Release Date: Nov 20, 1997
Developer: Square Co., Ltd.
Publisher Square Co., Ltd.
The shoot-‘em-up is one of my favorite video game genres. The love began with Tempest in the arcade, and it hasn’t subsided. What has subsided, however, is the genre. Nobody seems to be interested in making too many shooters outside of the indie space. Cuphead tided me over for a bit, but that’s a run-‘n-gun game. I love old-school SHMUPS (an acronym I still hate, but still) like Raiden and Time Pilot. And Einhänder.
The latter game, developed and published by SquareSoft before they were merged with Enix, is one of my favorite games for the Sony PlayStation. It’s a bit on the short side, and it has some technical issues that dull its sheen, but the gameplay is frenetic and enjoyable the entire time through. And it looks so damn pretty the entire time.
In Einhänder, you pilot the eponymous spacecraft. Einhänders are the experimental weapons of Selene, an Earth colony based on the moon. In 2242, Selene goes to war against the Earth in a bid for autonomy. Einhänders are special in that they sport a special arm that allows a change of armament mid-flight. That’s a good thing because enemies drop new weapons after destruction. And some of those weapons are especially juicy.
The game itself is a side-scrolling shooter that occasionally shifts its perspective a bit for cinematic effect. Usually, the shift in camera angle is meant to deal with obstacles the player’s ship faces. Those shifts in perspective show off a level of graphical prowess that wasn’t really possible prior to the PlayStation or Nintendo 64.
The game’s visuals weren’t limited to just changes in viewpoint. Graphically, Einhänder was top-notch for its time. The devil is in the details, and the details in this game were devilish for its time. Every little detail, from the lighting of enemies to the layout of the cities, is immaculate. Every object is polygonal, and every object brimmed with detail and character. The boss enemies dwarfed the player’s ship and still possessed minute details that added to the game’s visual brilliance. This game is a visual tour-de-force, and it holds up even today.
The mechanical arm teased in the Einhänders’ lore adds a gameplay mechanic that increases its playability. Einhänders have arms – yes, there can be two based on type – that allows the spacecraft to augment their firepower. When enemies drop gunpods, the Einhänders can equip them. The choice of gunpod – and choice of Einhänder – dictates how much pew-pew you can rain on enemies. The standard gunpods are simple cannons, Gatling guns, and missile launchers. But there are several special gunpods that can be unlocked after meeting certain criteria. Those gunpods, like the Juno or the Mosquito, are unlocked after either finding them or meeting certain goals. There are extra gunpods that can be unlocked in more convoluted ways. And the unlocked gunpods are worth the effort!
The underlying strategy of deciding what gunpod is equipped where is not trivial. Having certain gunpods at the ready helps turn the tide of battle. That element of strategy is normally lacking from shoot-’em-ups. In this genre, firepower is superior. That’s usually handled with simple power-ups. But having the ability to dictate exactly how Einhänder brings the boom-boom is essential to its gameplay.
More importantly, where the gunpod is equipped has tactical importance. Einhänders can equip gunpods both above and below itself. Some weapons, like the Vulcan, may be useful below your ship. But for certain play styles, it’s useful above it. These strategic decisions can help extend or doom the gameplay.
Adding the fact each gunpod carries limited ammunition – base ammunition has no ammo restriction – really forces pilots to plan out exactly where they want to unleash the boom-boom and how often they can. Cannons typically have very low ammo but pack a serious punch. The Vulcan or Wasp both have more ammo and can spray enemies, but it’s less powerful. What gunpod you equip and how you plan to use it will determine how you handle battles.
Sometimes, prodigious boom-boom is sorely needed. During the game’s six stages, players will encounter progressively more difficult and more powerful foes. As usual in a shoot-‘em-up, the number of baddies present will seem overwhelming at times. The presence of the enemies is explained within the story arc Einhänder maintains throughout. The conflict between Selene and Earth is further contextualized, and by the game’s end becomes more than just lampshade hanging. Players become heavily invested in the story well before the final outcome. By the time they get there, the frenetic gameplay and tactical choices in armament should have them invested to a certain degree.
All of this shoot-‘em-up goodness is encapsulated in a soundtrack that is equal parts subdued, tone-specific, and outright generic. Sometimes, the only thing heard is the narration and the blasts, with the occasional siren or explosion. Other times, the soundtrack is muted, hoping to only punctuate certain scenes. But mostly, the music is typical shooter fare. After the first stage, the score is sloppier and more generic to me, relying on typical techno beats to get by. For audiophiles like me, the game’s soundtrack falls off a cliff after the first stage.
Eventually, the other usual drawbacks of shoot-‘em-ups mar Einhänder. Like I said before, there are only six stages in the game. The stages are divided and presented as cohesive sequences in Selene’s quest to defeat Earth. But outside the narrative structure or player skill, there isn’t much left. Most shoot-‘em-ups are short, and Einhänder is as well. Also, my misgivings with the soundtrack consistently pop up at certain points. I don’t have to have a game sing to me constantly, but when it sings the wrong tune, I’m not pleased. And typical techno beats grate on me eventually.
The narrative also doesn’t have real weight until you’re nearly at the end. This is a minor issue, as when the story’s weight hits, it’s massive. But being dragged along for two-thirds of the game with a generic story makes the sudden turn more notable. Like the music, I don’t need an epic tale entirely throughout. But I’d like the story to matter well before I get to the end.
Does it still hold up, though? I think it definitely does. As a shoot-‘em-up fan, I always gravitate towards the type of gameplay that Einhänder provides. I know the genre doesn’t usually provide dozens of hours of gameplay or enthralling storytelling. One of my favorites in the genre, Deathsmiles for the Xbox 360, has a story shallower than a puddle inside a bottle cap. But the gameplay riveted me. Einhänder riveted me for most of the same reasons. Yes, Deathsmiles is a danmaku (bullet hell) shooter, so both it and Einhänder are not comparable. But the level of excitement is similar.
Both Deathsmiles and Einhänder are rich in gameplay. Einhänder wins out due to its better narrative, and its gameplay is not as shallow as Deathsmiles. The latter game is about nothing except hot anime babes and killing extremely weird creatures. But it’s awesome enough to require repeated playthroughs. Einhänder accomplishes much the same with less craziness but more technical chops.
Thankfully, I don’t have to fire up my PlayStation 2 (remember when PlayStation cared about backward compatibility?) If I want to play Einhänder, I have options. A digital port is residing on my PlayStation 3. If I had a Vita (seriously, anyone wanna sell me one cheap? Hit me up!), I’d have a copy there, too. I do have a PSP, though, and it’s available there. So that may be enough for me.
Regardless of platform, Einhänder is a great game. No, it’s not perfect, and yea, only hardcore SHMUP (that word once again!) fans will love it. But the frenetic pace, strategy elements, and twitch gameplay pull in folks who want to play a game up to completion. And the narrative – when it decides to try – will suck players in.
Good: Great visuals; awesome tactical gameplay; enjoyable shoot-‘em-up gameplay
Bad: Story not entertaining until later; soundtrack is generic most of the time
Final score: 8/10