RF Generation.  The Classic and Modern Gaming Databases.RF Generation.  The Classic and Modern Gaming Databases.

Posted on Nov 28th 2018 at 08:00:00 AM by (SirPsycho)
Posted under Squaresoft, playstation, shooter, shmup, scrolling shooter

In 1997, Squaresoft was starting to toy around with developing games that were not role playing games. For the first time since the 8-bit era, they were looking to expand their portfolio beyond a single genre. They had published and released two vastly different fighting games in 1997, Tobal No. 1 and Bushido Blade. Outside of fighting games, Square had created a subsidiary called Aques (only missing an 'R' to be an anagram of Square), who primarily published sports and mahjong games. Most of these forays were in the realm of publishing, but internally Square was developing their own game that broke their traditional RPG mold. A team was using the technology Square had bought and developed for Final Fantasy VII to create a 2D arcade style scrolling shooter with 3D elements. Final Fantasy VII was released in Japan in January 1997, while a shooter called Einhander, released in November. Einhander was released in North America in 1998. The title of the game is German and translates to English as 'one-handed sword.' Despite the German influence, the game never saw a European release.

The name of this game is more than a stylistic choice. The ship players control has a hand for holding onto the game's various power-ups called Gunpods. These pods offer various ways to attack and damage enemies and bosses. The Einhander is not defenseless, it has a machine gun on top of the various gunpods. The different pods have their own ammo, so they eventually deplete. Players who gather multiple of the same type of gunpod will add to their ammo pool. The ship has the ability to use its arm to mount the equipped gunpod either above or below the ship, which allows players to shoot at different angles. At the beginning of the game, there is a selection between three different ships (with two others that are secrets), and each of these ships has their own characteristics. At first, this is almost a difficulty selector. Fewer gunpod mounts make juggling between the gunpods harder or impossible, and the ability to keep an extra in reserve is obviously limited or disabled. Having more than one machine gun is almost useless since most of the ship's power comes from gunpods. However, this basic machine gun is deadly at close range, since only a few shots can be on screen at once.

The main setting of the game involves a war between the Moon and the Earth, with the Einhanders themselves being three prototype ships sent down with suicidal fighter pilots. Earth has united into a totalitarian and dystopian government after seeing an apocalyptic, orbital bombardment from forces of the Moon. The Moon sends these ships down to the surface of Earth for scouting missions and hit and run attacks. Their first target of their last operation was to scout out the Imperial Capital. These experimental fighters prove to be more than a match for the technologically backwards Earth forces to deal with. Before this mission, the survival rate of Einhander pilots was 0%. Of course, only a great pilot can achieve their mission before meeting their maker.

While flying through the cosmopolitan capital, pilots will first notice the overall setting. It's dark and oppressive, since the game takes plenty of dystopian and cyberpunk inspirations. While the game functions as a 2D shooter, the camera does pan at certain scripted areas of levels to give a more rounded view of enemies, or just to add some cinematic flair to specific parts. Enemies the pilots will encounter are quite varied, ranging from small and weak threats, all the way up to bosses that are larger than the field of view. Pilots have the ability to scroll the screen up and down in many areas, showing another one of the game's greatest strengths, variety of the level design. Each level has multiple zones, some areas of these zones allow extra maneuverability, while others do not.

Einhander has seven levels, all of which are quite varied. The levels have two bosses each, a mid boss and the final stage boss. These fights are epic, as unlike many shooters that came before it, the scrolling continues. Some of these fights have phases that are time dependent, while others are damage dependent. These bosses are generally easy to defeat with a bit of practice and coming into the fights with the correct gunpod. The original Japanese release included a 'Free' mode, which gave players unlimited continues but disabled the scoring system. This scoring system includes a bar which fills up as enemies are killed and adds to a score multiplier. The lack of the 'Free' mode in the North American release makes it a rare game where the international release is more difficult than the Japanese.

While the graphics have aged, they still have a fine quality to them. This is likely helped by the fact there are few humans seen, with the most prominent one being a large advertisement in the first level; this decision keeps the visual quality high. The various ships and enemies are quite detailed, and the large bosses still look great, showing that the art design for the game is incredibly strong. While contemporary, high-quality, 2D fighters may have aged better overall in the graphics department, Einhander is still no slouch.

The game's soundtrack is one of the main shining stars of the game. It was composed by Kenichiro Fukui and it has a myriad of genres present throughout, with electronic influences being the most powerful. This soundtrack has enjoyed rave reviews since its release, and was even reissued by Square Enix a full 10 years after the game's original release. A great soundtrack is basically a requirement to be a great shooter, and Einhander delivers on that front.

Overall, Einhander is a ridiculously strong shooter, one of the most well-designed on the entire Playstation. This is no small feat as just about everybody was either developing from scratch, or porting their great arcade shooters to the console during its height. The price tag the game commands in late 2018 is quite high, with complete North American copies regularly selling for over $100. Sales were good for its time, but shooters as a whole were starting to sell less than in previous generations. This has lead to Einhander being rather uncommon, likely drowned out even more by the sheer volume of different games released for the original Playstation. Finding a copy for a good price is quite an achievement today, and the game should be played, enjoyed, and cherished by any shooter fan that's lucky enough to scrounge up enough change from their couch.

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Einhander is my third favorite shoot em up on the PS1. I imported it a month after it came out and if it wasn't for Gradius Gaiden it would be my most impressive game on the PS1. Look for this title to surface next year as a schmup club game.
I'm glad to see Einhander get some love! I was always a big fan of it, but it's a game not many people remember, in my experience. As a scifi shooter with great graphics, a killer soundtrack, and from the people who made Final Fantasy, it blew me away when it first came out. I still have my copy from back then; it's in great shape and remains one of my favorite pieces from my collection. It's disappointing to hear the international version didn't get the freeplay mode. I could never get further than the 2nd level, but I always wanted to see beyond that point.
I love me some Einhander! This is definitely one of my favorite shmups on the PlayStation, and one of the titles in the ultimate 3D shmup triumvirate on the system, which also includes RayStorm and G Darius. 3 of the finest shooting games in the 32-bit era, and well worth playing. Great write-up! Definitely agree on the soundtrack. I still listen to it regularly, and I love the energy it has.
@zophar53: The game does have a great increasing cascade of difficulty. But overall it is quite difficult, getting deep into the game, frantically learning new enemies before they kill you, and getting to a new boss is as thrilling as it is frightening.

I don't think its been forgotten, just a hidden gem. Now that everybody's been making hidden gem articles and videos the price has just spiked upwards. This game specifically is one of my luckiest finds during my years of collecting. I found it in a dumpster when the game was going for about $50, now that price has more than doubled.

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