Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

R-Type (Irem)

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Irem is a developer that was quintessential in the 80s for many of the classic games we know and love, especially on the NES.  It is no shock to me that I just recently found out that among classics like Kung-Fu, Kid Nikki: Radical Ninja and the only playable version of a Ghostbusters video game (Ghostbusters II), that they are also responsible for the impressive shmup R-Type.  For many gamers, you’ve probably seen footage of R-Type or played a game based on it at one point or another in your life.  Furthermore, it has spanned the test of time and continues to see releases even nowadays.  In the late 1980s, with its impressive graphics and a first boss that looked rather close to the xenomorph in the movie Aliens, it was all about making the newest port and getting that screenshot into gaming magazines.  R-Type was ported to so many consoles that the number of ports is longer than the coverage on the versions themselves.

The infamous screenshot that every port wanted to look like.

Trial and Error

Releasing in 1987 on coin-op arcades, the most notable feature that distinguishes R-Type from other shmups of the time is how unfairly hard it is.  The entire series is loosely based on playing levels to learn the ideal path and memorize the enemy spawns in order to complete them.  Try the game out, you’ll see what I mean.  You will find yourself cheering over completing the first level, let alone the game.  It’s a difficult title to show off to gamers these days because you’re either amazing at it or you completely suck and the only way to improve is to practice and die…a lot.  For true gluttons, I’ve also noticed a “no death mode” dip switch on my original arcade PCB of this game that forces every new play to get a game over upon one death.  So, technically, I guess Irem invented the “one life playthrough”.

Not that plot is terribly important, but the name of the game derives from the spaceship you pilot.  The R-9a Arrowhead, noted for its shape, is the ninth model in the “R” series of spacecraft, although your ship is the first one that was dubbed combat ready, previous iterations were all stilted in prototype status.  Your enemy has a name, the Bydo Empire, although not much information has been given on the offset and there’s some terribly broken logic in its creation – the game takes place in the 22nd century but the Bydo were supposedly created in the 26th.  Whatever the origin or timetable, the lesson and origins are clear: Bydo is a manmade creation that ended up getting out of hand and threatens to wipe us out.  We are the progenitors of our own end, a theme commonly discussed in Japanese popular culture.

R-Type‘s weapon system is what separates it from other shmups in that it doesn’t rely so much on upgrading your weapons as it does on controlling them.  Your wave cannon, the main weapon on the R-9a, can be charged at all times, creating stronger and stronger bursts.  For this reason it is important for players to establish a balance between the button mashing of a traditional shmup and the patience to charge a powerful shot.  Each enemy’s ability to withstand such firepower is varied, one of the many things you will need to get familiar with before doing an outstanding run in the game.  In addition, the first power-up icon you get will have a pod show up on-screen – supposedly it’s known as a “force” but I always called it “pod” – and can attach to the front or back of the ship.  On the front of the ship it fires secondary fire forward and is indestructible, therefore acting like a shield of sorts; on the back of the ship, the same effect only it shoots backward and protects the rear of the ship.  From this point you can collect three colored power-ups on random enemies – red, yellow and blue – each with varying effects and each getting more powerful if you stick to a color.  You can also collect mini pods that attach at the top and bottom to assist as firepower, although unlike the main pod they can be destroyed.  There is also a missile power-up, which adds homing missiles that can be the difference between life and death when things get hairy.

As serious as R-Type appears to be, it’s great to know that Irem themselves have not forgotten the shooters roots or how to have a sense of humor.  For most of the 2000s, Irem did annual April Fools Day jokes that incorporated various aspects of the R-Type series.


