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'R-TYPE FINAL'

Spacecraft takes us back to future

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Between the early niche years of “Pong” and the release of “Pac-Man,” video gaming became where people went to play science fiction.

Games like “Space Invaders,” “Galaga” and “Scramble” gave players a chance to fly in simplified “Star Wars” adventures in which the game-play was hard and the graphics were simple. There were very few video game arcades at that point in time. You played these games at bowling alleys. With a pocketful of coins, you might get 30 minutes of play. It was sublime.

“R-Type Final” (Final), from Irem for PlayStation 2, is not a new game as it came out in Japan in July. But it is a new game for everybody outside Japan.

The funny thing is that except for translating the instruction book, the text on the box and a few lines of text in the game, it was already ready for the international market. It could have come out in the United States and Europe at the same time, but it needed a special publisher outside of Japan — one that is willing to release games for a niche market.

“Final” is a return to one of the most fundamental styles of gaming — the side-scrolling shooter. Players take over a lone fighter craft as it shoots its way through wave after wave of enemy robots, ships and creatures. The basic dynamics of the R-Type series has remained unchanged since it was first introduced in a 1987 arcade game.

The action takes place in a two-dimensional setting with players controlling a ship as it continuously moves toward the right edge of the screen. Enemies attack from all directions within that 2D plain. They attack from above and below, the front and the rear.

Serpentine enemies may encircle your ship while organic matter may simply grow around it and produce hull-piecing thorns. The dynamics that make up a game like “R-Type” are so fundamental that game designers must be at their artistic best to keep the game from becoming repetitious.

Despite the fact that “Final” is simply about moving your ship forward and backward, dodging and firing, it is never repetitious. “Final” represents the high-art of game design.

The ships in “Final” — and there are 100 unique vessels that you unlock as the game goes on — are powerful little termites. They have forward-firing lasers, cannons and other guns. They come complete with a highly competent little energy ball that you can attach to the front or rear of your ship, or allow it to fly independently. Attached to your ship, this orb serves as a shield. Allowed to fly solo, it roots out enemies with a relentless attack.

Your ship also gets smaller orbs that flank it top and bottom as a shield. All of that firepower may leave you with the intoxicating feeling of invincibility, but that feeling doesn’t last. With a stream of enemy fighters pouring out of a trap door behind you as the sky fills with missiles from launchers mounted on a giant robot up ahead, you soon feel rather small.

“Final,” in other words, is hard. Really hard. But it can be beaten.

Knowing that the audience might range from beginner-level gamers to hardcore side-scroller fans, the people who made this game built in five difficulty levels ranging from “R-Typer” to “Baby.” The “Baby” setting is a snap compared to the harder settings, but “R-Type” on any level takes skill.

And just beating “Final” is not enough. Apparently, several of the unlockable ships you earn by setting high scores change the way you pass through the various levels. In some levels, for instance, certain ships take you on an underwater route while others take you for a drier joyride. This may sound like a trivial difference, it may even be a trivial difference, but it’s still cool.

It’s the little things in games that make them special, and “Final” is special.

Now to the sights and sounds. Side-scrolling games, which take place on a fixed path, require less processing power than games that occur in 3D worlds. Smart developers, like the folks who made this game, translate that additional power into stellar graphics. From start to finish, “R-Type Final” is beautiful to look at with its intricate enemies, sweeping backgrounds and huge explosions.

“R-Type Final” is a glorious return to a dying style of gaming. This game may be about the future, but it’s also a memorable look back at the past.