Then and Now – UN Squadron

23 Feb

Then:

This was a special one, to me at least. I only managed to pick a copy up for myself in recent weeks, but UN Squadron was one of my favourite SNES games. I had to spend plenty of time in a friend’s house to play it, but it all seemed worthwhile when I was dropping bombs and blowing stealth fighters out of the sky. The game was fast and tough, but I adored it, from the variety of planes on offer, to the bombing run bonus stages, there was something in UN Squadron that spoke to me. It was a reflex test, bullets filling the screen and enemies on the ground as well as in the sky. After spending the early years of my gaming life playing the similarly themed Harrier Attack on the Amstrad CPC, this was like someone switching the lights on. From the monochromatic to the intensely colourful, the basic to the complex, UN Squadron was like playing something that flew in from the future, a glimpse of what I was missing before I finally owned a Super Nintendo of my own. UN Squadron returned to my life in secondary school, after I turned compute classes into gaming sessions by putting emulators onto the school PCs. A surprise hit, most of my class ended up playing UN Squadron over Mario, Street Fighter and the few other games I downloaded. Yes, this was a special one alright.

The bosses are large and detailed

Now:

I hadn’t really considered that UN Squadron could be bad, it’s one of those games that holds an appeal for me that I can never quantify, everyone has a few of these and it’s hard to be critical. I realise however, that I was playing the game in situations where it was guaranteed a level of appreciation it may not garner when played in isolation. In a friend’s house it had the advantage of being one of my few 16-bit experiences before I owned a console with that kind of power. In school it benefitted from a simpler control scheme that suited play from a keyboard, no wonder it beat out Mario for popularity. Extended play could be its downfall, could destroy my love for it. Its times like this I start to question revisiting old games in such a critical manner. I could just boot it up every once in a while and play it for 10 minutes, I’d never know if it might let me down. Of course, once I started playing UN Squadron again, it wasn’t a case of not wanting to stop, more a case of not being able to.

Developed by Capcom for the CPS arcade system originally, UN Squadron was known as Area 88 in Japan, based on a Manga of the same name. It first appeared in arcades in 1989, and made it to the SNES in 1991. With three playable characters, a range of weapons and 10 distinct levels, there was a lot to like about the game, but arcade games can often suffer in conversion to home console, and it was the Mega Drive, Street Fighter the exception, that offered the best home versions of the coin guzzlers. Of course, not every port was a failure, so there seems little point in judging in advance, yet a palpable sense of trepidation took hold when I first picked up the controller and re-enlisted to the squadron.

Bright, colourful graphics help make the game accessible

The first thing that stands out with UN Squadron is the music. After the classic Capcom sound plays (and the mind recalls Street Fighter almost instantaneously) the games music kicks in, and it has the same instant catchiness of the best 16-bit soundtracks. It’s infectious, both setting the scene as you choose a level and aircraft and elevating the spirit, drawing the player into the cartoon-like visuals of the character select screen. The character models are large, anime styled pilots, stereotypical now, but unique then. There’s the floppy haired Shin, the ubiquitous ‘Top Gun’ aping Mickey and the ever-present older man, who’s rugged, has seen it all before and yet still smiles through it all. After that comes the plane selection, limited to a single choice at first, but after playing a few levels and earning cash, the dynamic of choosing aircraft and weapons comes into play. There are various fighters, each more powerful than the last, and with every enemy shot down more money is earned, with which to buy more powerful craft. The special weapons though, also command your coin, and finding a balance between a better plane and the bombs, napalm, shells and missiles needed to complete a stage without losing a life adds a welcome element of strategy which, while shallow, gives Squadron a unique selling point other side scrollers lack.

Of course, gameplay is what matters, and all the money earning and weapon buying becomes a cheap gimmick if the actual meat of the game can’t provide a worthwhile experience. It becomes almost immediately apparent that this won’t be an easy game. After a first wave of harmless helicopters, suddenly tanks and anti-aircraft guns are littering the sky with flashing balls of death, as the same helicopters fly suicidally towards you. This isn’t quite bullet hell, but it’s not far off at times, and when, after exhausting a life or two making your plane that little bit more powerful (power ups are not lost after loss of a life, rather your plane gains levels of experience) and buying some extra special weapons, the first boss fills the screen and promptly knocks you out of the sky. One continue lost, and back to the drawing board. With only three continues available to finish the game, this is a massive challenge, ten levels deep. What keeps UN Squadron’s appeal though, is not the weapon and plane upgrading, but the fact that, like all the best side scrolling shooters, it’s never cheap.

There's plenty of variation in locales

There is not one death that is unavoidable, when a hit is taken, there are so many empty spaces on screen that could have been occupied by the player it seems like the next time will be easy. Often it is, until the next section that knocks you back. With each character offering different abilities, such as less time to recover from a hit, or faster levelling up of weapons, there is a character to suit your play style, and that helps immensely. I immediately chose the character who upgraded the main gun of their plane fastest, and could finish the first level with ease after a little practice. Future levels though made me wish I’d chosen the faster recovery, as I’d suddenly find myself besieged by bullets and enemies. Helpfully, levels can be tackled in different orders, and bonus levels help add to the cash available to get a better plane. This ability to take on a different level makes getting stuck less likely, and keeps things interesting.

With all the additional features UN Squadron brings to 2D shooting, it would be easy to forget the impressive gameplay, were it not so wonderfully crafted. Squadron has the perfect level of challenge, even for a beginner. It never, ever feels impossible, just very, very difficult, and yet each level is incredibly good fun, and with that ability to return after death with a better plane and more weapons, means that no effort is wasted. Without the cheapness of some similar games, which just have far too much going on, UN Squadron still manages to move along at a consistently frantic pace, allowing only just enough time to take a breath before each fresh wave of enemies. It’s relentless and absolutely addictive, just as a good shooter should be. I needn’t have worried about this one, it’s still special.

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One Response to “Then and Now – UN Squadron”

  1. David Boden November 10, 2011 at 9:54 pm #

    Indeed. It’s a super, super game.

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