Boutique game studio Treasure was an indie outfit, both spiritually and in practice, in a time before that sort of thing was common. They were uncompromising in their vision, cared more about creating the games they wanted to create rather than building something for everyone, and yet, they still managed to get the attention of major publishers to back them, companies such as Sega, Nintendo, and Enix.
Treasure opened its doors in June of 1992 after dissatisfaction with Konami’s emphasis on sequels—and rejection of the plan for what would become the all-time classic Gunstar Heroes—caused eight developers, including Treasure’s current president, Masato Magaewa, to leave the giant behind to strike it out on their own. As Magaewa put it in interviews at the time, Konami didn’t think Gunstar Heroes would sell, and, as a huge publisher, that was their primary concern. Treasure was founded on the idea that the games its developers wanted to make needed to be made, regardless of market viability, and that those games should be doing something new that pushed the boundaries of the hardware they were on, as well as the genre of the title itself.
They changed the run and gun genre with Gunstar Heroes, deemphasizing the one-hit-and-you’re-dead nature of Contra games, but instilling challenge all the same by focusing on impressive and numerous boss battles, and making the most powerful attacks, in a game full of explosions and ranged weapon experimentation, melee. A kind of chaos ensued that Contra games weren’t capable of, as you would find yourself in the midst of everyone and everything blowing up, grabbing an enemy and throwing them into another one, or slide attacking right into the legs of a giant robot crab. The genre you know, but different, subverted somehow: this was how Treasure operated, whether you were talking about a run-and-gunner, a platformer, a beat-em-up, or, eventually, a shoot-em-up.
It’s not that all shoot-em-ups in the late 1990s were the same, far from it. But much of the innovation and iteration going on in the genre was being done by a number of developers who had worked together at other companies before striking out on their own, and they were all building on foundations they themselves had created elsewhere. Cave (DoDonPachi, Mushihimesama, ESP Ra.De), Raizing (Battle Garegga, Kingdom Grand Prix, Armed Police Batrider), Gazelle (Batsugun’s Saturn port, Air Gallet), and Takumi Corporation (Twin Cobra II, Giga Wing, Mars Matrix) all rose from the ashes of Toaplan, which had ended its time as primarily a shmup developer with one of the very first bullet hell-style shooters, Batsugun: guess what all four of those offshoot studios tended to make?
As interest in shmups trended comparatively downward and became more niche—fighting games won the battle against them in arcades, and Sega’s shmup-heavy home consoles, the Saturn and Dreamcast, would finish last in consecutive generations before the genre all but disappeared from consoles for a time—Treasure would decide it was time to make their own. While they would also build on the existing foundations of the genre, they would still be games that were clearly the work of the minds of those at Treasure: ones that found a way to push a genre norm to its limits by creating a subversion of it. Whereas Cave et al kept looking for the perfect form of a game you were already familiar with—and that’s not meant dismissively, creating the perfect danmaku is a quest we should hope devs never tire of—Treasure decided to upend everything you were supposed to do in a shmup.
Just like Gunstar Heroes changed the run and gun by emphasizing closeness and player freedom in a way the more constrained and distant Contra games could not, just like Guardian Heroes took the beat ‘em up and added branching storylines and RPG elements, just like Alien Soldier asked “what if we just made the entire game out of boss fights,” Treasure’s shooting games (or STGs) were going to have to be more than just another shoot-em-up.
Magaewa explained what Treasure was going for with their first shmup, 1998’s Radiant Silvergun, in a developer interview that released shortly before their second pioneering STG (translation courtesy Shmuplations):
After Xevious, STG developers tried to add items, power-ups, and all manner of gimmicks and contrivances to their new games. Some went the route of making STG games more flashy and outrageous, filling the screen with intricate danmaku patterns that were fun to dodge, or having awesome bombs and explosions, or an interesting backstory and gameworld. But for vertical STGs, even by Xevious we see many gameplay elements perfected. I would say the same thing for Gradius, also, as a horizontal STG.
With STG games, it’s not about the system: it’s the level design and enemy placement that really makes them what they are. As for Treasure, we asked ourselves: “I wonder how far we can push the envelope in this genre?” We wanted to try something with a new perspective. When it comes to your traditional STG, other companies had already released very high quality games there, so if we were going to make any inroads, we’d need to add something to the “dodge and shoot” formula I mentioned above. With Radiant Silvergun, that something was the color-affinity system.
