RAYSTORM / Taito / Arcade
After being a staple genre since the dawn of arcades, the sh'mup started to wane in popularity in the mid-90s. The last hurrah for the genre was a little flare-up of polygonal 2D/3D hybrid shooters that went direct from arcade to console around the turn of the century. RayStorm was one of the early entries in that window of time.
It's a fairly standard vertical space shooter in the lineage of Xevious, with a sub-layer to the playfield that enemies can lurk in and that your main weapon can't reach. Instead, you have a reticule that shoots a separate back-mounted laser cannon at them. You can set this to automatically shoot when you drift across them, or to manual fire.
If you opt for auto-fire then there are only two buttons to worry about; your standard forward-facing laz0r cannon, which upgrades as you go with the typical floating doodads that certain enemies drop when killed, and the "special" attack. The special is a little different here, instead of clearing the screen or firing some superbeam, it launches tons of shots at the ground targets out of your back cannon. It's great for quickly clearing a bunch of pesky enemies from beneath you, but it isn't the last-ditch lifesaver that supers are in some other shooters.
Unfortunately, it's D-pad control only as this was ported in 1997, a little too early for the Dual Shock. Though it is mostly faithful to the arcade original (which used PlayStation variant hardware), the one big cut is the two-player mode. You're gonna have to Einhand it in this port. The port does add adjustable difficulty, however, which can be altered for each of the seven individual levels.
As far as difficulty goes, it's middle-of-the-pack at the default setting (4 out of 8). The game isn't strictly memorization-based or bullet-hell, but it has little flare-ups of those things, mostly with certain boss attacks. You can play most of it reflexively and do well, but there are some bits here and there where it really helps to know what the pattern of attack is going to be. Given the ample amount of lives and continues, most players who are at least decent at shooters will probably bust right through to the final level at default difficulty 4 without a whole lot of practice (which is the minimum difficulty to be allowed past level 4). The final level and boss are a pretty good jump in challenge, however, and will take some time to get past. The biggest issue for me overall was that this is one of those games where incoming projectiles often get lost in the mass of fire you're spewing from the front of your ship.
The seven levels are relatively short, and the cool visual effects and atmosphere are the biggest draw. Zuntata also provides some crunchy grooves, though it's more subdued Euro-techno than their usual rock style.
RayStorm is a nice little shooter with some neat visuals. Not one I'd pay huge bucks for, but worth a few dollars on a download service for those who enjoy the "last hurrah" polygonal 2D hybrid shooters of the Millenium.
* Gameplay Video