Whenever anyone talks about the Japanese studio Treasure and shooters, the name Ikragua is almost always mentioned, and rightly so; the colour-flipping mechanic is one hell of a hook, and the game's presentation is utterly timeless. However, it wasn't Treasure's first attempt at the genre, and, early in its development, it went by a different codename: Project RS2, or, 'Radiant Silvergun 2'.
Unlike its spiritual successor – which launched worldwide on GameCube following a Japan-only Dreamcast release – Radiant Silvergun was, for the longest time, totally exclusive to the Japanese Sega Saturn – a console which struggled to achieve mainstream success in the west. Its arrival at the end of the machine's life in 1998 – and via a painfully low import-only print-run, to boot – turned the game into an eBay darling, and copies regularly changed hands for hundreds of dollars (they still do today, we should note). The catch here was that Radiant Silvergun was arguably worth every penny of that inflated resale value, and it remains one of the most unique and exciting shmups the genre has to offer.
A vertically-scrolling blaster that fuses 2D and 3D to impressive effect, Radiant Silvergun launched in arcades via Sega's ST-V ('Titan Video') system first before being ported to the essentially identical Sega Saturn. The core gameplay involves making use of three main weapons. The 'A' button controls your forward-firing Vulcan shot, while 'B' releases weak homing bullets. 'C' deploys your more powerful weapon, sideways-firing 'Spread' beams. What makes Radiant Silvergun so interesting is that these weapons can be combined to create different attacks; for example, pressing 'A' and 'C' together activates the 'Lock-on Spread' attack, which automatically fires lasers at any enemy which enters its field of effect. Alternatively, 'B' and 'C' trigger your rear-facing attack, which obviously comes in handy for tackling foes that creep up behind your ship.
The variety of shot types on offer means that you've always got an answer in any given situation, and often, there's more than one shot type for the job. There are no weapon pick-ups, as you'd find in shooters like Gradius or R-Type, so you have access to your entire arsenal from the moment you begin playing, but this simply makes the game more accessible and instantly appealing and certainly shouldn't be seen as a negative. In the arcade version, only three buttons were used, but the Saturn port kindly maps the 'combined' weapons to the X, Y and Z buttons.
Alongside your various shot types (6 in total), you also have the Radiant Sword. This can be used to damage enemies in close quarters, but a more sensible application is using it to absorb the pink bullets that certain enemies fire at you. Doing so builds up your Radiant Sword gauge; when this is full, you have access to a highly destructive twin-blade attack which acts as the game's equivalent to a traditional smart bomb. There's an element of risk versus reward with this mechanic; collecting those pink bullets can be tricky, especially when you're being attacked by other enemies, but the Radiant Sword attack is so powerful it's worth the danger.
The excellent weapons system is played off against a dazzling host of enemies, and while this certainly isn't a 'bullet hell' shooter and can feel somewhat sedate at times, the screen is rarely empty. Because this is a Treasure game, it often feels like an extended boss rush; levels are long, and each is punctuated by more than one boss encounter. These are often multi-stage battles, with boss parts falling away as they're destroyed only to be replaced by other weapons (you're rewarded points for picking bosses apart piece-by-piece, rather than aiming for the weak spot immediately). It's thrilling stuff, and we'd argue that few shmups have come close to matching Radiant Silvergun's sense of scale and scope when it comes to boss fights.
The Saturn version retains the 'Arcade' mode seen in the coin-op version, but the real meat of the domestic port is the 'Story' mode which not only includes lavish anime-style cutscenes and full voice acting but also builds upon what many consider to be Radiant Silvergun's most memorable feature: its RPG-like levelling system. As you use each weapon type, its power increases – this is true of both the Arcade and Story mode. The clever thing about the Story mode is that the level is retained over subsequent playthroughs using a save system, so the more you play, the more powerful you become. On your first go, you'll perhaps struggle to get halfway through the first level, but repeat play sees you progressing further and further into the game (you also get awarded credits for every hour played, which again rewards returning players).
While hardcore shmup addicts might scoff at this setup, it means that Radiant Silvergun is more accessible than your typical example of the genre; eventually, when you've fully powered up all of your weapons and have earned the maximum stock of continues, you'll find yourself gliding past bosses and avoiding dangers like a pro – partly due to your increased power and credits, but also because you've played the game so many times you'll memorize what to do, and when to do it. Even so, Radiant Silvergun isn't a brutally unfair shooter, even in its 'Arcade' mode, and this is perhaps why it is often looked down upon by some shoot 'em up fans.
The game's scoring system is also worthy of note, as it could be seen as a precursor to the one witnessed in its stablemate Ikaruga. Enemies come in three different colours – red, blue and yellow – and killing three of the same colour starts a combo chain. If you continue this chain and only kill enemies of that colour, you can rack up a massive score bonus, which in turn boosts the power of your weapons faster (levelling up is based on points scored per attack rather than damage inflicted). It's a more subtle system than the one seen in Ikaruga, where colour-focus was imperative to your survival, and many players probably won't even realise the mechanic exists – but when you do know it's there, it really opens up the game for score-based challenges. And then there are all the hidden dogs to find...
It's perhaps over-optimistic to expect a Saturn title from 1998 to dazzle so long after its initial release, but Radiant Silvergun is so well designed that it remains easy on the eye; sure, the 3D models are basic, but they combine so well with the 2D sprites and (mostly) flat backgrounds that it rarely looks old or dated. The Xbox 360 HD remaster and recent Nintendo Switch release clean things up massively, but there's still a certain charm to the Saturn original. The music, too, is incredible; Hitoshi Sakimoto can always be relied on to produce amazing tunes, and while some would argue that the songs here would fit better in a JRPG, they're so memorable you'll be humming them for days afterwards.
It's often the case that when certain games get a reputation for being highly collectable, they're often not worth the hype that surrounds their inflated price, but we'd argue that Radiant Silvergun is the exception. It's a wonderfully-constructed shooter which boasts eye-catching visuals, a stirring soundtrack and deep gameplay mechanics – yet it remains accessible enough that it has true mainstream appeal (perhaps even more so than its occasionally brutal successor, Ikaruga, which ironically got a wider global release back in the day). Radiant Silvergun's subsequent digital releases on Xbox 360 and Switch mean that you no longer need to sell a kidney in order to own a copy, but that's not to say that the Saturn version should be forgotten; it's one of the console's stand-out hits.