R-Type is one of the iconic arcade games of the 1980s. Tough as boots, hard as nails, solid as a rock, you only stood a chance of completing it if you had the eyesight of a hawk and the reflexes of a cat. Or if you happened to be a hawk or a cat with a penchant for playing arcade shooters. As was the tradition back then, successful games tended to find their way out of the arcades and into the homes of computer and console gamers the planet over. R-Type was no exception and was ported to a multitude of machines. Rather remarkably, each conversion was actually rather good. The PC Engine/TurboGrafx game is generally considered to be the best of the bunch, and one of the best games on the system itself, while a splendid version for the Sega Master System was also highly regarded. But it's the ZX Spectrum port which is probably most deserving of praise. As well as being a bloody good version of the game, its existence is something of a technical marvel, pushing Mr Sinclair's baby to its limits and getting it to do things that he probably never thought possible.
The objective of all versions of R-Type is outlined in two lines of text: “Blast off and strike the evil Bydo Empire.” No detail is given about what the Bydo Empire is and what it does that makes it so evil. But, striking it involves pitting yourself against a plethora of angry and aggressive alien types over a series of levels. The fact that the Bydo Empire appears to have such an antagonistic arsenal seems to confirm that it is most definitely up to no good, so must be evil.
You take on your enemies in your piddly little spaceship. Well, it looks piddly when compared with the enemies you come up against, especially some of the end of level bosses. But, as with any video game spaceship, it's possible to collect upgrades on your travels to greatly enhance your firepower, turning it into some space-based super destructive light and laser show. You can also power up your beam by holding down the fire button. Letting go of it unleashes a mega blast. A unique feature in R-Type is a collectible pod-like thing. This can be attached to the front or back of your spaceship, offering a smidgen of protection from enemy fire. Or it can be detached and sent off to destroy some of the hostiles that you can't be bothered to destroy yourself. When detached, it is invincible but it leaves you vulnerable. It added a touch of strategy and tactical play to the game. One of the key strengths of R-Type was that, although it was a difficult game, it didn't feel impossible. Your progress through the game is slow, as you eke your way through a level. You play a bit, die, play it again, die again, play again, try a slightly different route, get a bit further, die again, use the same route again, get a little further, die again, and repeat over and over again until you've eventually got your route, the enemy patterns and your tactics memorised to get you through a level. And there's something very satisfying about seemingly being able to fly through the level like a pro, taking out wave after wave of enemies and maxing out your spaceship with power-ups aplenty.
Translating an arcade game to the Spectrum inevitably leads to compromises, but Bob Pape, the man given the task of converting R-Type, did a spectacular job in retaining as much as he could from the arcade version of the game. The graphics are detailed and colourful with no obvious colour clash. Even if there was, there's so much going on that you probably wouldn't notice it. Sprites are recognisable from their arcade counterparts and the effects when firing from your powered up spaceship are remarkable. Special credit must be given to the end of level bosses who are just as fearsome as they are in the arcade original.
The sound in the game is a bit pants. There are no background tunes, although if there were, they'd more than likely be terrible. There are a couple of bits of music which play just before the game begins and when you die, and sound a bit like the phone in 24. But in game sound effects are limited to a put-put-put when you fire, and squelchy noises when you hit an enemy. Other bloops and bleeps and noises make up the rest of the effects. They're inoffensive but not great, but I guess more prominent sounds would get on your nerves after a while.
Most important though is that the game feels like the real thing. The Spectrum version isn't a game loosely based on R-Type - it is R-Type. The original R-Type was all about finding a route and planning your strategy based on what you've learned when attempting it before. And the Spectrum version is the same. The hard bits are still hard, the easy bits (well, easier bits) are still easier. The same enemies appear in the same places, and you have to clear a path in the same way. R-Type is famed for its difficulty level. It was from the eighties when games were tougher and gamers were real men. Or butch women. Throw anything at them and they'd tackle it. None of this modern-day microtransactiony crap where you can buy your way through a game. Ok, we'll ignore the fact that most arcade games could be played to the end if you kept shoving more 10p coins into them and continuing each time you died, which I suppose is actually a microtransaction. Hmmmm, anyway, Like the arcade version, R-Type on the Spectrum is a tough nut, and some might find its difficulty level offputting. Sticking with it does reap rewards, but there's nothing more frustrating than getting your spaceship maxed out to the nines only for you to get shot in the ass by a rogue bullet and having to return to the game with your standard setup. Later on in the game, the going gets extremely tough unless you have a bit of extra help from your weaponary. This isn't really a fault of the conversion, and it's exactly how all other versions play, but it's one of the reasons why R-Type isn't everybody's cup of Yorkshire Tea. There is a bit of slowdown when too much is going on, and it sometimes feels like frames go missing as a way of the game trying to keep up with the action so it loses some of its fluidity. Responsive controls are a must for a game like this and in this version, the controls are fine, although you really need to play it with a joystick or control pad to prevent getting your fingers all a-tangle. One issue, again inherited from the arcade version, is that your spaceship moves a little too slow. Sometimes, an almost-certain death stares you in your face. All you need to do to avoid it is move a little to the right. But, your spaceship just doesn't seem to want to move quick enough. Of course, quicker movement would probably result in less control over it, so perhaps its speed is just right. Who knows?
So, R-Type on the Speccy is a great conversion, and a must-have game for any Spectrum collection. Looks great, sounds shite, plays great. But, there is a problem. And this affects many games converted from arcades to home machines in this modern world of emulation and rererereleases and suchlike. Why would anybody play it today? The whole point of porting the game to computers like the Spectrum was to bring the arcade game to home audiences. The truth is that, although it was a fantastic port of R-Type, the arcade game is much better. And when it's now possible to get hold of the arcade game itself either through official rereleases or through other methods usually involving MAME and a visit to your favourite ROM-hosting website, there is little need to play a conversion of it. You can just play the real thing. The Spectrum version is definitely worth taking a look at and is a great game in its own right, but unless you're the sort of person who wants to complete every version there ever was of R-Type, you'd only really have a go of Spectrum R-Type for curiosity's sake. In a similar way, both the PC Engine/TurboGrafx version and the Sega Master System version were released on the Wii's Virtual Console service. The PC Engine version was clearly the better one, so why would anybody who wanted to play R-Type on the Wii opt to download the Master System version? And, on that note, I shall end my review. I'm kind of depressed now. I've convinced myself that all home conversions are pointless if they don't improve on the arcade version. Wish I'd never have mentioned it now.....