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 Post subject: Silpheed (Sega CD)
PostPosted: Tue May 31, 2011 10:51 pm 


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Joined: 03 Oct 2007
Posts: 46
Game: Silpheed
Platform: Sega CD
Developer: Game Arts


Can You Name A Game After A Wind Elemental If It Takes Place In A Vacuum?...

For every successful console with a lasting legacy like a Game Boy, an SNES/Super Famicom or a Sony Playstation, there are at least as any consoles that are very fondly-remembered but weren't as famous, like the PC-88 (or the Spectrum, Commodore or Atari ST or any other early PC platform...) or the PC Engine, and finally consoles that flopped for some reason or another: names like the WonderSwan, the 3DO or the console whose game I will discuss right now: the Sega CD. This third tier of consoles failed for many reasons, and chief amongst them are two: obscurity and a bad ratio of good games to mediocre or bad games. The Sega CD, for example, was one of the many addons that turned the sleek, petite Sega Genesis into a Frankenstein's Monster-esque amalgam of hardware that you bolted together like a Lego set with metal contacts and probably turned people off of Sega products, which probably didn't help sales of the Sega Saturn. The 3DO was an overly-expensive piece of kit which had one or two ad campaigns that probably alienated owners of an NES, an SNES or a Genesis that wanted to try something different, and while their lassez-faire approach to who could develop games for their platform contributed to a diverse game base for consumers, the majority of them were very bad games that were put out by developers who probably didn't know how to reach the standards of their peers. Both of these game consoles are more infamous than they are famous, and most owners have as many stories of frustration as they do good memories from these rare pieces of equipment.

So why remember them? Well, here's the tricky bit about the lesser-known and less-successful consoles: when one of those ships goes down, it always seems to take at least one hidden treasure with it. Game consoles, even the less-famous ones, gather lots of games over their lifespans, no matter how short they may be. The Need for Speed franchise started on the 3DO, after all. Look at how big it is now. The Sega 32X had some of the most complete arcade ports of its own games to the time, like After Burner II under the guise of After Burner Complete.

The Sega CD? Out of all the games I can remember (and dear God I can count them on one hand at most), it had one golden title that was lost when it faded away:

the CD's version of PC-88 game Silpheed.


Story

The story for both the PC-88 and Sega CD Silpheed titles is the same: After humanity has expanded through the Solar System and beyond the stars, terrorists led by some guy called Zakarite (or The Acolyte, or whatever...damn translations) hijack a battleship called the Gloire and use it to take over a giant computer satellite orbiting Earth called the Greason (some spell it Grayzon) System (which the opening narration pronounces "Grease-On"). They then use the Greason System to take over most of the Solar Defense Force Fleet and start attacking the rest of Earth's fleets and bases.

The terrorists don't take into account fleets on the very fringe of human expansion, namely, your squadron. You take the role of a member of Topaz Squadron (ostensibly its leader, but it's never made explicitly clear, especially since you and your squadronmates all look exactly the same and it's not made clear who is talking at any one time) in a pumped-up version of a ship called the SA-77 Silpheed, and you, in true shmup fashion, form the tip of the spear for the counterattack to take back the Greason computer, performed as you and your fleet journey towards Earth.

The story's pretty formulaic, but it's told fairly well. Rather than telling you what is going on right away, the story is introduced after the first of 12 levels is completed: you scramble to take on enemy ships and halfway through, the planet you were orbiting gets nuked...or, erm, turns red after impacts by big missiles. There goes the graphical limitations of the Sega CD butting in, but I'll talk about graphics specifics later and discuss what the game's storytelling is like.

