The wail of an air-raid siren breaks the pitch-black silence of Einhänder’s opening moments. Before the lights fade up to reveal a futuristic spacecraft streaking sideways across another Blade Runner cityscape, a German voice speaks with robotic non-emotion: “Achtung!” At this point the reason for the alert is unclear but, to any gamer aware of the game’s curious backstory, it’s the last in a great many warning signs to precede this most unlikely of shoot ’em ups.
Rarely has a pitch for a new game seemed so loaded with potential for ruin. While recipes for disaster usually contain at least one good ingredient subsequently turned bad by the others, almost every raw component of Squaresoft’s first and only horizontal shooter tasted of catastrophe. As Japan’s premier producer of roleplaying games, its stock lavish, expansive, narrative-laden epics are the antithesis to the scrolling arcade twitch fix. The techniques employed to compel a player into each type of game’s depths are so dissimilar as to require entirely different rule-sets and design methodologies. So that the company would choose to put its most talented RPG designers to work on a game in a genre of which almost none of them had any experience is nothing short of extraordinary. And that the game turned out to be one of the finest examples of that genre defies belief.
Hulking multi-part enemies fill the screen, their animations fluid, robust and believable. Understated night-time skies are stamped with the momentary brilliance of crooked branch lightning, and dark foreboding backgrounds add to the drama of the game’s defiant, gigantic 3D objects and fearsome bosses. The camera wheels and dives, shifting viewpoint from sideways-on to three-quarter isometric angles, injecting each level with an exhilarating choreography of perspectives. Sometimes these views scroll through an area, forcing your play style to keep pace with game’s tempo, then the next moment it locks still, enemies arriving in waves on your fixed location.
At one point you’ll battle a giant train-mounted cannon, taking the machinery apart piece by piece. At the end of the encounter there’s no screen-shaking explosion; your ship simply flies on past, leaving the train careering off in the other direction, wounded beyond all use. This moment of giant-felling is then juxtaposed with an encounter with a fast and feisty tank, jumping from faraway layers of parallax into the foreground and then back out again, its rhythms calling to mind Treasure’s finest work in defining safe and vulnerable enemy spaces within any given vista. From all this it’s clear that Squaresoft had worked on Sony’s machine more closely than almost any other thirdparty developer, and that the lessons learned from games such as Final Fantasy VII provided the technical bedrock upon which Einhänder’s towering graphical achievements, and nuanced, interesting storyline, were built. Indeed, the game stands today as a marvel of technical engineering and imaginative showboating matched only by the marvel of the fact its creators were rookies working on a system largely shunned by other shoot ’em up makers.
While Sony’s PlayStation had, by the time of Einhänder’s release, already won the wider format war, its shoot ’em up losses to Sega’s 2D powerhouse, the Saturn, were well known by all. The DonPachi games, Battle Garegga, Soukyugurentai, Strikers 1945 and Radiant Silvergun, along with a raft of others, had long secured the Saturn’s reputation as the genre’s new-found promised land. The hardware’s ability to deliver exquisite parallax scrolling, gigantic spites and fiery 2D particle effects drew developers away from Sony’s more mainstream, 3D-focused system. So Squaresoft’s choice of platform, while no doubt dictated by contractual obligations to Sony, nevertheless went against the grain and the decision to render the game in sumptuous 3D (albeit with ship control running along traditional 2D planes) seemed to further put the project in jeopardy.
One moment you’re smashing through neon signs in a future city, the glass from each shattering into falling shards, the next you’re descending vertically into the belly of a ruined underground city. Here, in the blackness, long-tailed enemy droids flit from place to place, beams from their head-mounted search lamps groping through the murk for your craft like deep-sea anglerfish. Every scene in the game is tightly directed, its ideas clear and defined and its 3D execution rock solid.
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