to trigger a dramatic bomb attack. It's a complex system, even for those familiar with the genre. Knowing which weapon to use at each juncture is half the battle and, in a game riddled with lengthy boss encounters, keeping your resolve is a challenge in itself.
Arcade Mode, built on Sega’s ST-V arcade hardware, is a dazzling fifty-minute epic where chaining colour-coded popcorn enemies and disassembling bosses is imperative to increasing your weapon power. If you don’t get your ship up to spec you’ll struggle to put a dent in later adversaries and end up credit feeding with deflating regularity. Beautiful and brutal, it’s meant to be methodically chipped away at, dissected, memorised, and overcome. You begin with only three continues, but earn more the longer you play. Finishing Arcade Mode is so monumental a task, however, that Treasure’s president Masato Maegawa had to hire super players to debug the game’s final third. To augment this, an original Sega Saturn mode was created for 1998’s home release, here presented as Story Mode. A vastly extended one-and-a-half-hour marathon, palpably bleak and full of pathos, this mode comes retrofitted with a voice-acted and partly animated plot.
Unlike Arcade Mode’s optional stage routes, Story Mode makes you run the full gamut and then some, its irregular stage chronology leaping into the future and flashing back to the past. Where Story Mode differs fundamentally is that it offers no continues. Instead, you can save your game on death and start over with the weapon levels you left off with, as well as an increased number of lives. This masterstroke allows great players to beat the campaign on minimal attempts, and everyone else to enjoy the experience of levelling up, credit by credit until they’re cutting through the game’s early bosses like butter. Superbly conceived, it opens up Treasure’s masterpiece to a much broader audience — one that may not have the patience to chain their way across its serpentine roadmap.
In terms of artistry, Silvergun is one of classic gaming’s most accomplished works, exercising uncanny technical flamboyance on a console with infamously muddled architecture. The action opens with the player craft, a little four-pronged machine of fury, soaring through the skies above a great iron platform. A dramatic, Wagner-esque march rings out as you punch through the first wave of popcorn enemies to confront a giant, cannon-wielding warship. As it falls in flame, a vast and brooding sci-fi landscape is revealed beneath the cloud, spinning magnificently as you descend toward it.
Unlike the single planes of most shoot-em-ups, the scenery evolves through navigable passages, enclosures and obstacles. It’s a seamless, effect-laden gala, comprised of ribbed copper gangways and circuit board imprints. 2D layers are merged with dwarfing 3D industrial estates, all imbued with a luminous palette of light and colour. Far beyond Ikaruga — its stylistically bland spiritual sequel — Radiant Silvergun’s rich, dense forests, starry orbits, and incandescent cities are a shooting game spectacle yet to be bettered.
Where it goes graphically it follows aurally. Composer Hitoshi Sakimoto (Gradius V) iced the cake with a scintillating soundtrack, a grand orchestral accompaniment perfectly married to Iuchi’s ruthless vision. Inspiring synth arrangements ebb and flow into climatic, bell-filled crescendos, while military drum beats and galactic themes footnote boss encounters and atmospheric vistas with supreme theatrical clarity.
The 32-bit era played host to a number of milestones, but few titles can claim such raw expertise — its scale is without peer, and it's the Ben-Hur of the genre, an undeniable master class in the colossal. Where modern games seek to thrill with join-the-dots action, in 1998 Treasure sought to drop jaws on entirely their own terms. Each stage is a journey: you speed up buildings, rocket out of Death Star-style trenches, and, in a particularly memorable confrontation, tackle an enemy assault in evocative retro wire-frame. Its deeply dynamic structuring is a primary example of Treasure’s reckless ambition, arguably to a fault. Pitting you in an inexhaustible series of altercations, needling through bullet fields, laser arrays, speeding chicanes and precarious mazes, its unremitting re-invention renders you breathless.
As if the sheer breadth and intricacy of these hurdles weren’t enough, the scoring system serves up an obsessive-compulsive level of complexity. While it’s possible to stick to, say, red-coloured enemies for a moderate chaining bonus and enough of a weapons boost to see you through, experts can exploit hidden strings and uncover bonus dog icons for a considerable online leaderboard advantage. But however you cut it, chaining equals power — a factor that can’t be ignored if you’re planning to go the distance in Arcade Mode.
In true Treasure fashion, Radiant Silvergun’s boss armada is as undyingly creative as it is imposing, where you can strip their armaments for a ‘perfect’ destruction bonus. As well as subtle tributes to the pantheon of shooting game greats, you’re assailed by everything from robotic reptiles to cylindrical fortresses. Xiga, an anthropomorphic deity that descends in a ring of burning light, is an awe-inspiring finale. A two-screen tall androgynous giant, the pre-battle warning “Be Praying” comes as judicious advice. Accompanied by a haunting choir, the inevitable bullet onslaught is pure, adrenaline-fuelled euphoria.
For some, Silvergun is perhaps layered a little too thickly, and although it endures as one of gaming’s most desirable titles, there is some division regarding its merit. In truth, Iuchi’s labour of love is fairly impractical; a work of stupefying excess, it’s too elaborate to appeal to the shooting game contingent en-masse. That said, slandering the willing pioneer is regressive; those who demand something more conventional have thousands of shooting games to meet their needs. In actuality, the real conflict lies with the gamer rather than the game, the sensibilities of the individual the deciding factor in whether it will ever be properly tackled. Yes, it’s treacle-thick, raucously ostentatious, and very nearly runs away with itself; but, to fall back on a hackneyed phrase, you get out what you put in.
Clarifying Radiant Silvergun’s place in the genre is trivial in light of its achievement. It remains, despite its uncompromising nature, deservedly celebrated. The game wears its hardcore credentials on its sleeve, and its depth in both technical and artistic terms is astonishing. As stimulating and rewarding as it is exhausting, it’s a labour that has transcended not only the genre but the medium to some degree. Regardless of its difficulty — and in that difficulty, its lack of immediate connection — those who learn to fell the game proper can say they truly lived Radiant Silvergun. That’s an experience worth fighting for.