Masterpieces like Taito’s G-Darius or Rayforce, for all their refinement and innovation, were built on the foundations of Gradius and Xevious, respectively. Psikyo developed a dozen STGs in the ‘90s, and many of them are great and full of both literal and figurative character, but innovation was not a key factor in their development or success. They were traditional outings, and, traditionally, in a shmup, your goal is to destroy everything in your path—dodge foes, dodge bullets, shoot what can be shot. This is not the case in Radiant Silvergun, which first appeared in arcades before a Saturn version with a fleshed out story mode was released. If you destroy everything in Radiant Silvergun, you’re going to have a difficult time actually completing the game. And that’s because it is built on a scoring system that is also an experience points system: the more you score, the more powerful your weapons become. And the only way to achieve a true high score that will boost your various attacks to the levels needed to take down the game’s final bosses is to avoid shooting two-thirds of the game’s enemies.
The “color-affinity system” Magaewa mentioned, devised by then-Treasure developer Hiroshi Iuchi, a triple threat graphic designer, composer, and game director, is one based on red, blue, and yellow foes. String together three consecutive kills of, say, red enemies, and you receive a chain bonus that boosts your score, and therefore, the weapon experience level of whichever one you used to make those kills. Make it six, and the next chain boost will be even higher. Nine, even loftier, and so on, until you create the max chain where you receive 100,000 bonus points for every third kill: considering the first chain bonus nets you all of 90 points, it’s worth working toward those longer and longer chains. There are also additional, hidden boosts for 10,000 points each, achieved by not missing a shot for X number of defeated enemies, or continuously locking onto a foe without breaking the lock, or continuous, uninterrupted fire on an enemy or enemies, depending. You also receive massive score bonuses for destroying every segment of a boss: each has their core, which actually reduces their health bar when shot, but the bosses (of which there are multiple per stage) are made up of different parts that can be individually blown up. You get higher destruction bonuses for dismantling them piece by piece, but, of course, you also run the risk of death by giving them more time to fire back like this, and there is also the chance of their complete destruction coming too slowly: each boss has a hidden time limit before they self-destruct, robbing you of vital score boosts and wasting the sacrifice of the extra lives or continues you used to survive the encounter to that point.
This might sound constraining or a bit much to take in, but it’s all very fluid, and gives you an exceptional amount of freedom, as well. There are no power-ups or screen-clearing bombs in Radiant Silvergun: you begin the game with every weapon you will have, and have to power them all up through chains and hidden boosts. There are the three basic weapon types—the A button fires your forward Vulcan cannon, B is a weaker homing shot initially fired to both the left and the right, and C slow-fires explosive rounds that detonate when you release the button or when they hit a target. Button combinations give you an additional three weapons at your disposal, and there is also your Radiant Sword, which is a melee attack that swings around your ship, moves in the opposite direction of your movement, and absorbs one type of enemy bullet until it’s fully charged. Once charged, it can unleash a massive melee attack that makes you briefly invulnerable, and will wipe out or extensively damage anything in its path. Filling that gauge can be dangerous, and using its ultimate attack can break your chain, but it might also be a life-or-death situation for you, making it something else you need to keep in mind and balance.
What also set Radiant Silvergun apart from the rest of the STGs of the time is its emphasis on continuity. Whereas Cave was making bullet-hell shooters that limited how many credits you could even use on a single playthrough, Radiant Silvergun introduced a system that granted you one additional credit for your next playthrough for every hour played. While playing in the story-based “Saturn Mode,” your weapon ranks and experience levels would also carry over in between runs: eventually, even if you weren’t very good at the game or the genre, you could complete it with enough time invested in the game. Of course, it’s also designed so that all of the practice that earns you all of those extra credits isn’t even necessarily required by the end, since the hours you’ve invested have taught you the game’s systems, showed you where each attack type is best utilized, and boosted those attacks that much further through mastery of the chain system.
Treasure might have made games for the hardcore devotee, but in actuality, their games are playable by anyone. All that’s needed is the patience to learn the systems that differ so much from what many gamers were used to in more traditional takes on the genres Treasure was tackling. Radiant Silvergun begins as a very difficult, very complicated game: give it the time it deserves, however, and the systems not only make sense, but reveal themselves to be both elegant and rewarding. There’s a beauty to Radiant Silvergun’s definition of a shmup, one that makes reaching its conclusion achievable by anyone willing to put the time in, one that allows you to feel more accomplished and stronger with each subsequent playthrough. It simply feels great to play, with whatever walls exist within eventually crumbling through your persistence and mastery of the game’s unique structures, and it’s why the game is considered one of the true greats of the genre today in a way it simply was not when it first arrived and confounded critics.
