Hooray for RayCrisis!

Shmup fans were really quite spoilt for choice in the Saturn/Playstation era which sadly means a lot of perfectly good games got overlooked entirely, or in this case simply didn’t really get as much attention as I think they deserved. So here’s me waving a little flag for the final game in Taito’s Ray-series, in the hopes that I might be able to waft a little of my own enthusiasm for it in your general direction.

The game originally debuted in arcades in 1998 – the same year as Treasure’s Radiant Silvergun – but it wouldn’t hit the Playstation until two years later at that awkward stretch for the console when some people were busy playing Phantasy Star Online on their Dreamcasts and everyone else was plugging in their Playstation 2 for the first time. The game had a worldwide release and Japan/EU received a very good PC port too (supports 640x480 and works without fiddling on Windows 8, if you were wondering), so it was never all that difficult to buy, just the wrong sort of game at the wrong time on the wrong format.

But that’s enough of that! Let’s get to the exciting part – your role as a virus trying to stop a supercomputer hell bent on the destruction of all humanity that’s been helpfully visualised as a sci-fi flavoured shmup.

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The overhead-but-not perspective and the occasional (and impressive) sweeping 3D shots make for some dramatic action that help give the blocky landscapes a bit of depth that the hardware of the era wasn’t quite up to creating through sheer number of polygons, and somehow even when the action’s intense the screen’s still very easy to read and there’s none of this “But I’m sure I was out of the way!” nonsense when it comes to bullet-dodging. It’s a shame really that vertical 3D shmups reverted back to a true top-down angle after Ikaruga hit because there’s still a lot of untapped potential here.

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This subtly unique take on a well-worn genre permeates right down to the nuts-and-bolts of the game too, with original (read: “arcade”) mode allowing you to pick which three (from five) main stages you’ll tackle and in what order, and even allowing you to pick the same stage every time if that’s what you want to play. Special (“home”) mode plays out in a more traditional manner as it features all the stages in a set order, but even then RayCrisis’ “Encroachment meter” alters the difficulty of the level depending on how well you’re doing so there’s still a sense of the unexpected and of the game reacting to your actions - as opposed to some shmups that can feel like you’re there just to mess things up for the guy who made all the pretty bullet patterns.

The other thing this encroachment gauge is good for is encouraging you to do the one thing shmups really should be about – score? Heck no – blowing things up! You really want to keep your encroachment percentage as low as possible to avoid the last boss showing up early and forcing a BAD END on you, and to do that you need to destroy everything that dances in front of your ship’s (sorry, computer virus’) lock-on sights. It’s a pleasant antidote from the increasingly score-focussed nature of modern shmups without making the game feel brainless or *mock-recoils in horror* “casual”.

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So with RayCrisis you’ve got two different modes of play, dynamic difficulty per level, three ships, PocketStation support (Japan only, of course), a customisable main game, three possible endings, pretty graphics and a whole heap of fun all on a single shiny disc: Raycrisis’ only crime is being not rare enough, weird enough, or big-name enough to get noticed, meaning it doesn’t have the collector-cool of the likes of Zanac X Zanac, the outward weirdness of the excellent Harmful Park, and the general brand awareness of Gradius or R-Type. It is however one of the more affordable and easier to source shmups of the era, and well worth playing whether you’re a genre fan or just mildly interested in blowing up giant spaceships.