Anyone who played games in the 90s, and early 00s recognizes Squaresoft. Always known for their stellar RPGs like the Final Fantasy series and the Mana series, Squaresoft had a certain consistence in its library. All top-notch games, all JRPGs. Until 1997, that is, when after the release of Final Fantasy VII, Squaresoft decided to develop something different, something completely unexpected fron the famed RPG-developers.
A shoot-em-up. A sidescrolling shmup with retro difficulty and gameplay, but with super-detailed 3D models and textures. It would feature hulking bosses, a still-innovative and original weapons system, five different ships, each adding a new spin on the gameplay, and a level of control seldom seen in 2D shmups. It was to be the most technologically-advanced shooter of its time.
It would be called... Einhänder.
The gameplay in Einhänder is pretty much what you'd expect from a 2D shmup. You move vertically and horizontally, shoot things, collect power-ups, and shoot more things. However, Einhänder adds some new features that were unparalleled at the time, and (considering the decline of the 2d-shmup market since those times), are still relatively so today. You have the ability to change your speed on the fly by using the L2 and R2 buttons, which can be really useful in the flow of the game, when one minute you're fighting a boss, dodging waves upon waves of bullets, and the next you're fighting a horde of enemies that takes up the entire right half of the screen. In addition, you have the ability to steal the weapons off of an enemy ship (although you'll always have your main machinegun fire), which is one of the game's main gimmicks. The weapons are quite varied, both in style and usability. There's a Spreader, which... is a Spread Gun, obviously, a W.A.S.P, which fires homing rockets, a Riot gun which shoots powerful bolts of lightning that can be charged manually, a Vulcan minigun, which is quite weak, but is superb for taking out hordes of smaller enemies, and a LASER SWORD, among many others. With the manipulator arm, you can change the perspective of any alternate gun you pick up, such as using the Spreader as a rear attack. There are five different ships in Einhänder, each adding a different twist on the gameplay. On one ship, you can hold three different alternate guns and switch between them at will, but on another, you only have one gun slot that is upgradeable. Yes, the changes are on the smaller side, but it does add that extra bit of variety to the game. There is a score system that rewards you points for kills and all the normal things, but it also gives multipliers for killing things quickly. Once you stop killing, the multiplier starts to decrease. It's a fun little system.
The graphics in Einhänder are great for their time. Each model is highly detailed, the futuristic art style pops, and the textures are quite well-drawn. It is also worth mentioning that throughout the game, there are various camera shifts, which are executed seamlessly and do nothing to change the general gameplay, although it does highlight the at-the-time great graphics. The sound effects are varied, detailed, and used well. The game's soundtrack is top-notch, being an energetic mix of techno, fast and frantic during boss fights, and more subdued when need be. Unfortunately, the OST was only released in Japan and is relatively costly to import, and the game disc itself has no redbook audio.
The story in Einhänder is actually fairly decent for a shmup, even though predictably, it's relagated to the backstory. A colony on the moon, Selene, is fighting for independence from its Empire on Earth. As a last resort, the Selenian army developed prototype manned tactical fighters, codenamed Einhänder, to be used for suicide runs on the Empire, doing as much damage as they can before they are destroyed. You are one of the pilots of these ships, sent to Earth to do as much damage as you can before you're shot down. It's more fleshed-out in the manual, but that's pretty much the gist of it, and as per the norm, it's just a backdrop to shooting things.
The game, regrettably, is a bit on the short side. I'd estimate the game length at around an hour and a half. It's even more regrettable that the game lacks a 2-player mode, which would have made the game absolutely flawless in my eyes. As mentioned before, there are five ships in the game, two of which you need to unlock. There's a score system, three different difficulties, and a gallery of concept art and models that you unlock things in by progressing through the game. Einhänder is of an older time, so not as many bells-and-whistles were implemented. The terms are simple, but you can get a lot of replayability out of this game.
Einhänder is definitely one of the best non-RPG Squaresoft games. If you like old-school shmups like Gradius and R-Type, definitely track this one down. It's one of the lesser-known gems in the PSX library and, although somewhat hard to find, it is totally worth it if you crave retro action, shmups, or just well-executed action games, pick Einhänder up.