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 Post subject: Iridion 3D (GBA)
PostPosted: Wed Jun 15, 2011 2:29 am 


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Joined: 03 Oct 2007
Posts: 46
Game: Iridion 3D
Platform: Game Boy Advance
Developer: Shin'en (published by Majesco)


Shut Up, It's A Shmup

I can't think of many other handheld platforms before the current DS/PSP generation that seemed made for shmups other than the Game Boy Advance. The GBA's wide screen and relatively high resolution and color palette compared to the previous generation of handheld platforms, much less Game Boys, made it perfect for horizontal shmups. It was a little while until people who wanted to ride the GBA money train realized the Game Boy Advance's high shmup potential: most of the first generation of Game Boy Advance games were more about tech demonstration than anything else. F-Zero Maximum Velocity comes to mind as a feat never before excellently executed, much less competently on the GBA, the Namco Museum showed just how well the GBA hardware could bring back older titles back in an era where emulators were a form of bizarre black magic that required a book bound in human skin and the blood of a virgin to understand, and Iridion 3D, from German developers Shin'en, was a shooter which tried to reach lofty heights that I dare say the GBA never reached for after Iridion 3D was created.

Anybody who knows about Iridion 3D, they would probably bring it up with me on the topic of whether Iridion 3D is a shmup or not, as it's more like Starfox. Yeah, sure, it is, but hear me out: it's got elements that are more in line with a traditional shmup, especially a vertical scroller, than a true flying rail shooter like the Panzer Dragoon games, in which positioning and flying chops make more of a difference than blasting away at big enemy formations and dodging clouds of bullets. Enemies in Iridion 3D come at you in massive clouds, so does enemy fire, and you have to absolutely spray fire nonstop if you want to win. Like Sin and Punishment: Star Successor, weaving in and out of fire and throwing fire at your enemies in a neverending stream is how you succeed.

Yeah, I think I'm justified in reviewing this as a shmup in the more traditional sense. But deciding to call it a shmup brings it even more pressing questions than a little bit of controversy over its identity.

This puts up the ultimate question of if Iridion 3D can now hang with far more worthy stablemates than the false starts that were attempts to bring games with a similar behind-the-player perspective to the GBA, like the halfhearted attempt to make a Star Fox clone in Star X and the lacking After Burner port put up in the Sega Arcade Gallery. Can it hang with Phalanx, will it be as smooth as Gradius Galaxies, does it deserve to stand with Darius R?

Boy, how I wish it was as simple as saying "yes" or "no."


Story

If I simply talked about the story of Iridion 3D from the box or inside the enclosed instruction book or the opening cutscene, this part of the review would be two or three lines long. Aliens called the Iridion Empire drop out of the clear blue sky on some random day and start blowing things up. Humanity retaliates with the vast army of one starfighter, which you pilot on a journey to the alien homeworld to blow their chain of command to bits. Bam. Story. Done. It's not creative, of course, but it leaves no plotholes and no questions to try to fill in with more plot. That's all well and good. The opening cutscene, however, bears some bizarre resemblance to the September 11th terrorist attacks if you substitute laser bolts for airliners, especially because the city involved looks a lot like NYC, and the fact that the last bit of the opening is just us staring at these two rectangular skyscrapers burning before the title is abruptly rolled on us is just a bit disturbing in hindsight. Luckily, here in the USA, Iridion 3D was released May 29, 2001. But in Europe? It was released on September 21, 2001. Oops.

However, as I've tried to mention in my previous reviews, a video game's story is also implicitly told by your journey as you play the game, not just some narrative that's tossed in your face from one cutscene or dialog box to the next. For the most part, the game's series of environments over seven levels progresses perfectly logically: you go from Earth, into the sky, across the stars, to an Iridion base, then to the Iridion homeworld. No major surprises, no plot twists to speak of. AC/DC put it best: ask me nothing, leave me be. It's just a good, straightforward shmup story.

