R-Type: Examining the Legacy & Influence of the Space Shooter

One of the greatest shooters ever? To celebrate its 30th anniversary, we look back at the 1987 arcade classic, R-Type...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK

Does a video game have to be truly innovative to be a classic? Not, we’d argue, in the case of the side-scrolling shooter, R-Type. First released in Japanese arcades 30 years ago, the game was arguably an evolution rather than a revolution – but its influence lasted for years, and decades later, remains a genre-defining title.

Long before R-Type, games like Defender and Konami’s Scramble established the mechanics of the side-scrolling shooter. The player flies from left to right (or in both directions, in the case of Defender) shooting enemies, racking up points and avoiding hazards – either moving, like enemy bullets, or static, like dangerous bits of scenery.

In 1985, Konami took the basic Scramble concept – by then four years old – and transformed it almost beyond recognition with Gradius. The addition of collectible items and a power-up system added depth and a modicum of strategy: is it better to spend your first few power-up items on speed-ups or missiles? Should you go for those handy drones (called Options), that follow your ship around and effectively double your firepower, or are you better off saving up for a shield? Is the laser a better weapon than the less powerful but more expansive double shot? Gradius was unusual at the time for the adaptability of its power-up system.

Ad – content continues below

Then there’s the sheer breadth of Gradius’s level design: winding passages give way to huge area bosses. The claustrophobic, volcanic regions of level one precede the more open second stage, where the screen scrolls up and down slightly as eerie-looking Maoi heads spit torus-shaped lasers at you.

It’s worth prefacing talk of R-Type with a potted history of Gradius, because the former owes a considerable amount to the latter. Then again, it’s also worth noting how R-Type takes the advances offered up by Gradius and makes them its own – sure, it’s an evolution, but it’s a hugely impressive one.

Like Gradius, R-Type offers a space opera backstory about alien invaders and a lone fighter pilot. So right at the beginning, the player blasts off in a cool-looking sci-fi ship (the R-9 rather than Gradius’ Vic Viper) and encounters a weaving, bobbing conga line of alien craft. Design differences aside, it all looks remarkably like the opening of Gradius. But then, like curtains opening on a huge stage production, R-Type reveals itself as something far bigger and more ambitious. A pair of incredibly weird, mechanical outcroppings provide a gateway into a seemingly vast alien landscape: successive waves of weird attack craft are followed by a screen-filling ring of lasers, which have to be destroyed from within.

Then comes the game’s trademark moment: a colossal, grotesque end-of-level guardian inspired by Alien artist H.R. Giger. We’d seen area bosses before 1987, but nothing quite like this: a fully-animated monster with a whipping tail and moving jaws. Even its weak point has personality: a green parasite that emerges from the beast’s mid-section like Alien’s infamous chestburster. 

Later levels offer similarly freakish delights: the second area’s giant, pulsating heart inhabited by a deadly snake. Level four’s weird mecha that detaches into four parts and moves around the screen. Of all R-Type’s stage design ideas, the third’s gigantic battleship – where the entire level is essentially one extended boss battle – was one of the most widely copied. G-Darius, Super Aleste, and Capcom’s UN Squadron (also known as Area 88) all contained similar, multi-screen bosses.

The player’s ally in R-Types interstellar war is its unique weapons system. From the opening screen, regular shots from the R-9’s standard cannon can be followed up with bigger, screen-clearing gobs of energy by holding down the fire button: hold fire long enough to fill up the charge bar at the bottom, and a shimmering blast will take out all but the most well-armored enemies. Collecting the jewel-like power-ups from small, hopping drones improves the R-9 in captivating ways: the most eye-catching of the lot is the Force – a rotating sphere that, at first glance, looks as though it functions like the Option out of Gradius: it floats around in your ship’s orbit and fires whenever you fire. But this innocent-looking bit of tech has hidden depths: get into range, and the Force will attach to the front or back of your ship, alternately protecting you from surprise attacks coming in from the left of the screen or augmenting your existing firepower from the front.

Ad – content continues below

The Force is invulnerable to attack, so you can use it like a battering ram against smaller bullets and enemies, or, by pressing a second button, launch it directly at a wave of alien craft or a boss. While fighting the first level’s boss, for example, you can simply eject the Force directly into the green parasite at its centre – an action that will kill the beast almost as soon as it arrives. 

