Author: John LegendoffZelda
ScrewAttack, the most reputable of all video game journalism websites that are named after Metroid items, offered one of their more interesting opinions when they declared U.N. Squadron one of the greatest 2-D shmups ever made. In response to this decision of theirs, I say, “sure, why not”. U.N. Squadron is honestly a game that excels in all fields it’s in: It’s a very good Super Nintendo game, a very good shmup, and a very good Capcom game. To love this game is to know Capcom, a company that left its thumbprint on this game in the form of tight gameplay, strong emphasis on strategy, and a satisfying gaming experience.
The only part of this game that isn’t Capcom’s is the subject material. U.N. Squadron is an adaptation of a manga from between 1979 and 1986 called Area 88; the game is only loosely related to it, but in any case this game stands to be the best Super Nintendo game based on a manga or anime.
The game has a distinctly Capcom beginning however, one that demonstrates everything that is required of the player from the start. After selecting one of three playable characters (all of which were from the manga, not that it’s of much relevance), the player is shown a map with one available level, followed by a pair of menus showing one available fighter plane out of six and three available secondary weapons out of eleven to go with the plane. The catch is, they only have $3,000 with which to buy these weapons, and only two are within their price range. After choosing to either buy one or forego both, the player is sent off to the actual level, an isolated base in the desert where they must shoot at enemy helicopters, tanks, and turrets to advance. The player has a health bar that, rather than depleting increment by increment, depletes totally when the plane is hit and leaves the plane in a state of temporary one hit vulnerability. When the health bar is totally empty, your plane starts flashing. If you get hit while your plane is flashing, the player goes down with one hit.
The beauty of this first level is that either completing it or losing a life takes the player back to the plane selection menu, except this time their $3,000 has increased. Right here, the game brings full attention to the game’s Bounty system; in addition to a regular score, the player also has a dollar amount that increases with each enemy eliminated. It can be increased by repeating levels until they’re finished, or through bonus stages chosen on the world map where the goal is to destroy enemy convoys. This is how they are able to access all available alt-weapons, as well as buy and unlock more planes that can handle different alt-weapons. If the player couldn’t beat the level at first, the option is now available to buy all three accessible alt-weapons, including a handy super-weapon. Now you can finish the level with greater ease and advance in the game.
These alt-weapons are crucial in getting through U.N. Squadron. As the levels get harder and the enemies become more difficult to hit, their use becomes more and more beneficial. One boss level, involving a big submarine that shoots fragmenting missiles and leaps from below the ocean’s surface like a whale, invites the use of ground weapons like bombs; another one involves a swarm of enemy pilots who fly out of the player’s line of fire and sometimes into their flight path, and invites the use of all-directional cluster bombs or homing missiles. The player is able to pick up power boosters that over time level up their plane to fire more powerful projectiles, but that’s better suited to taking out linear streams of enemies. Being able to fire in one direction doesn’t mean much when the player is being bombarded on all sides, or if the boss’ weak point is in another direction altogether. In the event that the player loses to the boss anyway, they can go back and try again, and this time they can try a re-organized alt-weapon list. Even if they lose all their lives, they have the option to continue playing, with all of their Bounty, accessed planes, and power-ups intact. (This could be a remnant of the game’s 1989 arcade origins, as a means of getting players to keep paying quarters to keep going; the difference here is that the home version is free.)
Strategizing with these weapons assists in progress and by racking up the Bounty through defeating enemies with them, the player is able to get more planes that handle more alt-weapons. When they reach a level that invites, say, the use of a spread-shot, the option can be there for them.
Putting these game mechanics together – the Bounty system, the challenging enemy placement, the burden-lifting alt-weapons and the benevolent continuing option – shows just how integral they are to U.N. Squadron, and it also emphasizes how highly Capcom thinks of the player when it’s played for long enough. Capcom is your friend.
With all this gushing about the game’s mechanics and such put aside, U.N. Squadron is just a great shmup, and a more than fine launch title for the Super Nintendo. Like other worthy shmups, it’s high-spirited and intrepid. The graphics are bright and involve a broad spectrum of colors, although they’re rather muted and not very stylistically organized. Nothing is meant to stand out. The music serves the task of fighting heavily-armed military forces well; it’s rollicking, triumphant and often non-serious. Even with levels with a boss fight taking place high in the stormy sky, where the background and the synthesized guitars seem to convey a sense of doom, the music seamlessly introduces a synthesized saxophone and the player soon thinks the music wouldn’t be out of place on National Public Radio.
Sort of the defining feature about U.N. Squadron is its theme. While games like Super R-Type and Gradius III went for the vast gloominess of space, this game finds an appreciation for military vehicles here on solid ground and in the atmosphere. With this and games like 1943, Capcom asserted what they found interesting in shmups. Some developers chose the maps of outer-space that said “Here there be aliens”, but Capcom preferred the earthly maps that said “Here there be military aircraft”. U.N. Squadron, barring both its faintly silly name and its up-to-the-minute relevancy (one of the bosses is a Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, which had only publicly flown for two years when this game was released), is a distinguished observation of what sort of people Capcom are; they like military planes, they like making impeccably-designed games, and they like you. They may even get you to like military planes, too.
Five out of five stars.
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