Except...I think the level progression missed a few cues. In shmups, I believe any cue or level not taken that could honestly have been placed somewhere in the gameplay is an obvious sin of omission. The first level is an escape through a hilariously large garbage chute, which leads to the second level, wherein we fly across the Pacific Ocean. Okay, I can buy that, but...where exactly are we? Aside from the aliens and the one starfighter we play as, there's nothing in the opening that suggests that Earth is very advanced at all. An aircraft carrier which looks like a cartoon-ified Nimitz-class picks up three alien invaders and their gigantic "we still think ID4 was a cool movie" mothership saucer, and the sole radar operator we see for a few seconds in the cutscene is wearing for all intents and purposes a contemporary uniform. Why not have us swooping over the city that was just attacked in the opening instead? The giant saucer would have been a fun opening boss battle, but...no, it's not there at all. Then there's all the dead space between levels five and six. Level five has us flying through the Solar System's asteroid belt, and then the sixth has us outside the Iridion doorstep at one of their bases, apparently. Again, perfectly fine, that's just great. Except the Iridion don't live at Jupiter or Pluto or something, they're ostensibly aliens from "Iridion Prime" in the Unspecified system. What happened to all the enemies in between here and there? Sure, you can handwave this away as your ship possessing FTL drives or something to bypass more Iridion forces, but I feel like the player has been denied another really cool level: Silpheed, R-Type, Phalanx, and other shmups have proven that in the world of shmups, battles in hyperspace can happen, and they can be really, really awesome if done right. It's missed opportunities like this for awesome setpiece stages or enemies that can kill a shmup franchise before it even really begins, and Iridion 3D has at least a couple. Nothing is wrong with this, but there isn't enough that's right with this idea, and that hurts Iridion 3D in the long run.

Summary: 5/10. Rather than telling us about anything particularly bold we get up to while flying through air and space, Iridion 3D plays it too safe to stand out. There are no plotholes that need filling or fractured storytelling that needs excusing or patching up, but often those two problems are symptomatic of a game that's too adventurous. Iridion 3D is the exact opposite, and I find that somehow worse.


Graphics

Launch titles are almost uniformly partly tech demos for the consoles they come on, full-size or handheld, and Iridion 3D fills this requirement very well. It's not actually filled with 3D, and by that I mean polygons as 3D is now possible in a post-3DS world, but it is populated with detailed sprites and graphics that make the game pretty, but in all honestly also make Iridion 3D look as if it's a dinosaur from the bad old days of FMV games. You have single sprites that were clearly prerendered in 3D then used as unmoving, largely un-animated graphics for the game moving about across a constantly-scrolling background where you fly towards the horizon, through the vastness of space or at least down to the next mile or so of corridor. I'm not precisely sure what techniques Shin'en used to get this effect, but I can clearly tell that during the Pacific Ocean and Iridion Prime levels, they used a form of Mode 7 scrolling. The corridor and outer space levels may have used some sort of FMV background or sprite scaling, but in those two levels it's clear what techniques Shin'en used to get the pseudo-3D scrolling effect. This, however, does create a major problem: the Mode 7 levels make you appear to be flying much faster than you are in other levels, since enemies come at you at exactly the same speed as they would in other levels, and levels four and five, which have you flying to the Moon and through the Asteroid Belt, being devoid of any horizon at all kill your sense of speed entirely. Level four at least has a plethora of junk and fortifications that scroll at you to give you an indication of where you're going as well as the Moon constantly getting larger in the background as you approach it, the Asteroid Belt level gives us no indication of if the asteroids are coming at us, or if we're going through the asteroids.

Most sprites, as I mentioned, are un-animated, and the ones that are animated are rarities or facsimiles often made up of numerous sprites all imposed over one another to make three-dimensional shmup snakes. While this is passable in most other games, the detail that has been poured into every FMV-ish sprite and the rest of the game makes you pore over each static, lifeless sprite and realize how that makes the graphics cheaper as a result. A sense of motion is eked out through using scaling and rotation, and that tends to work against Iridion 3D, especially on the small confines of the Game Boy Advance. Enemies will often appear as teeny, indecipherable masses of pixels on the horizon, and with no reticle to help the player line up shots, the only option is to hold down the fire button and hope for successfully walking shots up to the targets. Thankfully, enemies tend to come in enormous clouds that negate the need for precise marksmanship until they all start firing.

Your player sprite is also animation-less, having no firing animations, no muzzle flash or weapon deployment animations, and not even some sort of engine "the engine of your ship is running" animation. The design of the fighter is hilariously clumsy compared to everything that moves around: it's got a long nose, and when you fly from one side of the screen to the other, ostensibly you're supposed to be seeing the ship from one angle or another, but it looks awkward when at one extreme side of the screen or the other, as if only the nose is bending to point towards the horizon. Only now with the advent of YouTube would I find out that indeed your ship looks slightly different when you move to one part of the screen or another, but the changes were so imperceptible that back when I played Iridion 3D, the GBA's screen made these changes imperceptible.

