As much as I love them, Capcom's many shooters have been an anomaly in the genre almost from the beginning of its existence. While Compile, Konami, and IREM (the remaining three-quarters of the "big four" of the shmup scene in its heyday) seem content to inflict the same space/sci-fi motif upon the gaming public until the proverbial cows come home, Capcom has historically taken a different approach. Since the 1984 release of the seminal 1942 (a game I still play and love to this day...viva MAME!), Capcom's shooters have generally utilized a more current, militaristic look, with little or no (I'll bet P-38s can create thunderstorms in real life too) technology exhibited that didn't actually exist during the time the game is based in. This angle always appealed to me; while the futuristic approach to shooters can be pretty keen if well-executed (Space Megaforce, Axelay), I'm still getting pretty bloody sick of seeing the same bunch of design concepts recycled in almost every post-Gradius shooter to date. So while the actual action of U.N. Squadron (Area 88 if you're based somewhere where that title makes sense) would lend itself just as well to your standard space-blast-a-thon as any good descendent of R-Type, it's nice to see the same familiar action moved from exotic alien worlds to the battlefields of Earth, and the same old predictable hordes of hostile spaceships replaced by hordes of equally predictable enemy aircraft. Besides, U.N. Squadron is some darn good shooting-- it's just a pity there isn't more of it. (Actually, there was a sequel called Carrier Air Wing in the arcades, emulated on Callus. It had Sean Connery's head in it. Not as many cool planes and weapons though; there's always a tradeoff, I guess.)
Though nine out of ten people wouldn't have known it before the advent of emulators, U.N. Squadron is actually a home version of the arcade game of the same name. As with most Capcom ports though (see Strider), the game play has been changed slightly. The differences here are minimal though, limited to the availability of eight different planes (in the arcade, each pilot came with a set plane and couldn't switch it...pain in the ass, it was), more weapons to buy, and some other minor points in the game play. The story is supposedly based on the Area 88 anime (hence the name), but that's about all I know on that end. You don't need to know the story to enjoy the game though (but if anybody does, I'd be interested in hearing it. Specifically, I'm curious as to the significance of the strange Sephiroth lookalike with the Mansonish "X" carved in his forehead who briefs you before each mission, as well as the weapon dealer who looks like Jed from "The Beverly Hillbillies"); suffice it to say that you have to choose one of three pilots and negotiate a bunch of nicely varied, enemy-swamped levels to thwart a mysterious entity known only as Project Four. The pilots each have their own set of strengths and weaknesses: Shin Kazama is fairly average all-around, and somehow manages to fly pretty well even though his (rather girlish) hair is terminally obscuring one eye. Mickey Scymon is a weapons expert, able to "use many weapons simultaneously" (I have no idea how to do this, mind you), but he bruises easily. Greg Gates, despite looking like a Speed Racer escapee, recovers from damage the fastest and is probably the best all-around choice. Each pilot starts out with the venerable F8E Crusader aircraft, but spare cash gained from blowing up large enemy installations can be used to purchase more advanced planes, all the way up to powerhouses like the A-10a Thunderbolt (with handy dual cannon) and YF-23 Stealth Ray.
All the authentic aircraft may make UN Squadron sound like a flight sim, but nothing could be further from the case- this is your standard, unsophisticated, fly-to-the-right-and-kill-things shooter to the core. As I've spent the last few sentences harping on, all the different planes look reasonably similar to their real-life counterparts (and having gone through a "military phase" in elementary school, I would know), but that's where the realism ends. Every plane except one is equipped with a forward-mounted vulcan cannon (the Thunderbolt has a second one aimed downward at 45 degrees as well), which can be powered up about six times (grab the little capsules the red enemies drop...same as it's always been in Capcom shooters) until it's wider and more powerful. In addition, the money earned from killing things ('cos you're a mercenary, see?) can be put toward secondary weapons. These range from the piddling Bomb to the painful Mega Crush (a satellite that rains lasers down on the playfield and does massive damage to all enemies, but, oddly enough, not to your plane), and vary according to plane (some planes can equip more ground-based weapons, some handle more aerial weapons, and the awesome F-200 can use 'em all). Annoyingly, only one "pack" (containing a set number of rounds) of each available weapon can be equipped per stage, meaning that you'll always be essentially short on ammo no matter how much funding is available. The stage selection process is interesting: as certain targets are destroyed, more of the map (and more targets) is revealed, but there are also moving squadrons of aircraft and even a nuclear sub that will eventually attack the base and force mandatory combat if not wiped out beforehand. Finally, there are convoys everywhere that can be raided for a bit of extra cash if you're coming up just short on that new Tomcat. Once all the plane, stage, and weapon selection is out of the way, the action (finally) begins. The different locales of UN Squadron range from a 1941-ish air battle in the clouds to the site of a massive forest fortress; later levels even include enemy-choked caves (y'ever try to fly an F-14 through a cave? It ain't easy...).