There wasn’t a home console in the 80s that didn’t want a port of R-Type, and it appears the most prominent versions were on microcomputers like the Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum (highest praise), MSX and NEC PC-88, all of which had little presence in the US.  That doesn’t mean we didn’t get plenty of opportunities over here, though, it appeared on the Commodore 64, Sega Master System, Atari ST and even the Gameboy, where the huge R-9a looked more menacing than any boss.  R-Type DX on Gameboy Color contained colored versions of the first two games on Gameboy.  The most arcade faithful port has to be, in my opinion, the PC-Engine/Turbografx-16 (yes, it came out on both) version.  R-Type II on the PC-Engine is actually the second part of R-Type for that release (it was split into two games, 4 levels each) whrereas the TG-16 port contains all 8 levels on one card.  R-Type Complete CD was original begun to bring R-Type II to the PC-Engine Super CD and received the original full game on the disc as well.  While aesthetically these different versions of R-Type are as varied as they come, each version attempts (and for the most part succeeds) in capturing the gameplay and level design of the arcade original.  Of course the one blemish on the page is that there is no Famicom/NES version, which is odd considering the large presence of Irem on those consoles and the fact that Nintendo published the game in North America.  Perhaps it has to do with the licensing agreements on the NES/Famicom, which wouldn’t allow ports to any other consoles, but I have not yet found an official reason.  Supposedly there’s an unlicensed game called Magic Dragon that is a port of R-Type and compatible with both the Famicom and NES but aside from Wikipedia, I’ve never seen it.

You can pick up the TG-16 port and the Master System ports of R-Type in the Wii Virtual Console.  R-Types is a PS1 release that contains this title and its sequel in one package along with a preview video of R-Type Delta. In addition, you can pick up R-Type Dimensions, which contains ports of the original and sequel in both upgraded and old school graphics on Xbox Live Arcade.

Series Love

The R-type series has been so influential over the years that there is a slew of games that either borrowed the concept completely or gives a nod within the gameplay.  Neo Geo developer Aicom created two titles, Pulstar and Blazing Star for the stellar 16-bit console that are basically R-Type clones from the mid 90s.  Rumors suggest that Aicom had former Irem employees making up part of its team, so the connection makes sense.  Konami also created an arcade only called Xexex that was only released in Japan, which acts as a hybrid shmup with R-Type and Gradius.  It’s also a bonus item on the Japanese Salamander Portable on PSP, probably one of the best compilations to ever release (and one of the most expensive).  Developer Alumer, known for a slew of Mahjong and random arcade games, created a shmup entitled Rezon that is supposedly another clone of R-Type from 1991, although I haven’t hunted it down in MAME yet.  Katakis is a Factor 5 shmup on the Amiga and C64 that have been touted by fans of the consoles as the superior port of R-Type over the official port.  Turrican II features an entire level that takes place on a ship and before boarding it appears to be a copy of the R-9a Arrowhead.  Even the Treasure shooter Radiant Silvergun features an Arrowhead-like ship as an enemy boss.

R-Type II

This is a six-level follow-up to the original shmup released in arcades two years after the original in 1989.  Its gameplay is extremely similar to the original with only a few tweaks and just like the original it requires familiarity and often memorization of the level configuration to successfully complete.  In addition, it is required to complete the game twice, the second time with increased difficulty, in order to see the “true” ending.  As a result, I have never personally gotten the true ending.  Because this title felt much like a continuation of the original, the two games are often paired together or created into hybrid games when re-released.


An Amiga version was very close to the arcade version, although large considerations in graphics and sound had to be made due to hardware limitations.  Also quite faithful is the Gameboy port, although it had only five of the six levels in it and localization changed some of the boss names.  Super R-Type, the first official release in the series on a Nintendo console, premiered in 1991 and was fully developed by Irem.  While it’s technically considered a hybrid of the two first titles, supposedly of the seven levels, four come from R-Type II and three were brand new developed games.  This is easily the hardest game in the series, even with the traditional slowdown all shmups get on the SNES, because death brings you back to the beginning of the level instead of a checkpoint.  Irem does consider this game to be a unique title in the series as opposed to a re-release or port.  This game can be found on the SNES Wii Virtual Console.  As previously mentioned, R-Type Complete CD contains the first two games on PC-Engine Super CD, R-Type DX on Gamboy color contains the first two titles portably, R-Types on the PS1 (and now PSN/SEN for PSP/PS3) also contains both games as does R-Type Dimensions on XBLA with both original and updated graphics.