Speaking of firing, you are accosted by one of four basic weapon types from the enemy: a pink, round bullet, a missile with a smoky trail which actually isn't a bad effect, things that you might crash into and fire, which is really only a snake made out of explosion animation sprites played at a very, very slow frame speed and only seen during the final battle. The scaling and recognition issues make dodging these all the worse: it's hard to tell what enemies or shots are close to you, what might crash into you and what you've successfully avoided. Games like After Burner II successfully avoided these issues by making it clear what was where by simplifying the scaling. Anything that was too close to you already screamed off-screen or flew to a distance you could shoot at it from. Without this dashing in and out, everything seems to weightlessly float away from or towards you without allowing you to solidly decide where to go or dodge. Your own weapons are little better: you have five weapons in total: a red straight weapon, a purple straight weapon, a gold...straight weapon, a blue straight weapon and a green weapon with bullet spread like a guy hipfiring a submachine gun. The graphics for each shot are decent, but all lack a certain wow factor. The sprites all work, but together they only do a passable job of illustrating the world around you.

Actually, that's something I could say about all the graphics, save for the backgrounds: they're detailed and very 3D-ish, but to what end? Simpler sprites would have probably gotten the ideas about you and your enemies across better at the cost of being a little exaggerated, but what's a little exaggeration at the cost of less-ambiguous sprites?

Summary: 7/10. The background and setpieces are pretty, but they only get their point across halfway. Everything is at once detailed and pretty, but also oddly lifeless. The overall effect deflates its punch as a launch title/tech demo.


Sound

The sound is a high point of Iridion 3D, without a doubt. All the songs are catchy techno created by Shin'en composer Manfred Linzner, flying the flag for Germany's rich history with electronic music by sounding like anything in between anthem trance, house, or other disciplines of electronic music, and they almost all click perfectly with each level. If someone did some more cutting, mixing and remixing-which Linzner himself actually did-these would be close to trance anthems all by themselves. This is coming from a guy who's dabbled in electronic music, in particular European progressive trance, which at least to me is high praise. This was the very first game I played with the headphones on and one of the very first that I kept around just to muck about with the soundtrack.

The sound effects in particular all have pleasant, solid feels to them, be they your weapons firing, explosions going off, or just the noises of ships passing by or mechanical bits and bobs moving. Enemies firing their pink peashooters at you have exactly the same sound as your red gun, though, so get used to that sound blaring in your ears. A lot. This is also true of the explosions: there is only one in-game explosion noise. Get used to it, as there are no other explosion noises in the entirety of the game, and only one slightly-different noise right before the credits roll. There isn't any single sound that really detracts from Iridon 3D's meaty palette, thankfully, so this can be excused.

Summary: 9/10. Outside from having a few less sounds than it really should and having a lack of any ambient noises, Iridion 3D's soundtrack is meticulously constructed and gets everything across loud and clear.


Gameplay

If only Iridion 3D's gameplay possessed the same level of finish as the music.

Iridion 3D is ostensibly a shooter from a behind-the-ship perspective, but you're ill-equipped to really take anybody out as efficiently as you do in any other shmups. Your shots almost uniformly move at about the same speed as enemies shoot lasers at you, if not only a bit slower than you fire, and since most enemies dance around on-screen and can almost all take several shots from any weapon before dying, be prepared to have to stay in one place a lot, except if you do, you will get shot a lot, so juking and dancing around while firing without much rhyme or reason is your only option. Pretty much all enemies fire either single shots or full-blown bursts of fire at you, but only if they're not shooting missiles at you, trying to crash into you, or dropping energy balls which are the exact same sprite as the pink laser bullets in your path.

These would be what would make the game challenging instead of irritating if the engine was a lot tighter than it is. Hitting the directional pad in order to move around and change altitude doesn't just move you around the screen: you horribly lurch about even with just light taps of the D-pad. You maneuver as if you're on ice, which is a pretty big achievement when you're not even on a solid surface to begin with. With the unrelenting volume of fire that enemies put out, this turns from inconvenient to lethal, especially since the enemies' scripting makes them a lot more agile than you are. To add insult to injury, your sprite and hitbox are deceptively large and you can't maneuver very far side to side or up and down, so you are going to get hit. How at least one player got a no-miss run to post on YouTube is beyond me. Combine this with the fact that walking your shots in is the only method you have for aiming at targets and you have a game where shooting most things down is an uncertain, laborious affair. Enemies may be more sure-footed than you but enemy patterns aren't even that creative: they either come at you from in front in groups or from behind without firing at you. That's it. There's no enemy spawners, no ships sidelining you from one side of the screen or the other, no static ground defenses. No points for not trying.