For a game released at roughly the same time as Gradius III, UN Squadron is a very refined product. All the backgrounds are exceptionally detailed and feature up to five levels of parallax (yeah, I sat there and counted too. Life? What's that?) in some places. The forest stage even has explodable trees that the enemies can use for cover; a very nice touch (hint: don't even think about this level without a Thunderbolt). The enemies are generally detailed but small, with the exception of the bosses (who are detailed, huge, cartoony, seriously pissed off, and in possession of the kind of firepower that Middle Eastern governments dream about in their spare time). The graphical style seems to be borrowed right from 1941: standard airborne technology melds fluidly with some wild, almost Escher-ish (check out the "pregnant" V-22-ish monstrosity in the last stage...doesn't seem feasible to me, but I'm no engineer after all) sci-fi-induced bosses to create an interesting overall effect. Miraculously, there's not more than a touch of slowdown despite all this, even though the action gets every bit as hairy as that in the terminally pokey Gradius III. The rest of the game's graphics (interface and the like) are nice but unspectacular, and the silly post-mission graphic of your plane spiraling toward the screen amid triumphant music and a quote from your pilot that ranges from standard gloating ("You don't mess with the best!") to laughable pigeon-English ("So long! Enjoy your desert graves!") is a neat little addition. Nice as they are though, the graphics show their age a bit when examined alongside newer, high-tech efforts like Space Megaforce and Axelay. Even so, the simple, clean look of UN Squadron appeals to me, and will probably appeal to others as well.
Sonically, UN Squadron again opts for the simplistic-yet-catchy approach; the game's straightforward MIDI tunes aren't going to win any awards anytime soon, but they get the job done and occasionally get stuck in my head (the first aerial level, in particular, has a really catchy little ditty attached to it). The sounds are, as per usual, nothing special, but I do like the noise the game makes when your plane gets vaporized for some reason.
In keeping with the pattern we've seen so far, UN Squadron's game play is unspectacular, but always rock-solid. Controls are as simple as they should be: the ship's movement is nice and tight (important, as there are no speed-ups to be had), and any three buttons can be configured to fire the vulcans, discharge a special weapon, and select a special weapon to use with the other button. Minor gripe with the cannon: if you hold down the "fire" button, your vulcan will fire continuously for awhile, then stop dead without warning. Since shooters like this one are really meant played with an arcade-style stick (I use a 15"x10"x2" monstrosity called the "Championship Joystick" for this one) without the benefit of rapid-fire (half the fun is pounding madly on the button for hours on end), only people used to holding down the fire button continuously in shooters (G3 and Axelay demand it, really) will be affected by this, and a turbo controller will correct it either way.
The damage system is mildly interesting: there's an energy bar at the bottom, but one whack from any projectile or enemy will cause it to drop to zero immediately. After a few seconds, it'll go back up (but not all the way: lasting damage varies by collision type), but another hit from anything is fatal while it's drained and flashing. Again, Greg Gates is a good choice to take advantage of this system; he usually won't be vulnerable for too long after the temporary invincibility granted by the hit wears off. Even though you've only really got to avoid catching it twice in a row, UN Squadron is by no means an easy game: with the exception of the catatonic first stage, the scrolling is fast, the enemies are plentiful (and NASTY - the AI in this game has no decency...they'll slam right into your little jet without a second thought and do serious damage), and the bosses are, well, all of the above. Another neat touch: three of the bigger bosses in the game take up more than one screen-- your plane scrolls slowly over them, then turns around at the end for another "pass", continuing until there's nothing left but a crater. Oddly, the variable difficulty level doesn't seem to affect game play much: I finished the game on Hard with about the same amount of headache as on Easy, but it's tricky no matter what. Even so, with only ten proper levels, many of which are pretty short, UN Squadron won't challenge the devout the way something like Space Megaforce will, and there's really no greater challenge or other reason to keep coming back after you've finished it once or twice (Axelay at least has that nasty Hard level). It's a shame too, because UN Squadron looks nice and plays better, especially for the time it was released.
Don't let the lack of real replay value or weird anime theme throw you; UN Squadron is great fun...for awhile. Granted, I still pick mine up occasionally, but the drive to get to the end just isn't there anymore, which is what ultimately keeps UN Squadron from joining Space Megaforce and Axelay in the highest order of 16-bit shooters. Even so, Capcom did a nice job: the authentic planes, squeaky-clean graphics, cool "primary targets", and somehow compelling audio all paint an appealing picture. At current prices (I paid $10), UN Squadron is worth owning, but try not to pay a whole lot more than that.