Review: Electronic Arts R-Type
For Electronic Arts, the experience of porting Irem's classic shooter R-Type ($2) to the iPhone and iPod touch must have been sort of like an art gallery undertaking the restoration of a painting only a step or two less famous than the Mona Lisa: R-Type is so well-known and respected by classic gamers that anything less than a perfect translation would have been cause for anger -- an emotion that fans of numerous Sega and Namco games have felt as their favorites have repeatedly been botched in the App Store. So it's with great joy that we report to you today that this version of R-Type is excellent: it's great enough in everything from aesthetics to controls and pricing to be worth buying today, despite the fact that the underlying game is 23 years old. It is the very, very rare iPhone/iPod touch port that both fully lives up to the quality of the original game, and still matters enough 23 years after its release to have been worth the effort to republish.
R-Type established a simple but brilliant game concept that subsequently proved both influential and difficult for others to replicate: you take control of a spaceship in a side-scrolling environment and fire an energy weapon that can either spit out pea-sized balls of semi-destructive power, or be held down to charge up a powerful beam weapon that cuts through multiple enemies at once. Added to the mix are power-ups, but not just any power-ups—if you luck out, you acquire and enhance Force, a semi-intelligent pod that floats around the level shooting things for you, or attaches to your ship to give it either a front or rear shield that also can fire three types of powerful weapons. Yellow power-ups let Force fire snaking flames upwards and downwards, blue gives it diagonally-firing lasers, and red transforms Force into a powerful helix-shaped ring laser gun. Other power ups, including tiny orb-shaped “bits” that float alongside your ship, speed and missile weapons, are also scattered around, all dispensed by spaceships that move quickly on and off the screen, disappearing if you don’t destroy them and collect their bounty.
Understanding R-Type’s game system balance is critical to appreciating its brilliance. The game scrolls slowly but deliberately, enemies appear first in ones and twos and then in clusters from multiple directions, and you’re constantly forced to choose between dodging, shooting peas, charging beams, or—if you have Force—pulling it close or firing it far to help you fight the enemies. You lose Force and your other power-ups every time you die, so your chances of success on a first attempt increase if you can manage to stay alive.
No description of R-Type would be complete without mentioning the Bydo, alien and robot attackers that draw inspiration from H.R. Giger’s classic designs for the movie Alien and Japanese robo-manga of the era. R-Type’s boss designs are some of the very best of the 1980’s, huge, menacing, and slimy in a way that only later graphics hardware technology could improve upon in detail. There are multiple weak points that need to be located and exploited in giant aliens and spacecraft; you need to figure out where to be and what sort of guns to be firing at a given moment, typically through trial and error.
It is this element of R-Type—the trial and error challenge—that is legendary enough to frequently eclipse the game’s many other positive elements. Gamers used to swatting down waves of paper tigers in shooting games will discover in R-Type’s eight levels a series of puzzles that demand both thought and skill: where can I be safe when a giant alien snake circles the screen, or when a massive battleship is floating up and down, threatening to smash into me? Given that you die if you take one hit, and only have a handful of ships in reserve, there’s plenty of opportunity for frustration, but unlike the “bullet hell” and less balanced attempts at overwhelming players that came in R-Type’s wake, there’s rarely a feeling of being overwhelmed—it’s just a sense of being outclassed. Virtually every iPhone and iPod touch shooter developer could benefit from playing R-Type all the way through and understanding why Irem’s balance worked so well here, and with relatively few critical changes across so many sequels.
Electronic Arts’ handling of the R-Type port wisely addresses almost every concern a modern iPhone/iPod touch gamer might raise about a port of any arcade classic, let alone one as control-dependent as this one. There are three control schemes, best being the default touch and virtual button version that doesn’t hurt the game’s presentation much at all, giving lefties and righties the chance to change where swipes register if they want. We’ve disliked many control schemes like this one in other games, but it’s been calibrated properly here, and just works. A tilt scheme is also available, as is a virtual arcade machine mode that reduces and slants the play area in favor of an on-screen directional pad and buttons that look sort of cool but didn’t work better in practice than the default system. For casual gamers, the game’s difficulty is optionally reduced with unlimited ships and autofire—hold the button only to charge the beam when you need it—plus unlimited continues, while an “insane difficulty” level is there for masochists. These options make R-Type controllable and accessible without limiting your ability to experience it as it originally was, should you want the full challenge.
It bears mention that R-Type truly is “as it originally was.” This isn’t the relatively well-known but not quite perfect NEC TurboGrafx-16 port, the lesser Sega Master System version, or one of the myriad personal computer translations; it is the arcade game, with classic chip-styled arcade music and 1987 vintage arcade graphics, scaled perfectly to fit the iPhone and iPod touch screens but not upgraded; the ambition of its art and limitations of the early 16-bit arcade hardware are both evident here. EA has bookended the arcade title with an updated, clean UI and some really nice music that sets the stage for the game—raising expectations for what’s to come only a little due to its modern instrumentation and polish—and provided a stage selection screen that needs to be unlocked piece by piece by successfully completing the levels. It’s a dignified approach to presenting the game without falling into the obsessive fanboy-style museum materials that actually appeared in some of Irem’s own later R-Type console releases, cluttering screens with pages of numbered sketches to click on. EA made the smarter choice to dispense with this chaff and focus on just putting out the game at a low price.
In short, R-Type for the iPhone and iPod touch is a respectful, proper port of a truly classic video game at a price that is very reasonable given the title’s age and “famous but not that famous” pedigree; it lacks only for a dedicated iPad mode, but plays fine as an 2X upscaled title on the larger screen. Having purchased numerous R-Type games over the years—including both well-known and extremely obscure sequels (R-Type Leo, anyone?)—we’re thrilled that this translation turned out so well on a platform that is at least as frequently known for control-related issues and late bug fixes as for games that arrive working right straight out of the gate. Our sincere hope is that EA will rapidly take on the task of porting and publishing the other R-Type titles, giving each the sort of care that this one obviously received. While shooters like this game aren’t going to appeal to everyone, we consider this to be one of the masterworks of the genre, and would recommend it to any gamer interested in understanding the value of balanced gameplay and thoughtful challenges in a shooter.