The game has a few cutscenes represented in FMVs in between certain levels, including the story intro after the first level. They're short, punchy, and show off what it is your ship looks like in loving detail. However, only one of them is particularly spectacular. It's nice to see the ships docking and all, but did we need a cutscene of simply watching our ship doing a carrier landing, and...that's it? Then there's the detail of precisely what member of Topaz Squadron you're supposed to be. With all the Silpheeds looking precisely the same without any establishment of who's who, if you're anything like me, poring over details and spoiled by lots of cinematic games, you will be confused. You will be asking yourself, is that my ship? Am I Topaz Leader? My God, is that MY pilot's accent? These aren't major details, but if you'd at least like to know which one of the rather cartoonishly-accented Topaz Squadron pilots you are, it's best if you don't think about it.

However, there are one or two moments that may confuse you if you're paying attention to the story. It's not my policy to give away spoilers for games I review, so I'll leave one thought: The whole point of the game is to get to the Greason computer to take it back, right? Yes? Nobody gave us orders about the plot twist you won't even detect the first time around when you play the game to its end?

Summary: 7/10. We have no idea who we are, but we know who we're fighting and why we're fighting. The story's told well, but you can definitely see where it could have been told better. Carrier landings must be really bloody important, though. And no exhaust trails, but I can excuse that...


Graphics

One of the reasons early CD-based game systems like the 3DO and the Sega CD failed was because they did what CD-ROM games on the PC were doing at the time: making FMV games. At the time, full-motion video was the cutting edge of video game graphics, especially using photos of real characters and objects, although most of them implemented them very poorly and to the detriment of all other parts of the game: graphics looked unconvincing, silly, or both, and it was very clear that the whole game was thrown together with bits of FMVs cut and pasted in their places and were all-around limited to getting effects that specifically matched what the FMVs looked like.

Silpheed was actually another FMV game, despite looking like everything was fully-rendered in polygons except for some sprites like bullets and explosions. This was why it all worked: the player ship, enemy models, and bits and bobs in the foreground are all rendered in polygons, and the rest are very convincing facsimiles created using FMVs. The whole effect makes it look like a lot more polygons are being rendered than there actually are when showing some spectacular setpieces in the background, and overall, the FMVs match up so perfectly with the rendered polygons that things in the foreground and background seamlessly whoosh in and out and you will be constantly second-guessing what was an FMV and what was a rendered polygonal object. To add to this is the fact that the game is functionally a top-down shooter but, a bit like Axelay, you're not only looking down upon the action, but you're looking slightly behind the ship. You can see more of the background this way and see things coming at you from up front in the far distance, and this setup not only makes gameplay better by way of giving you more early warning for incoming enemies, but also further heightens the effect of the illusion of making FMVs look like 3D renderings. Everything looks like something the Sega CD could render in polygons and the game is not fully dependent on FMVs, and so what FMV graphics there are in the game work. That's one hell of an achievement. They even hold up today: the designs for the larger spaceships and setpieces look like they would be believable even today in a world where it is fashionable to show futuristic combat ships, aircraft, and spacecraft as a combination of hard-edged angles and tough-looking, triangular bits of armor, equal parts F-117 Nighthawk, F-22 Raptor and M-1 Abrams. The fact the SA-77 looked almost exactly the same in the PS2 successor, Silpheed: The Lost Planet as it did in the original Sega CD game lends credence to the timelessness of at least the titular ship's design.

This policy of rendering everything as if the world of Silpheed were entirely polygon-rendered works to Silpheed's detriment as well: all the graphics that ARE rendered in polygons are very simplistic. Enemies are forgettable, faceless, overly simplistic combinations of a handful of polygons each and while your Silpheed is still recognizable from the cutscenes as the same design as your ship, there's no way your fighter in the levels is the same model as what is pored over in every cutscene. Most of the bosses are underwhelming, and in many cases they're recycled: your player model is small and you have lots of room to move about in, but most of the bosses aren't much larger than your fighter, and you face them over and over again both as regular bosses and as miniboss-like large enemies that randomly swoop in to make things harder for you.

