The Raiden series may be the best SHMUP series ever created, but it suffers in relative obscurity. It came about during a sort of lull in terms of the western SHMUP scene - it started on the tail end of games your dad spent too many quarters on (Galaga, Xevious, et al), but mostly released before the wave of lolicon fan-service shooters that are popular today (Touhou, CAVE, et al). In this article, I’ll be detailing my experience with the Raiden series, and I’ll attempt to explain why I’ve so fallen in love with it (and R-Type - but that’s a topic for another day).
Note, I’ll try to post the first level of each game I discuss, but if I can’t find it, I’ll just post some other gameplay footage. :> Also note that I’ll only be discussing the version of each game I’ve actually played, since I can’t really comment on versions I don’t have access to.
This is the original Raiden game. My first experience with the Raiden series came as part of The Raiden Project for PS1. I have memories of this game from before I even popped it in the PS1 - I distinctly remember picking this game up used at a Rogers Video in Kitchener, ON, and my dad shouting “RAIDEN!” when he found it in a clearance bin. My dad was never really a gamer, but he did have a thing for playing SHMUPS and lightgun games whenever he took my brother and I to the arcade as a kid.
Anyway, the first Raiden is a great game, but it’s definitely primitive compared to its eventual successors. The graphics and soundtrack aren’t quite as nice as those found in Raiden II, and your power-ups are restricted to just two variations - the weaker “spread shot” machine guns, and the stronger laser, which has a very narrow field of range. You also only get one type of bomb (admittedly, the superior type), and the bosses aren’t too complicated in terms of transformations or attacks. It’s a very basic SHMUP as far as games of its era go, but it’s still really fun to play and there’s really not much negative I can say about it. I think the only minor gripe I DO have is that every time you die, you’re sent back to a checkpoint, instead of just respawning less one life in the same spot you died. This checkpoint system works well in R-Type (a game designed primarily around pattern memorization), but not so much in Raiden, where the patterns are not overly complicated. If you die, it’s typically because you didn’t react fast enough.
And it must be said - the explosion sound effects in this game (and its sequel) are some of the best things ever produced by a video game sound effects department.
Raiden II (1993)
Raiden II is probably my favourite game in the series. I think the Raiden Fighters games are probably objectively better (we’ll cover those another day), but I know Raiden II like the back of my hand. I can’t say it’s just nostalgia though - while a lot of game I played and loved around the same time of my life (Mega Man X3, Jersey Devil, BioFreaks, etc.) all aged very poorly, Raiden II still holds up today. It’s nearly impossible for me to put the game down until I run out of lives - it’s just so great.
The video I included here is great, too. The author put several great annotations that explains some of the mechanics of the game better than I could, but I’ll still give my spin on things.
Raiden II betters its sequel in literally every way. The soundtrack is better (especially the PS1-exclusive “arrange” version which is not played in the above video - I loves me some early CD-quality midi arrangements). The graphics are better. The sprite animations, especially on the bosses, are way better. They added an additional weapon type called the “plasma beam” that snakes around enemies and drains their HP. There’s a second bomb type (a barrage of small missiles) that kinda sucks, but looks cool. They also added missile power-ups on top of the main weapon - the basic straight missile hits for big damage, and the homing missile is a homing missile that hits for weaker damage.
And yeah, the explosions are better too. Just watch that first boss... Oh lawdy.
Basically, Raiden II represents some of the very best in the SHMUP genre as a whole. It’s a fantastic game, and I highly recommend it. Trouble is, it’s not nearly as common as the first Raiden; you can’t even run it with MAME, and it’s not on most digital collections. The only way I know of playing this game in North America is through The Raiden Project, which starts at around $30 disc-only on eBay. Still! Fantastic game, and worth every penny.
Raiden III (2005)
Raiden III kinda sucks. To give a bit of history, Raiden III was created by MOSS, a development team comprised of most of the original Raiden team from Seibu Kaihatsu. When Seibu went bankrupt, it effectively closed its game development division (though to my understanding, they still make arcade cabinets in Japan). From its ashes rose MOSS.
