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Retro Corner: U.N. Squadron

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Retro games are a hot commodity. With the Xbox Live Arcade and Wii’s Virtual Console, it’s quickly becoming a prolific segment of the industry. Blogcritics is going to start looking at gaming’s generally under-appreciated past in a different way.

Teaming up with classic gaming database Digital Press, Blogcritics will be presenting some lost or under-appreciated classics in short reviews. Extras may include odd facts, the title’s impact on the industry, some personal retrospective, different ports the game may have received, and how well they hold up on today’s market. Our hope would be to introduce a new generation of gamers, or even those who recently purchased a game console for the first time to those games they missed and the legacy they left behind.

The Game
Ignored in nearly all “best of licensed titles” lists, U.N. Squadron took over the SNES shooter genre in September of 1991, easily overshadowing long-standing favorites R-Type and Gradius. Based off Japanese anime Area 88, this unique and gorgeous horizontal shooter remains one of the most undervalued on the market.

A translation of an arcade game, of which this SNES version does share some similarities, players pick one of three pilots. Each has a specific trait that makes them useful in combat. Shin Kazama, Mickey Simon, and Greg Gates are your choices with the ability to upgrade weapons faster, gain the most from ammo pick ups, and fix plane damage in half the time, respectively.

While the character selection is a rather mundane opening, the ability to earn cash for every enemy shot down opens the game up to a staggering amount of customization. New planes, each with the ability to hold specific weapons, increases the amount of strategy more than nearly any other shooter available, even today. This happens before you even dive into actual game play.

Levels are selected on a map, continuing the focus on making U.N. Squadron open to the players choices. Enemies appear at random times to attack the home base, and these assaults are the only time the player will be forced into a level. Otherwise, as the game progresses, multiple levels open at once and any can be selected.

A wide array of levels keeps the experience fresh, with beautiful backdrops behind the action. A battle in a thunderstorm complete with six layers of parallax scrolling and lighting bolts crackling is amongst the Super NES elite. Earlier available levels are not as intense as the stages closer to the enemy base, something that may turn off hardcore SHMUP enthusiasts. In the end, the player is assaulted from multiple targets, including a truly brutal level set inside a mountain with multiple levels along with vertical scrolling.

The Present

While the lack of two-player co-op is a disappointing deletion and huge benefit of the arcade version, early SNES fans were already used to it. It sticks out more in the modern era, and is one of the toughest to ignore when ignoring the warm nostalgia U.N. Squadron brings with it.

Minor slowdown is acceptable, and certainly better than the challengers in the same time period. If anything, it makes tight enclosures more bearable when enemy jets begin their bombardment late in the game. The open-ended game play is still unique, and the amount of customization is simply unmatched. While the backgrounds no longer shine as they once did, nothing here hinders the game’s playability.

Facts and Notables
Rather obviously, the game carried the anime title in Japan, Area 88. There are no significant changes between the US and Japanese carts.

Changes from the arcade include the wider array of jets (each pilot was stuck inside their specific plane in arcades), different music, and different level layout.

One hit in the arcade was all the player was allowed before going down in flames. On the SNES, things are definitely easier with a meter that allowed for a few shots before losing a life. However, after being hit, the player needs to avoid being hit a second time until the meter stops flashing or risk dying regardless of the health level.

Doesn’t follow any storyline from the anime. Characters and locale will be familiar to fans.

Was followed by an arcade only sequel, Carrier Air Wing.

Personal Reflection
Being one of the initial games I had the chance to play on my own SNES hardware (Joe & Mac being the first), this one has stuck with me. It’s not simply because it was an early pick either, or else Xardion would be the game featured here and needless to say, this would not be a glowing piece.

Even at 12 years old, the unique style of the game was undeniable. It was a lucky choice as it was one of the few left in stock at the rental store and picked it out of desperation for anything on the console. It’s one of the best things that could have happened to me in terms of my gaming hobby.

When it comes to reliving the 16-bit era, U.N. Squadron is one of the first choices around here. Looking back, this is definitely a game screaming for a save system of any kind. I had to leave this one paused for hours one night and come back to it after scribbling some homework quickly to get back into play just to finish it off. That’s the addictive hook this sadly “lost” shooter brought with it.

Images and review courtesy of Digital Press.

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About Matt Paprocki

Matt Paprocki has critiqued home media and video games for 13 years and is the reviews editor for Pulp365.com. His current passion project is the technically minded DoBlu.com. You can read Matt's body of work via his personal WordPress blog, and follow him on Twitter @Matt_Paprocki.