One wonderful thing about the FMV graphics in the background, and a major saving grace for the design choices in general, is that they allowed each level to be far more kinetic than in previous shmups: you weren't just plowing straight forward like in other top-down shooters, you were moving as any sci-fi fan knows a starfighter should. You were swooping in and out of asteroid fields, fighting in the orbit of distant planets, doing barrel rolls while skimming the Moon's surface in Level 9, weaving through formations of battleships trading bright laser beam fire and blowing each other up in clouds of polygonal debris in Level 8, and carving your way through vast, multipart space fortresses in more than one level. Since you are restricted to moving about in any areas which are on-screen at any given time in most shmups, this choice was critical to making Silpheed as impressive-looking as it is.

I question some of the choices for Silpheed's color palette, though, mostly the bullets. Both your bullets and the enemy's bullets are basically a similar shape, one being circular and the other being a starburst, and they share more or less the same color. For the most part they move fast. If you're holding the fire button down like in other shmups and bearing down straight on a target, you might find yourself getting hit without realizing what's going on until you see a stray bullet that's colored like yours and just as swift. For all of you who wonder why bullets in most modern shmups are an absolute rainbow of colors, there's your answer. Otherwise you get this problem and more than a couple cheap deaths due to such decisions.

Summary: 7/10. A lot of the design decisions could have been altered for gameplay's sake and some of the bosses and enemies are just pathetic, but what is left is stunning for its time.


Sound

The Mega CD Silpheed soundtrack is one of the game's strongest points. Every single track is catchy to some extent or another. It sounds like any other Mega CD game or any of its PC DOS game peers in what sounds are available in each level, and as far as Silpheed is concerned, it all works. The title cutscene theme and the first level theme sound like full-on space opera anthems and are perfect for the frantic space combat romps you get into.

For its time, the sound effects are almost all pleasantly solid if a bit underwhelming, from the explosion noises, to alarm sounds, to the neverending "PEW PEW PEW" of your guns. Small enemies make little *pwip* noises when you kill them, and by far they're the weakest sound effect in the game. The lasers, though, are an excellent sound effect. They're anything from a piercing, high-pitched laser sound to an almighty "KDEW" laser noise which sounds as if it could have been pulled from an old anime. Some of these attacks sound fantastic, but quite a few of them are not entirely right.

Ambient noises, predominantly machinery moving and flybys with enormous objects, are a nice touch, and serve to constantly remind you that the Silpheed is really, really small compared to a lot of the environment, be they anything from asteroids to starships. The aforementioned laser shot sound effects are what you hear when one of those death rays nearly misses you, too: they really wanted to show you that you could be knocked out of space with one errant shot. Which, considering gameplay, you most likely would, but that's for later.

Because CDs of the time could have lots more raw data squeezed into them compared to their cartridge peers, Silpheed had a lot of voice work. All the cutscenes had voice acting in them, ranging from the female voice that rather placidly tells you to scramble in the start of the first level, then narrates the storyline of the game after that level, to the various rather over-the-top character voices which populate Topaz Squadron and its crew. There's one voice with a Texan accent so thick you could use it for radiation shielding, a second pilot voice delivered in an enormously overblown British accent that makes one think this pilot has monocles on his monocles and a top hat with a pilot's visor, one or two relatively bland American-sounding voices and at least one stuffy guy who sounds like a cartoon news reporter. For the purposes of the game, the acting is just fine and holds up even to today if you can excuse the silliness, and is delivered with the proper background noise and static for radio chatter. Listen close: they snuck in some cursing.

Summary: 8/10. If the ultimate goal of sound in a game is to sound coherent with the game, this soundtrack hits all the bases. Nowadays it's very silly and some of the lines and effects sound a bit flat, but they stand the test of time, for the most part.


Gameplay

When you get right down to it, Silpheed is a rather simple top-down shooter presented in a visual style very impressive for its time. Before bullet patterns became more complicated and before shmup level designs got really creative as more and more games started to embrace either extremely-detailed sprite art or worlds rendered entirely in polygons, Silpheed represented the state of the art. Waves of enemies would come at you, and at the end you would face a boss. Standard shmup stuff, and while there is nothing too innovative that Silpheed adds to the genre, there isn't anything specifically wrong with what Silpheed has.

