Whereas Raiden was set far in the future, the Raiden Fighters have a more contemporary setting with lots of propeller planes, a few fighter jets, water-based battleships and tanks instead of spaceships. However, it's a struggle to think of current weapon systems that can spew out bullets in pretty patterns, remembering to leave small gaps for planes that only take damage at a small hit point, but hey, "contemporary", not "realistic", thankfully. Sprites, backgrounds and animation are all top quality, lovingly created. The locales and enemy types all gel together into a cohesive, natural environment that leaves the player free to get on with the job in hand and remarkably makes it easy to spot where attention should be focused most to survive – for this the designers should be applauded.
One of the areas where the Raiden Fighters set themselves apart is in the choice of attack planes. There's a boggling array to choose from, all with different speeds, attack power, defensive shield quality and fire rates, as well as some secret ships. There is little attempt to balance these choices, with some of them being far more useful than others, but the excellent Live scoreboards take this into account via a plane-based and overall ratings. This attention to detail permeates every aspect of the compilation. For example, as well as choice of plane, stage ordering can also be determined – this is fantastic because it allows you to gain experience across all the levels rather than rarely seeing the final stages while obsessing over that 1cc.
All three games have a similar look, but get gradually more detailed. Some of the planes and their weapons systems are repeated through the whole series. Whilst the basic mechanics are similar, there are details in each game that necessitate different styles of play.
Once in the fray, the first mechanic to get to grips with is the choice of power-ups. Missile or laser blocks get left behind by certain vanquished foes. Picking these up may power you up in general, switching to the latest weapon type picked, or on some planes, it might power up either type in parallel, using missiles and lasers. Additionally, drone units can be collected that further increase firepower and also crucially soak up bullets for a while until eventually being destroyed.
After that it all starts to get a little complex and it would be impossible to go into a full mechanic run-down in a review, but the great news is that the Raiden Fighters series caters for those new to shmups as well as old hands via a ranking system. Essentially, the better you are the harder they come at you and vice versa. Making it to the final stage without dying brings a massive onslaught – beautiful to behold, but tough as nails even on the default difficulty level. However, take a few hits and the stages along the way will become a bit more manageable. It's a perfect system, making the games accessible to all.
A couple of notable mentions are the medal system and the bullet grazing. The medals dropped gradually increase in score when certain criteria are met, or depending on the game type. The medals can even be turned off for an easier-to-follow scoring experience! This really does try and cater for everyone. Bullet grazing means milking bullets for higher scores by getting close to them, but not dying; risk-and-reward ahoy! It's similar to Shikigami No Shiro II and the Psyvariar games in that each plane has its own specific hit point and size, leaving the rest of the plane safe to nuzzle up next to enemy fire and get all comfortable, watching the scores rack up.
What we have here is a variety of game mechanics that can either be studied to death by the experienced player, including secret fairies and other creatures that you may or may not want to save depending on a number of factors, or which can all be ignored, leaving you free to get on with the job of just completing all stages with as few credits as possible. This is perfect because it means that newcomers can concentrate on enjoying the shooting action and also that rather than stagnating with familiarity and age, it actually improves as more opportunities for seriously high scores open themselves up.
As ports go, it's also a little special. There is a fantastic option list for the visuals, including massively advanced filters, for fake scanlines (and not just one type, but a variety!), screen colours, zoom, backgrounds and display type (horizontal, tate). It's very impressive. Not least because one of these games on its own would have been worth the asking price but here there are three to play with. Combine this with the nigh-on perfect gameplay, and you have an awesome total package. Essential.
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