As I mentioned before, you get one of five weapons to play with, which you grab from colored round crystals you must fly through in order to gain them. Grabbing the same color of crystal as the weapon you're carrying levels up your weapon once, and each weapon has three levels of strength to climb up. Whenever you grab a crystal that's a different color, you have to start at square one. That's bad because weapon crystal things are very few and far between. There is a red gun which fires round laser bullets in up to a sort of flat helix pattern, spiraling purple laser bolts that have a slow fire rate and travel straight forward as well, a green energy machine gun with bullet spread but a merciless fire rate, and two weapons that are functionally completely similar: a gold laser in the third level and a blue laser in the last level. The only difference between the two is that the gold laser is far more powerful than the red, green or purple lasers, and the blue laser is far more powerful than the gold laser and ridiculously powerful compared to the red, purple and green lasers. Even then there's no appreciable difference between any of these weapons since they all fire more or less straight forward, and the instructions mark absolutely no difference between any of these weapons, so figuring out what works and what you should obsessively attempt to carry over to the next level aside from the gold and blue lasers, which destroy everything, is a matter of trial and error over all else. You get no special attacks, no bombs, no extra ship types. It's just you firing functionally identical weapons at clouds of enemies as they come towards you or very occasionally fly away from you.

You get a shield system as well as a lives system. You start each game with five extra lives for six total and you have a shield bar to use up with each life. Getting hit by bullets chips away at it, but being hit by anything else, from missiles to columns of water or lava and collisions with enemies, will absolutely invalidate your shields. On normal difficulty this is bad enough, but if you decide to play it on hard, bullets do twice as much damage and you will lose a bit more than half your shield from crashing into things. Levels do not restart after you die: you simply respawn right where you were with your weapon powered down one level. There is no scoring system aside from "health left + lives left" bonuses at the end of every level. Getting enough score gives you an extra life, but be prepared to be forced to choose between either surviving by dodging fire or risking your lives to try to gain more ones. If you do the former, you'll have a pathetic score, but if you do the latter, you'll get yourself killed.

The game does not save any data for you: rather, you're forced to remember a fairly-long password to remember where you are and what weapon you had at the end of some level or another, or even what control scheme you were using, which boils down to using airplane-style reversed Y-axis controls or just pointing wherever you want to go. You're better off just starting a new game every time you play. In a day and age where lots of cartridge-based games have had battery backup data systems, this is almost inexcusable and is really insulting to anyone who wants to play it to its end. If you're anything like me, you will eventually try to play Iridion 3D to its end, either because you don't want the game to beat you or because you're hoping you'll be sufficiently rewarded with a cool ending when it's all over...which you pretty much aren't.

This and all the above mentioned details gets ridiculous in the final battle, which amounts to a damage and fly-in-a-circle exchange with a three-form boss that breathes fire everywhere and takes forever to kill, even with the almighty blue laser. If you want to know what makes Iridion 3D a teeth-grinding experience, witness the final battle.

Summary: 4/10. This is a hard game, but Dodonpachi this ain't: when you die it's your fault only about half the time. The other times are due to a large hitbox and wonky conrols. There's some weird compulsion to complete this game to the end, but it's the compulsion to not be defeated by a game that's unfairly stacked against you, not to conquer a game that gives you all the tools you need to beat it.


Conclusion

God, oh God. Revisiting Iridion 3D to do this review was embarrassing. I played this, I kept thinking when I played through this. I played this and beat it. Multiple times. It can be beaten, but it requires far more of your patience than it really should. The game's beauty and potential are covered by a mass of overwrought designs and clumsy gameplay that's meant to make you swift but instead sends you careening out of control in and out of every single encounter with enemies, swaying everywhere like Shantae after a case of Monster. The music is great, the graphics are a good demonstration of what the GBA is capable of, but for Pete's sake, just look for the OST if you want what's really memorable about Iridion 3D.

Final Verdict: 4/10 (not an average of individual scores)
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"Enjoy a nice Brown Betty with DEATH! But, but mostly eat death." ~Crow T. Robot~


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