Whereas Radiant Silvergun taught you to hold back from firing on everything that moves, its spiritual successor, Ikaruga, took things one step further: dodging, one of the core pillars of the genre, was no longer something you had to do in a shmup. This wasn’t because Treasure removed bullets from the equation, but instead, it’s because they changed the nature of bullets, and your ship’s relationship to them. Now, you wanted your ship to be hit by bullets. Or, at least, ones that were the same color as your ship.
In Ikaruga, you have just the one weapon. Well, technically, two weapons. One is white, and one is black, and with the press of one button, you flip both the ship and the weapon it has equipped from white to black or black to white. While white, the Ikaruga absorbs white bullets and lasers. While black, black bullets and lasers. Shooting white craft or obstructions while the Ikaruga is black results in double damage to them, and the same goes for attacking black ships while the Ikaruga is white. While there are no weapons to upgrade like in Radiant Silvergun, the only way to add additional lives is through scoring, and scoring, and scoring, and to do that, you need to once again chain colors together.
So, not only are you balancing which enemy attacks you are currently impervious to and which enemy ships you are doing double damage against, you are also attempting to chain together your kills, three at a time, like in Radiant Silvergun to maximize scoring. The difference here is that you can swap back-and-forth between chains of white and chains of black without interrupting the boosts themselves, so long as you keep these chains to three like-kills at a time. And in order to truly maximize the scoring, you will need to think quickly and efficiently, because enemy ships leave the screen as quickly as they arrive, forcing you to switch between white and black and white again in order to balance absorbing like-colored bullets and beams while also doing double damage to fleeing foes before they can get away and cost you potential points.
Absorbing bullets is basically a necessity, too, not just to survive attacks or move through areas designed to force you to do so or else perish: absorbing enemy attacks is the only way to charge the game’s equivalent of a screen-clearing bomb, which might be the difference between living or dying, or defeating a boss and securing its destruction bonus before time runs out on the encounter and it flees. It is pretty clear that Treasure felt these kinds of attacks had to be earned, not handed out by the game itself, and by intricately tying them into the game’s larger systems in both Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga, it’s also just as clear that they were right in this approach.
Ikaruga, rightly, is considered almost more of a puzzle game than a shmup, though, at the time of its release, it was derisively thought of that way. It wasn’t that Treasure had erred, but, like with Radiant Silvergun, people simply weren’t ready for how ahead-of-the-curve the studio was. Ikaruga originally released in arcades in 2001, and then Sega’s Dreamcast in 2002, but only in Japan. It would be ported to the GameCube post-Dreamcast demise in 2003, then its largest platform yet, the Xbox 360, in 2008, before arriving on Windows in 2014, then both the Nintendo Switch and Sony Playstation 4 in 2018. It is now generally considered to be a brilliant affair, and one of the great shmups of all-time, as is Radiant Silvergun, and in both cases, it’s because the world finally caught up to what Treasure had on offer.
It’s not that no one at the time, critics or customers, understood what Treasure was up to. It’s more that not enough people were ready for, or exposed to, their games, for one reason or another. Now, though, as Treasure has shifted away from original development and more into a re-licensing and re-release model, the brilliance of their past and approach can be appreciated by more and more people, and not just in a “for the time” retrospective lookback way. Radiant Silvergun, with its complex systems, its sweeping, epic, and timeless soundtrack composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto of Final Fantasy Tactics fame, and its focus on trying again and again and again and being rewarded for those efforts two decades before Hades ever made it to market, fits in perfectly with today’s gaming environment. Ikaruga, as a genre bending and blending masterpiece that remains a visual stunner for its style, feels as fresh today as it did two decades ago.
Neither became a bestseller, but that has never been Treasure’s idea of success, anyway. Making their visions come to life, and hoping that whoever did play their games came away feeling like they had just experienced something special, something unique, something that pushed boundaries and subverted expectations? That was Treasure’s aim, and given we’re still talking about the freshness and glory of their foray into shmups multiple decades later—shmups that are still available to purchase today where many others are not—it’s hard to say they faltered in their goal.
Marc Normandin covers retro videogames at Retro XP, which you can read for free but support through his Patreon, and can be found on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.