Version tested: Xbox 360
The tragedy is that it became the punch line to a joke. Jokes, even. The one about Sega's failing video game hardware business, for example, and how the only truly exceptional title for its Saturn - a PlayStation-beating shoot-'em-up, no less! - was released two years after the console war was already lost. Oh, Sega, hapless Sega!
Or the one about the men prepared to pay astronomical prices for fashionable imports: a £100+ eBay price tag evidence not so much of the game's inherent quality as of the demented collector mentality, where scarcity + demand + competitiveness pushes prices beyond all reason. Look at those guys! You could buy 150 copies of Angry Birds for that money!
But the true joke is that Radiant Silvergun should have been punched by tragedy. Its pseudo-successor, vertical shoot-'em-up Ikaruga, may have enjoyed some vindication for its forebear's misfortunes, fast becoming a cult classic and making its way around the world. But the Japan-only Radiant Silvergun is the better game, bringing together all of the themes of boutique developer Treasure's oeuvre into one glorious, tightknit experience that invites long-term study.
It combines the colour-coded puzzling of Silhouette Mirage with the weapon mixology of Gunstar Heroes and the giant multi-part bosses of Alien Soldier in a way that transcends tribute, instead making a bold, singular statement of its own. It is mesmerising, fascinating and without question one of the only games of the 32-bit era that is still relevant today. And it's now available in a new version on Xbox Live Arcade.
Radiant Silvergun also defies neat categorisation. Aesthetically, it's an orthodox shoot-'em-up. But it evolves the genre in fascinating ways that, perhaps due to the dearth of companies still working in the area, have never been borrowed or stolen. First in its fulsome inventory of innovation is the fact that there are no weapon pick-ups in the game. Rather, full use of all seven primary weapons is pressed into your hands from the offset.
The palette of attacks is based on three 'primary' weapons: the Vulcan (a tight upward stream of fiery bullets), Homing (a splay of weaker green bubbles that zip to the closest enemy) and Spread (two brilliant white explosions that fire off at 45-degree angles, the most powerful of the three base attacks). Combine two of these attacks and you get a new one that mixes the properties of its components.
Strike all three at the same time and your ship swipes a tiny plasma sword out in front of it. This weapon has the capacity to absorb pink bullets and, when you've collected ten of these, can trigger a giant, scissor-like attack that swipes across the screen, rendering your ship momentarily invulnerable.
Each of the base weapons upgrade, not through floating pick-ups, but through usage, earning experience points with each takedown and 'levelling up' in turn. Focus solely on the Vulcan, for example, and it will hit harder and wider as the game progresses, leaving the two neglected attacks weak.
While seven weapons may seem like overkill, Treasure's skill is in making each one perfectly suited to a particular situation, and very often the mind game is in choosing the right tool for the right micro-scenario. What initially appears overwhelming soon becomes second nature, and Treasure's fine balancing of the weapons in the game outclasses any top-flight contemporary FPS you care to mention.
Next, every enemy in the game is color-coded red, blue or yellow. While it's possible to ignore this element of the game entirely, score attack players must master the order in which they take down enemies in order to bank the largest number of points. Shoot a red enemy followed by a blue enemy followed by a yellow one and you earn a significant points bonus. Alternatively, chain together enemies of the same colour and the point rewards scale indefinitely until the chain is broken, each set of three adding a multiplayer that can push your score into the stratosphere (levelling your weapons much more quickly as it does so).
As such, the best way to play is often in knowing which enemies to leave alone. It is perhaps the only shoot-'em-up where restraint is rewarded as much as offense and, when it all clicks into place, the sheer ingenuity of the level design - essentially a kind of puzzle - comes into dizzying focus.
The final innovation comes in the form of the boss battles that punctuate each of the game's five lengthy stages. These hulking spaceships come in all shapes, sizes and behaviours, from a giant monkey that swings and rolls its way around the screen, through a space eagle that flings bullets like feathers, to the jaw-dropping final boss, a running colossus around which your ship spins and dives (incidentally, the inspiration for the final boss in Tetsuya Mizuguchi's Rez).
The skill is in taking these foes apart section by section. While it's possible to aim for the heart for a fast completion, you earn far more points for defeating every component of an enemy, which in turn levels your weapons more quickly. Every aspect of the game's design works together in concert. It is a master class in game design.
These systems would mean little if the game they underpinned was lacklustre. Radiant Silvergun instead delivers one of the most memorable journeys not only in the genre, but across the medium, its pacing balancing set-piece fights with lulls in the action to take in the rich, vibrant 3D world that passes below your ship.
The port to Xbox 360 is a good one, Treasure including far more options for players to tinker with under the hood than exist in the dipswitch settings of the original ST-V arcade board, even. However, the game's rich control scheme works poorly with the Xbox controller.
In the arcade, just three buttons are used to control the game, with combinations of those buttons triggering the secondary weapons. For the port, Treasure has mapped each of the weapons to a different button on the Xbox pad, making it too easy to trip over yourself in play. As such, the option to completely reconfigure the pad is welcome.
Play with an arcade stick or a fight pad (itself based on the Sega Saturn controller) and Radiant Silvergun feels much more comfortable, although there will inevitably be some learning curve for newcomers.
Since Radian Silvergun was released before the days of widescreen televisions, Treasure has been forced to include screen guttering, where it places extra HUD information such as a move list and an instant readout of the current level of your weapons. These elements can all be switched off and the screen stretched and reconfigured. There are numerous filtering options to smooth out the polygons and eight different wallpapers to use for the borders.
The game is broken into two key modes: arcade and story (which has short in-game cut-scenes, for the first time subtitled for non-Japanese speakers). Each mode can be played freeplay (with unlimited continues) or as score attack (with no continues), with the latter option the only one that feeds into the online leaderboards. The result is an assured, comprehensive port, even allowing players to upload their replays for a mixture of showboating and instruction.
As with so much of Treasure's output, Radiant Silvergun stands alone. There is nothing else like it. Distinctiveness doesn't guarantee quality but, in this case, it's backed by radiant brilliance.
It's a game that inspires strategising, play after play encouraging you to tweak your game plan in order to squeeze more score from a certain section, all the while building muscle memory and skill. And if you want to play it as a straight shoot-'em-up, hammering through continues without bothering too much with the rabbit hole of strategy, the spectacle is quite like any other.
It may not have the visual class of its younger cousin Ikaruga, but there is no other 32-bit era game that shines like this today; a true classic that is available to the world at last. And the scoffers? Well, the joke is finally on them.
9 / 10