With this single, ingenious twist on an existing idea, Irem came up with one of the most influential shooter mechanics of the late 80s. In a game where enemies attack in pre-defined yet relentless patterns from all angles, manipulating the Force is key to survival. The battleship on level three, for example, requires the player to repeatedly attach and detach the Force to the front or rear of the R-9 to repel attacks. Once all the ship’s weaponry is taken out, the best strategy is to then use the R-9 as a kind of remote drone by shepherding it into the battleship’s vulnerable engine bay.

R-Type remains a horribly tough game – it’s probably fair to say that most people who played it in the arcades never finished it – yet the weapon mechanics mean that its difficulty never feels entirely overwhelming. The Force, coupled with an imaginative side-order of multi-directional lasers and psychedelic loops of plasma, feels so satisfying and useful that, when you’re in the zone and the aliens are exploding left and right, you almost feel invincible. But then a stray bullet does the inevitable, all your weapons are gone, and you’re left alone and vulnerable again.

After R-Type, every other shooter needed its own cunning defensee or attack mechanic. Some straight-up stole R-Type’s Force idea; others came up with variations on it, like Jaleco’s Saint Dragon, where the ship’s mechanical tail acted as a curling, defensive shield, or Toaplan’s Zero Wing, where enemy ships could be sucked in and used as makeshift projectiles. 

Had R-Type remained an arcade-only game, it might have wound up as a cult item, oft quoted or borrowed from by other developers but relatively obscure outside shooter fan circles. Instead, R-Type became one of the most widely-ported action games of its day, and it says a great deal about how inspiring other artists and programmers found the game that most of the home versions capture much of its brilliance. A version for the ZX Spectrum was remarkably good, considering the limitations of the platform. The Sega Master System port, despite some flickering sprites, was something of a triumph. The version for Japan’s PC Engine console looked close to the arcade version at first glance, though its developers couldn’t fit the thing on one cartridge, and ended up putting it out as two separate releases – a move that would get a company pilloried by the online gaming community today.

Even as R-Type’s fame spread in the late 80s and early 90s – you could even get a Game Boy version if you wanted to shoot things on the move – Irem struggled to replicate the original game’s brilliance, at least in its arcade releases. R-Type II was impressive but added little that was truly new. R-Type Leo oddly did away with the Force conceit altogether. One of Irem’s best post-R-Type arcade shooters wasn’t even a sequel: the nightmarish X-Multiply doubled down on its predecessor’s bio-mechanical stylings, and introduced a cool ship that could defend itself with coiling, whip-like appendages.

Ad – content continues below

As Street Fighter II captured the early 90s zeitgeist, R-Type’s legacy continued on consoles. R-Type III: The Third Lightning was one of the best shooters on the Super Nintendo (and far more satisfying than the ludicrously unforgiving Super R-Type), while R-Type Delta provided a similarly impressive experience on the PlayStation. 

For a variety of reasons, however, R-Type never quite enjoyed the lineage of Gradius, a series that spawned four mainline sequels and a bewildering number of spin-offs. This may partly have been due to the various behind-the-scenes changes at Irem through the 90s, or maybe because other, newer genres pushed the traditional space shooter ever further into niche territory. Whatever the reason, Irem closed the book on the series with R-Type Final for the PlayStation 2 in 2003. The production values, the vast array of ships, great music, and branching levels hinted at a new chapter. Instead, Irem were as good as their word: other than R-Type Tactics, a PSP-only strategy game released in 2007, the R-9 and its variants have remained in a hangar ever since.

The traditional 2D shooter has in any case evolved far beyond the slow, methodical pace of R-Type. Since the mid-90s, the genre has descended ever further into a bullet hell niche, where elite players furtively weave this way and that through a storm of deadly plasma. This might make R-Type look somewhat quaint to a devotee of the adrenaline-drenched danmaku sub-genre. For this writer, though, R-Type has something that most modern, speedier shooters have misplaced: a sense of drama.

R-Type’s pace and design don’t just pose a challenge – they create the illusion of an unfolding battle, where the stakes are rising all the time. Gradius came up with the idea of a shooter where the player wanted to keep throwing in coins to see what they might encounter next. R-Type takes this a step further, with each level introducing something bigger, more startling, and more difficult to kill than the last. After 1987, companies all over the world wanted to create their own R-Type. Few came remotely close to matching it.