Levels are mostly wide-open areas with the background serving as very convincing eye-candy with some obstacles which whoosh past you in a few levels. Most everything you see, you can kill, but this is largely restricted to things in the foreground: hazards which come from the background, such as enemy laser fire and moving non-attack objects, are indestructible and you simply have to deal with them.

To fight against enemies you have multiple shot types which you can alternate on either side of your ship, which all share the same bullet graphic: the Forward Beam, which fires shots rapidly straight forward, the Phalanx Beam, which is the obligatory Spread Shot gun, the Wide Beam, which fires in a short-range arc from directly forward to 120 degrees off in the direction of whichever side of the ship you installed it on, and the Auto-Aim, which is a Forward Beam that will automatically aim at targets up forward and in the direction of whatever side of the ship you installed it on. This gives you up to 16 possible weapon combinations, which isn't bad, but they share bullet graphics and sounds, which means there isn't ever any real interesting difference between either of the four. You can fire one or the other separately or fire both of them at once, but considering that all the weapons have very, very high firing rates and that there isn't anything that gets put on-screen that you're not supposed to shoot, why you should choose to only fire one or the other weapon at any given time is beyond me. There is also no such thing as an accuracy bonus, or indeed, any creative scoring system in this game.

You also have a third weapon in the form of the rather predictably-named Optional Weapons, of which there are again four: a system which deflects enemy fire coming from the front a la Gradius' Shield items, an invincibility barrier with limited uses, an 8-way homing weapon and a super-powerful forward-firing bomb thing. You get energy to use these weapons with every item you pick up and every enemy you kill, and these weapons don't overshadow the two main guns you use, which is nice.

You don't have lives in this game: instead you have a single life per continue, and you can survive multiple hits in the form of a multi-segment shield. Once you run out of that you have three hits left: the first hit will knock one of your weapons offline, the second will kill your engines and severely reduce your movement speed, and the final one will kill you and you will be forced to cash in your score. You start the game with three continues, where you can resume the game from the level where you died, and once you run out of those, you must start all over from the beginning. It's a fair system, and one that's still relevant, considering that most arcade-inspired games or arcade ports nowadays emulate a credit system as if the player was actually on an arcade cabinet.

Many shmups nowadays have some sort of warning system for hazards incoming at high speed (see Thunder Force V for perhaps the most involved iteration of this), and Silpheed has them in the form of certain radio chatter. The problem with this is that although you know when enemy attacks like lasers or missiles will stab the screen out of nowhere trying to kill you, but you won't know from where until it's too late. If you're in the right place you can avoid these shots, and most of them aren't aimed directly at you, but there's all the probability that you will accidentally blunder right into the path of a laser beam or two.

Summary: 7/10. Less is more for Silpheed, but to be honest, less is also less. Seeing the groundwork for modern shmups is nice, but the game is let down by gameplay that is more than a little simplistic.


Conclusion

Silpheed is a hidden gem, but does that make it any more special than other shmups on more successful systems? In a word, no. In a couple more, not really. Silpheed was a solid shmup on a platform with only a few really good games, and it was never looked at again until Silpheed: The Lost Planet, which in many ways was arguably an inferior game to its predecessor.

What we got, though, was one of those few games that manages to stand out amongst the rogues' gallery of awkward CD-ROM games simply by virtue of being merely good rather than amazing. It's a shiny prize inside a time capsule filled with fluff. If you've never played it, you're not missing a lot, but to those who have played it, they know what this game's all about.

Final Verdict: 7/10 (not an average of individual scores)
_________________
"Enjoy a nice Brown Betty with DEATH! But, but mostly eat death." ~Crow T. Robot~


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