There is at least some truth to the cliche that you can't teach an old dog new tricks. However, just because the dog in question can't learn something new doesn't mean he can't take what he already knows and do it a little better. R-Type is one of the venerable "old dogs" of the space shooter genre (known lovingly as "shmups" by the hardcore fans), a franchise that's been around seemingly forever. Notable for its intense side-scrolling action and mammoth bosses, the series has long been one of gaming's staples. All of that comes to an end now, though, with the release of R-Type Final—the last iteration of the series and one that adds a few new tricks to its repertoire.
2D games can succeed in today's 3D driven gaming world—one need only look to titles like Disgaea: Hour of Darkness and Ikaruga for proof of that. Solid gameplay will always trump fancy graphics, but that doesn't mean that 2D titles can get by without any sort of graphical enhancements. But what can be done with a traditional side-scroller like R-Type Final to make it appealing to a new generation of gamers who've probably never even played the original in an arcade? How about, for starters, giving it some sparkling graphics and a quasi-3D engine (similar to the one found in last year's Contra: Shattered Soldier) while retaining all the twitchy trigger-finger gameplay of the originals?
R-Type Final is too old and entrenched in its ways to be anything more than a simple shmup. Thankfully, the developers realize this and gamers were spared things like a potentially disastrous jump to 3D (which few inherently 2D games have managed to pull off with any kind of success) or a major overhaul of the game mechanics. R-Type Final is true to its roots—it's a visceral shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later experience. Anything on the screen that is not the player's ship is hostile and must be destroyed, which allows good players to enter that old zen-like state of "being" rather than "thinking" that was so common in the days of the arcade.
Players will command one of up to 99 ships (almost all of which must be unlocked by completing various objectives in the game) through a sea of hostile enemies. Power ups are littered throughout the stages, and acquiring the right enhancement in the right situation is crucial to surviving. Not only must players contend with hordes of enemies, but also dangerous environmental elements. Some levels have specific paths to navigate and failing to do so (or failing to do so at the proper speed—the ships of R-Type Final all feature four different "gears") can leave the player just as dead as enemy fire.
Each stage then concludes with a boss showdown. True to its lineage, the bosses in R-Type Final are massive. A few of them are even disturbing in their presentation (like the large phallic thing that shoots out what appears to be sperm). The art design, though, fits quite nicely with the game's minimalistic storyline centering on a fight between humanity and the intergalactic Bydo.
Unfortunately, while the game looks pretty and is essentially a 2D experience, it's still marred by slowdown. Any time too many enemies or effects wind up on the screen, the whole game bogs down quite noticeably. It's disappointing that slowdown affects the game, particularly when more graphically intensive titles have run flawlessly on the PlayStation 2 hardware. I can only conclude that the slowdown is mostly a result of poor programming.
Aside from the story mode and the host of unlockable ships, R-Type Final features several other modes of play to keep things interesting. While the main game comes down to memorizing patterns of enemies and the placement of power ups, the other modes certainly add a bit to the title—provided that players actually want something more than the story mode to begin with (I didn't personally). Score Attack mode is nice (since shmups are inherently about high scores), but I found the A.I. Versus mode to be pretty ho-hum. Perhaps it's more interesting with a second player
At any rate, if R-Type Final is indeed the last game in this long running series, fans can be happy that the title goes out on a relatively high note. While R-Type Final never reaches the lofty shmup heights of Ikaruga, it's still a rock-solid twitch gameplay experience and a nice reminder of what games used to be like. Sure, the slowdown is an unfortunate negative, but the rest of the game is overwhelmingly solid. R-Type Final might not bring any new tricks to the table, but it certainly takes what it does best and enhances it ever-so-slightly for a new generation of gamers.