Raiden was once a titan. In the early '90s, it seemed like you could hardly find an arcade that didn't have the Seibu Kaihatsu classic or its sequel somewhere. Ported to nearly every platform in the first half of the '90s, it was practically synonymous with arcade shooters at the time. The Raiden Fighters series has long been the forgotten kid brother of the franchise, arriving in the latter half of the '90s when gamers were drifting away from arcades, and it was never so lucky.
Nonetheless, they earned a loyal cult following, who anguished over the lack of any kind of home port as the machines slowly disappeared from arcade aisles. Especially heartbreaking was the announcement and subsequent cancellation of Raiden Fighters Evolution for the Xbox and PC. Now Gulti, an upstart developer employing veterans of the series, arrives to make things right with a long-overdue compilation of all three games in the series. They're not likely to command the attention they might have if they had been released on the original PlayStation, but for those that still hold the flame, late is better than never.
Raiden Fighters never resembled its parent series that closely. In fact, it was originally titled Gun Dogs, and then tweaked a bit to exploit the more popular license. Thematically, it's closer to Strikers 1945 or Battle Garrega with a retro sci-fi style that looks like a comic book version of World War II. You'll still get wandering power-ups that shift between two weapons and a scoring system involving medals, but that's about where the close similarities end.
...a trilogy that can easily stand with the best of the best.
Despite this, the Fighters games represent the culmination of an impressive legacy of shooter design. While other shooters were flooding their screens with ever-increasing quantities of slow-moving bullets, Seibu stayed true to their style of fast, deadly gunfire. While this was traditionally compounded by slow ship movement, each of the Fighters games offers an increasingly wide selection of ships with all manner of different speeds, powers, and weapons. Both the precision of the slow ships and the superior coverage of the speedier ships prove to have their advantages (though the fast ships will always win in the hands of a top-level player).
The scoring system in the first two games is a bit of blend between classic Raiden and Battle Garrega's medal chaining. All of the scoring hooks (including bonuses for killing enemies quickly, ranking up medals, and revealing secret spots) involve a considerable amount of memorization, but unlike "combo" multipliers in a lot of modern shooters, the Fighters games are more forgiving if you make a mistake. If you die, you won't feel like you just completely blew your chance at a high score. Raiden Fighters Jet complicates the scoring system somewhat with its ability to merge medals, but it caps their maximum value to keep things balanced.
All three games are exactly how you remember them, without any enhancement or new flaws. The 32-bit, 2D graphics are still quite nice looking, albeit obviously dated, and the audio is the same horrible, repetitive techno you heard thumping in the arcades. (Why did the upbeat pop of early '90s shooters have to go out of style?) Every possible video tweaking option you could ask for is available, from scanlines to vertical monitor alignment, to frame rate syncing settings. Xbox leaderboards, timed Score Attack, and Boss Rush modes add a bit of newness to the flawlessly emulated originals, and a very robust Training Mode will help you refine your game, but all the extras are very practical. I would have appreciated some replays from top players, art galleries, interviews, or other fan-oriented extras in addition to deep tweaking.
In a time when many retro compilations pack dozens of titles, the lineup of three old-school shooters might seem slim, even for a budget-priced disc. But when you consider that those three games are time-tested classics that are coming home for the first time ever, it would easily be worth full price to any real fan. The already initiated shouldn't hesitate for a moment, but even more casual fans of arcade shooters will find a trilogy that can easily stand with the best of the best, and a value better than similar games on Xbox Live Arcade.
Raiden Fighters Aces makes no concessions toward modern game design, nor should it. It's unfortunate that some critics will try to evaluate this game as anything broader than what it is. At times it feels like the people targeted by 90% of releases want to steal the remaining 10% from the rest of us. Those looking for deep storytelling or a lengthy quest shouldn't need me to deduct two stars from my score in order to figure out that this just isn't the game for them. For those of us with fond memories of quarters lost, Valcon's compilation delivers on every promise flawlessly.