Review: R-Type (Master System)

R-Type is an iconic shoot-em-up from Irem released in the 1980's. It was originally released in the arcades in 1987, and ported to the Sega Master System a year later. While R-Type was ported to many computer systems of it's day, it was never released on the Master System's main rival, original Nintendo.

The only other console release is the (excellent) TurboGrafx-16 version. Though it really doesn't matter, there is a story. R-Type takes place in the 22nd century, and your goal is to defeat the Bydo empire. You control the R-9a "Arrowhead" space craft. The action takes place on the horizontal plane, and your goal is to clear through hordes of alien crafts through 8 levels. At the end of each level is a boss battle.

The level design in R-Type is terrific. Rather than each stage being the high-tech squeaky clean look ripped out of a Star Trek film, the levels are very organic and somewhat dirty. It still feels like the future, but the reds, greens, and browns are a nice change to blue and silver of other similar titles. Many of the backgrounds and level features are organic, rather than mechanic.

Each of the 8 levels is very different from each other. What I found most impressive in R-Type are the backgrounds. The limited hardware offered during the 8-bit generation often meant solid color backgrounds with limited detail (like the recently reviewed Psycho Fox). However, R-type features detailed backgrounds that help fit the organic feel of the game.

The enemy swarms are interesting enough. Each level has a few of it's own unique enemies, but most are repeated throughout. They very from giant crab looking monsters to robotic ships. Some enemies are made of many segments that must be destroyed individually. Most impressive are the bosses. The bosses are all HUGE taking up at least half the screen.

What makes R-Type so iconic is the game play. The main gimmick is the force. The force is an orb like device that assists you during the game. After killing certain enemies, and orb will be left behind that you can collect. After collecting it (by flying into it), the force arrives and shoots when you shoot. He can also lock onto the front and back of your ship. When docked, he acts as a shield, absorbing some of the fire coming from the enemies. Additionally, when locked, it increases your fire power. When you undock it, it flies forward (or backwards). You can use this to put the force in strategic locations that your ship can't reach. It is almost required to beat the bosses.

In addition to the force are speed power ups. The blue orb grants the reflecting laser weapon. The laser reflects off the environment and can be used to reach enemies that are not right in front of your ship. The red orb is the anti-air weapon. It shoots large ring like projectiles. Finally, the orange orb grants the anti-land weapon. This flame like projective shoots straight up and down and then burns along the ceiling and floor killing everything in it's path.

If that wasn't enough, you can collect up to two bits. The bits hover just above (and below, if you acquire a second one) the R-9a offering additional fire power. There is a bonus missile weapon that fires in conjunction with all other weapons that seeks out enemies when you fire. If you can avoid dieing, you can collect a serious amount of fire power.

What makes R-Type so fun is the excellent level design. First, be prepared to die. A lot. R-Type is a challenging game that requires a lot of time to master. There is a lot of trial and error involved to discover the correct path to make it through the level. You only have 3 lives and 3 continues, so you will play through the game many times to reach the upper levels. After a while, the first couple of levels become a breeze, as you memorize enemy patterns, item placements and boss techniques. The game is so fun that playing through the game over and over is a joy, rather than a chore.

I believe R-Type pushes the Sega Master System hardware to the limit. Every last pixel on the screen is taken up by detail. There is no wasted space on the screen. The trade off for this detail is flicker. The complex enemies, and shots, flicker about the screen like no other game I have ever played. However, I never found it to hinder the game play in the slightest. I always knew where the enemies were and the flicker never resulted in any cheap deaths. Still, it is obvious the game is a little too much for Sega's little 8-bit machine. If it wasn't for the flicker, I would give the graphics a 10.

Despite only reviewing a couple of Sega Master System games thus far, I own and have played quite a few. For the most part, the sound always seem lacking. Until now, I just thought the sound hardware was seriously inferior to what the original Nintendo has to offer. R-Type has changed all that. This sound track kicks some serious ass. Each level has it's own unique track that is not only long and technically complex, but a real treat to listen to. Each weapon also has it's own unique sound, with the laser sounding especially lasery.

I have never been a big fan of shmups and own very few. R-type is a great way to ease yourself into the genre. Shooters are about memorizing the environment, item placement, and knowing when to use those items. In a way, it is a lot like playing modern First Person Shooters (FPS). If you have never appreciated shmups before, give this game a try.

R-Type showcases the Master System's controller shortcomings. The d-pad on these controllers is a weird square shape, rather than the tradition plus shape. Many times I found myself going in a diagonal direction rather than straight forward or backwards. This is a big hindrance because R-Type requires a lot of precision during some of the levels. I would recommend using the superior Genesis controller (which is compatible with the Master System).

Overall, R-Type is a fantastic game. The graphics push Sega's 8-bit wonder system to it's limit, and often to it's knees. The soundtrack is excellent, rivaling many 16-bit games. The game play and level design are truly head and shoulders above other games of the era. Hardcore shmup fans and newbies a like will appreciate this game. This is a no brainer.

Graphics 9/10 - Lots of detail, and flicker
Sound 9/10 - Excellent
Game play 9/10 - Unforgiving difficulty
Overall 9/10 - One of the best Master System games, period