Every time I walk into a video game store and see a game based on a Nickelodeon cartoon, a little part me gets sadder and sadder. Not because it's cluttering the market with mindless drivel that kids (or, rather, their parents) will buy over decent titles, although that bothers me too; it's more that somewhere, talented programmers, artists, and designers are stuck making games forced down their throats by producers, all creativity drained in order to meet the pressures of focus group testing. I want to meet these people - I want to see what creative video games they could theoretically unleash on the world if they weren't being tied down to make such intolerable crap.
And that's why the guys at the German development team Shin'en must be some of the luckiest bastards on the planet. There's no doubt these guys are completely and utterly passionate about shoot-em-ups, and it shows through in their Gameboy Advance shoot-em-up Iridion II. Released in the US as a bargain game and still tragically overlooked, Iridion II mashes together some of the best concepts the genre has ever seen and combines it with some of the most amazing graphics and music on the GBA - and creates one incredible shooter.
Some of the aspects of Iridion II:
For no justifiable reason, the intro focuses on a young Japanese girl picking flowers in the field, before she's surprised by your spaceship in the air. Your commander is the same bald headed guy you see in practically every mech anime out there.
It's Axelay 2! Almost...
You know, Konami promised us Axelay 2 like a decade ago - and here's Shin'en to pick up the slack. The angled overhead perspective is the exact same, and the terrain scales in the same way. We love you, Mode 7! Some of the weapons are even ripped right from Axelay.
Gradius power-up system
Iridion II takes the basics of the Gradius power-up system and does some interesting things with it. You start out each level with just a weak gun - which rather sucks - but when you get your first power-up, you can choose from one of six different weapons, each of which can be upgraded. If you've already got an upgraded weapon and don't want anything else, you can use the power-up to regenerate part of your shield.
Just like R-Type, you can charge up your main weapon to unleash a more powerful attack. Since autofire is turned on (and can't be shut off) this is activated by double tapping the fire button and holding it down. It's slightly awkward, but it works.
They don't have adorable names like the "bits" from R-Type, but these little satellites can be positioned at the front or sides of your ship to absorb enemy fire.
The backgrounds are actually short video clip looped to infinity. It's tough to describe without seeing it in motion, but it looks awesome cool. They tend to give each level a bit of a repetetive feel, but the enemy placement and terrain keep it fresh.
The Amiga had the most amazing sound synth of any early 90s computer. Clearly the developers were fans of its MOD format, as the music samples and style are very similar to what you'd find on the European techno scene at the time, and even close to the champion of the Amiga, Turrican.
And that's not even all of the cool stuff. Considering most shooters hit the ceiling at about six levels, Iridion II tosses over fifteen levels your way. There's even a level select that divides the game into a few different tiers and let you pick which way you want to go.
There are enough difficulty levels so that a novice can at least enjoy the game, but pros can get a workout. However, said pros might be disappointed with the bizarre scoring system, which penalizes you for shooting too much. Also vaguely disappointing is the lack of a save system. Iridion II doles out passwords for resuming gameplay, but high scores are completely wiped.
Even if Iridion II were one just like one of those many derivative shooters we got back in the Genesis and TG16 days, it would be a breath of fresh air, considering the amount of shooters we get these days. But it's more than just that - it's a homage to everything that made the genre great. If this were the last shmup ever made, then at least we could say that shmups died with a bang. But thankfully, some die hards still carry enough to weight to keep pumping them out, albeit rarely. Here's hoping Shin'en is still around to supply us with more awesomeness.
This is actually a sequel (that numeral II might have clued you in) to the Gameboy Advance launch game Iridion 3D. While it was a gorgeous game, it really was more of a tech demo for the GBA than anything worth playing - you had an awkward behind-the-ship view that made it hard to shoot anything. Thankfully, Shin'en put that technology to use and created a game worth playing their next shot. Also check out Nanostray for the DS - the weapon system isn't quite as deep, and using the touch screen to select weapons is a bit lame, but MAN is it pretty.