Monday, October 27, 2014

Top Ten Games: 10. Soukyugurentai

Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing an essay a week about my top 10 video games, starting with number 10 and working my way up. This week I start with number 10, Soukyugurentai.

10. Soukyugurentai/Terra Diver (Sega Saturn)

The game begins with a nighttime seaside view of a corporate colony city in 2058, with the planet Mars looming overhead. One after another, a team of three mercenary ships descends upon the corporate colony ships and attacks. The intro ends with the three mercenaries ascending the blood red sky of Mars.

Thus begins the story of Soukyugurentai, or Terra Diver as it is very infrequently known to the few who might have managed to run across an English version of the arcade PCB (short for “printed circuit board”). Most people who have played it know it as Soukyugurentai. It’s slightly more difficult to say but it sounds a little bit cooler and less Dio-inspired, which is perfectly fine by me.

Soukyugurentai came out during a time when the Saturn saw a huge run of amazing two-dimensional shooting games, or “shmups” as they are affectionately known. Soukyugurentai is often paired with Radiant Silvergun, another Saturn game that came out around the same time. Radiant Silvergun is the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band to Souky’s Revolver. Both games are shmups. But where Radiant Silvergun is epic, ponderous, innovative, and genre-bending, Souky is a straight-ahead rock-and-roll shooter. Like Revolver, it showcases a team of developers working at the absolute top of their game, using every trick they know how to use to make an unforgettable science-fiction shooty experience. Radiant Silvergun uses an explosion of colors and polygons and scaling tricks, to the point where it barely looks like a two-dimensional game. Souky uses a bunch of smart scaling tricks, but uses mostly a darker color palette. When the game does bring out its special effects, it makes it all the more breathtaking. Take this example from the third stage, my favorite in the game. The entire stage takes place in one continuous cut from 5000 feet above the ground, among the clouds, through a rapid decent, all the way to the bottom of the planet. The level boss is visible almost from the moment you begin the stage, just after you pass through the first layer of clouds. It scales into view, closer and closer, till it finally comes into view in its full monstrosity. Watch this YouTube video:

Another interesting point of comparison between Radiant Silvergun and Soukyugurentai is the soundtrack. Both games were composed by the same man, Hitoshi Sakimoto. Known best in the West for his work on Final Fantasy Tactics, Sakimoto has a baroque style, and likes to use a lot of theme and variation in his work. But once again, while his work in Radiant Silvergun is especially operatic and orchestral in tone, Souky’s soundtrack is much more electronic and artificial. But the stage music in Souky seems much more closely tied to the dynamics of each individual stage. Listen to the pace of the music in the stage 3 video as your ship races to the bottom of the planet, where the stage boss lies in wait. Contrast that with the stage 5 music (beginning at about 6:50), which takes place above a submarine outpost: slower, more methodical, with strange mechanical-sounding samples that burst out unpredictably. It mirrors the tension of the stage as you fly over the water, as the faceless submarines of your corporate enemy emerge to take your mercenary ship out.

I identify with the setting of Soukyugurentai. Like the game’s three main characters, I’ve been a mercenary for the majority of my professional post-collegiate life. I worked for a private criminal defense firm for a few years after graduating law school. I had a great girlfriend who I loved, and who loved me. And then she broke up with me and moved to the Netherlands. Then the next year I got laid off. While looking for my next job, I decided to start my own firm and take contract criminal defense work from local county offices. And I never really looked back. Since then, I’ve been a mercenary, taking jobs for money, not unlike the three young punks in the red, green, and blue ships in Soukyugurentai. We never get to learn much about the three mercs. If you play the Japanese version of the game, you’ll need to read Japanese to know anything about them. I’ve read the translations of their three backgrounds, but they don’t really add a whole lot. I know enough about the pilot of the red ship (the one I usually use) to know that her name is Rina Kunimura, she’s partly Swedish on her mother’s side, that she’s quarrelsome and independent, and that deep down she’s a very compassionate woman.

I’m sure she has her reasons for picking up these incredibly dangerous missions against a faceless corporate entity for…what, exactly? The game never exactly makes that clear. Did the corporation murder her partly Swedish family? Maybe she’s simply unhappy about the tax situation in the lunar colonies, and prefers to work “under the radar”, literally speaking. In any event, the final stage takes place on Mars, and the final boss is an enormous battleship that is many screens long.

Once you complete the final stage, your ship docks with a waiting mothership and the game ends, as some mournful music plays. Unlike most games of this nature, which suggest that you have somehow saved the world or the galaxy or the universe through the destruction of some incomprehensible foe, Soukyugurentai merely suggests that this entire expedition is just one more day in the life of a mercenary. Once you finish the game, you begin again, and try for a better score. There’s some comfort in that.