Armed Police Unit Gallop

Mostly unknown to non-fans of the series, this is the third installment in R-Type, also developed by Irem and released only in arcades.  This time around you control R-11B PeaceMaker, a new type of R-Unit, through five levels and you are battling machines and ships that the Bydo have supposedly taken control over.  Although some mild updates were made to the power-ups for your pod, this is just another iteration in the series that requires you to memorize upcoming obstacles.  It is listed as the third game in the series on R-Types and is included in R-Type Final on PS2.  Aside from that port, I have not played the game elsewhere and I am unsure if it ever released in US arcades.

R-Type Leo

Another arcade only side story in the R-Type universe and the fourth official game developed by Irem.  This time around humans are attempting to establish a new planet sanctuary known as Eden complete with a management and security computer known as “Major”.  When Major malfunctions and attempts to destroy the human presence on Eden, the new Leo type R-9 units are dispatched to take the computer defense system out.  Like Armored Police Unit Gallop this is another R-Type title where you are battling machinery instead of an alien presence.  What is most significant about R-Type Leo is that there are no pods, or force, to unlock or maintain and instead the firepower is solely controlled by the ship.  It is also the first game to offer co-operative play, all previous titles had the players taking turns, and instant respawns upon death.  For this reason the title, like Salamander in the Gradius series, is considered the easiest iteration.

Finally, a 3rd Game

R-Type III: The Third Lightening returns to the original format, updates the pod/force system and continues the official series.  This time around it was only available on the SNES in 1994 (1993 in Japan) and contained different types of pods in addition to different weapons per pod.  This is the first time the pod system branched out and included elemental-type defenses.  The new ship is the R-90 Ragnarok and has the same basic wave beam that was in the previous titles.  This game was still developed by Irem and contained more alien-like worlds and enemies, although it never saw an arcade release.  It was later ported to the Gameboy Advance by Raylight Studios and also re-released in SNES format on the Wii Virtual Console.  The only notable difference between versions is that the second boss is a sperm in Japan whereas it was localized to look like eyeballs in the US, although it clearly still looks like sperm.

Delta Force

The fourth official addition to the series made the move, like so many other series, from Nintendo to Sony with the release of R-Type Delta on the Playstation.  This is the first game in the series to feature full 3D rendered graphics, although it is still a side-scrolling shmup, and contrary to rumors is not a 3D rendered version of the original.  In this title your force isn’t different collected pods and rather you select different ships to define your pod/force type.  The R-9a Delta, R-13 Cerberus and R-X Albatross have their own weapon structure along with the unlockable POW Armor ship that has been seen as an enemy in previous iterations.  Your pod now has the new “dose system” as well, which allows it to absorb energy from touching bullets and enemies, unlocking a massive attack when the meter is full.  This game has been re-released on the PSN/SEN PSOne classics collection.


R-Type Final released on the PS2 and is still developed by Irem, easily one of the biggest reason they are still around.  This was supposed to be the final game in the series, hence the title and the massive amount of content.  With more than 100 unlockable ships and 83 variations on force/pods and wave cannons, it’s a bit overwhelming at first.  For hardcore fans of the series (or now those that have read this article) the game fills in a lot of plot and creates stories for the various aspects of the Bydo wars waging.  Graphically the game has an impressive polygonal upgrade, like we’ve seen with other series, although the sudden jump from 1998’s Delta to 2003’s Final makes for a dramatic visual change.  This title also has completely diverse soundtracks worldwide with the US version containing Blue Man Group, although many consider the Japanese soundtrack to be a traditional upgrade to the classic style of music.


PSP did receive two more iterations to the series with R-Type: Tactics (Command in the US) and R-Type Tactics II: Operation Bitter Chocolate (Japan only), but these are huge tactical RPGs.  Since they resemble but aren’t technically shmups, I’ve decided (shock!) not to cover these titles.

Whew, R-Type is a huge and frantic series that will mark the pinnacle of talent at Irem.  Furthermore the series is a tribute to the way games used to play and how the shmup defies the traditions of contemporary gaming.  Tomorrow we discuss for the first time in a week a different type of shmup, the vertical shmup, with a series that helped launch it all: the Raiden series.

Written by Fred Rojas

March 6, 2012 at 1:00 pm

Posted in Shmuppreciation 2012

Tagged with , , ,

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