Anyway. I have a problem with 95% of 3D SHMUPS in general... They are usually awful. Now, this is for a number of reasons, and all are true of Raiden III - your ship moves really fucking slow, it feels like there’s a slight delay between you pushing a button and that action happening on screen (a huge problem in these kinds of games), the bigger colour palette means that enemy projectiles can often be difficult to distinguish from the background, and the lighting effect on both projectiles and explosion effects causes everything to blend together in one giant graphical blur. It’s also really difficult to distinguish any kind of detail in enemy crafts and background design, which means the game feels like one giant blur of grey with neon effects all over the place. I really don’t like this style of game, and I really don’t enjoy Raiden III at all.
Also, they got rid of my two favourite things in Raiden II - the explosion sound effects sound fucking terrible (mostly because you can barely hear them), and they replaced the screen-clearing plasma beam with some shitty green laser thing I want to called the “windshield wiper”. Also, the music is really, REALLY bad. That high-pitched synth in the video above makes me wish I was deaf. Oh lawdy.
But, if you watch the video and decide you like what you see, it’s on the PSN store for a measly $5.99. Even compared to indie SHMUPS on Steam, which are rarely even as good as Raiden III, that’s a great price.
Raiden IV (2007)
Raiden IV represents a very definite return-to-form for the series on the whole. It’s by MOSS, the same group that made Raiden III, but it actually fixes most of the problems that game had.
For one thing, the graphics are a LOT better. The leap to HD actually seems to fix most of the gripes I normally have about polygon-based SHMUPS in the first place. The additional detail means that you’re much more able to see enemy projectiles, boss transformations, etc. The enemies are easier to tell apart, and the explosion effects don’t muddle the screen like they did in III. It’s a massive improvement in every respect.
But most importantly, the explosions are back to Raiden II quality, instead of that muted Ikaruga-style bullshit Raiden III tried to pull.
The soundtrack is significantly better, too. I’ve noticed that a lot of the tracks are subtle remixes of Raiden I and II music, but the original stuff ranges from “tolerable” to “great” as well. Across the board, the sound design is significantly overhauled such that a power-up sounds right, enemies go boom the way you’d expect, and everything just sounds great. The only fault I’d express in this regard is that the music is a bit too quiet on default settings, but you can adjust this, thankfully. Same goes for the screen - it’s too small on default settings, but you can fix this.
Also, the plasma beam is back! You have the option of choosing between the Raiden II snake-style beam, or the shitty Raiden III windshield wiper type. Just go with the snake one. I still have some minor issues seeing enemy projectiles, but it’s far less frequent than in Raiden III. Additionally, there doesn’t seem to be any noticeable input lag.
All in all, Raiden IV is a great game, and you should pick it up. I bought (and have been playing) the PS3 “Overkill” version for $5 on PSN recently, and if you can snag it at that price, it’s a steal. The 360 version can be commonly found for around $20 complete as well, so you’re really not missing out either way. The PS3 “Overkill” version just adds a new mode with a different scoring system, but it kind of sucks - it gets rid of the old scoring system and bases your score on how many coins you can collect from exploded enemies. I am really not a fan of this “collect the 10,000 coins cluttering up the screen” thing that a lot of modern SHMUPS are doing, so for me, it’s completely pointless.
All of these games (except Raiden III) are good, and you should make a point of trying them out if you have the means. Raiden IV is definitely the easiest one to get your hands on, but Raiden III also exists on the PS2 and as a PS2 classic. I also highly recommend The Raiden Project for PS1, which contains the best versions of Raiden I and II on the same disc. If none of these are viable options, you can get Raiden I (along with the three Raiden Fighters games) on GOG and the Google Play store for like $10. Raiden I has had a number of releases and ports, and is easily accessible through MAME emulation. Just avoid Raiden Trad for the SNES, because it’s missing levels and lags worse than WoW on dial-up.
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