“ Manufacturer: Square Enix / Genre: Action „
In many respects, 1997 marked the year Squaresoft really hit the big time as a premier games developer. They finally opted to go worldwide with their Final Fantasy franchise - from which the much-celebrated seventh instalment would go on to sell by the shed-load, helping to introduce the RPG genre to a new audience following years of excellent though strictly niche-market affairs on the Super Nintendo. Their other game of note during the period was, rather improbably, a horizontally-scrolling 2D shoot 'em up.
Passed over in Europe though released in the US in 1998, the humorously-named Einhänder (German for "one-hander") is, in effect, an homage to the shoot 'em ups of old, albeit with a significantly snazzier coat of paint. Set in 2245, the excuse given for this retro firefight is that the Earth and the Moon are at war (no joke) and that you are fighting for the latter; in your first and most likely last mission, piloting the ship from which the game gets its name.
Einhänder is immediately alluring; plunging you into a dystopian existence that mixes the post-apocalyptic scenes of The Terminator with the clinical, dark cityscapes of BladeRunner, and to largely good effect. Whilst it plays much like any other game of this ilk, its penchant for cinematic flair is regularly in evidence - though the controls never change (sprightly and responsive as they are), the camera occasionally detaches from the traditional side-on perspective. The first boss is the most evident example of this, as it is fought with the camera almost behind your ship. It's a clever effect that isn't overused, and is an ideal vehicle showing off some of the games more outlandish designs.
Visually it's as good as you'd expect from Squaresoft. The pseudo-3D landscapes are stunningly stylish, packed as they are with reams of detail; both the crafts and the environments have a fantastic level of detail attributed to them. The enemies have several damage spots, meaning they can be damaged in different ways and unlike many shoot 'em ups of the time, they don't simply disappear in a weak puff of fire or smoke once destroyed - they disintegrate accordingly and there are some major explosions on show. The designs are unusual and yet from the smallest fighter up to the most epic of bigger-than-the-screen boss contraptions, they all feel at home in the futuristic, mecha-like environment. At certain points, scenery can also be wrecked for the sake of bonus points - one of the games most memorable moments is a passage early on where you get to shoot down a host of neon signs. Another impressive point to note technically is the conspicuous lack of loading periods - after each end-of-level boss; you are awarded your score for the stage, though the ship never disappears from view, meaning the great majority of the games levels are linked together seamlessly.
If I'm to pick at straws, the visuals are tainted ever so slightly by some occasional pop-up and Einhänder becomes a victim of its own quality at times as there are occasions when it isn't entirely clear what is part of the foreground layer (something you have to avoid crashing into) and what is simply scenery. Similarly, enemy fire can be hard to spot because of the frenetic pace and level of on-screen activity. But on the whole, the presentation is top-notch; pushing all the right sci-fi buttons and backing up the pretty in-game graphics with great FMV sequences and stylish menus. Even the warped techno soundtrack; clippings of voice dialogue and coldly distant sound effects seem to befit the subject matter.
For all its chic and snazzy artistry though, Einhänder forgets some golden rules - chiefly the one that says you have to give the player a fair chance. For 5% of the very most hardcore of shoot 'em up fans, the challenge will be like a dream come true, but for the vast majority of us mere mortals, it will feel like it has aped R-Type a little too literally - right down to the bits that made it teeth-grindingly frustrating. The overriding problem lies with the fact that, should you lose a life, you don't respawn where you were killed - instead being taken back to the beginning of the mini-section. So just as you must complete the opening section of the first level without dying, you must do the same with the last boss. Bearable for the first couple of levels, this becomes a real problem against the bosses, and trying to beat the tougher ones in one go quickly becomes a trying task. It's all the more of a pity when you understand how clever they are - producing a varied and seemingly random set of attack patterns; though this only ends up making things harder for the player.
Einhänder's one outstanding gameplay feature is its weapon system. You can have two equipped simultaneously, and their positioning on your affects the direction in which they fire; there's a fair few unique combinations. A Gatling Gun in the lower pod for instance will see it firing at a downward angle, whilst the primary pod sees it firing horizontally. Shooting certain enemy crafts makes these weapons available, and due to the finite supply of ammunition, it is necessary to make use of grenades, laser-blades, homing missiles and all manner of other contraptions. The weapons are undoubtedly among the best to have featured in a side-scrolling shoot 'em up; the variety on show is fantastic and there's a genuine use for nearly all of the weapons you find at one point or another. However, the weapon drops do create needless problems for the player; namely new pods replacing your preferred weapon - there are countless occasions where you'll be chasing a top-up of Gatling Gun ammunition, only for it to replace your Cannon. The scarcity of pick-ups just prior to the super-tough boss battles is also a pain, as it essentially puts those who have survived the level at a disadvantage.
High-score possibilities are plentiful with some impressively thorough performance evaluations, and the longevity is aided somewhat by secret ships and weapons, but as these are very difficult to unlock, the extensive gallery is probably the best bet for bonuses. For the masochists out there, you have three difficulty settings to tackle and three ships that offer a tactically diverse experience due to their varying weapon set-ups. Half a dozen or so levels is par for the course in this type of game but only the toughest of gamers will get anywhere near the winning post.
At times brilliant in its presentation and use of new ideas, some truly schoolboy errors on the part of Squaresoft cost Einhänder a place among the classics where it certainly had the potential to be. Whilst IGN.com hailed it as the greatest game of its genre, in reality it comes nowhere close - it's only fun for a short time in the early stages, before the tough boss battles and tougher punishments for dying make the later levels a real grind. It's hard to recommend to anyone but the most rabid of purists as it isn't a common or cheap game to buy, suggesting Squaresoft's attempted revival of this genre proved a bridge too far. Close, but no cigar.