Saturday 27 December 2014

UN Squadron for the Super Nintendo

Nintendo's Super Famicom (SNES for the rest of us outside of Japan) was a relatively late entry into the 16 bit console market. As such, it came to the party with tech specs that, on paper, outclassed its main opposition: the PC Engine in Japan, Sega's MegaDrive everywhere else. Yet it was as true then as it is now: to win a console war a contender needs a decent library of games. In the SNES's case, it just so happened that incredible games came by the bucketload. Sitting at home, feeling slightly insecure with my own beloved MegaDrive and seeing amazing after amazing title featured in the multi-format mags of the day, I desperately, desperately wanted one. Capcom was one of Nintendo's key third party producers. Famous now for the Street Fighter and Resident Evil franchises, it was then known for superlative, slick and supercool arcade games. While nothing to shout about when it came to cabinet pyrotechnics (that was Sega's and Namco's domain), from the mid 80s to the early 90s Capcom had a run of the biggest names around. To have them converted to the SNES with greater fealty to the arcade original than any machine had managed before was an ace in Nintendo's hand.

UN Squadron was one of these games. Released in 1989, it was a horizontally scrolling shoot 'em up that was, all told, pretty unoriginal. You choose from one of three characters to play whose jet fighters correspond to the usual conventions of weak-but-fast, the all-rounder, and strong-but-slow and off you fly through 10 levels of dogfighting mayhem. You accumulate points and cash, which can be redeemed between levels at a shop in exchange for power ups. The plot, such as it is, involves the evil Project 4 invading a helpless kingdom and it's up to the heroes stationed at the base codenamed Area 88 to lead the fightback and destroy the ne'er do wells. Sounds like a right old excuse for a scrap.

As it happens, UN Squadron does have a rich backstory. Area 88 was a Manga available in Japan in the early 80s, and followed the adventures of Shin Kazama (one of the playable characters). The strip was more than just a mindless blast-a-thon. Once bound to the eponymous Area 88 mercenary squadron, a pilot had to either buy themselves out of their contract or complete a three year tour of duty. Going AWOL was punishable by death. So as the series wears on, the themes got progressively darker as Shin is consumed by self-loathing for all the killing he commits. The comic was full of Biggles-esque derring-do, but the psychological toll is not left unsaid. Unfortunately, the game has none of this complexity. Wave after wave of jets, tanks, gun emplacements, and helicopters contrive to put distance between the unthinking, reflex-heavy gameplay and the thoughtful quandaries of the source material. Shame.

As per Capcom games of the era, UN Squadron saw itself ported to all the main European computer formats (the Spectrum version, in my opinion, was especially noteworthy). The SNES conversion however was handled in-house by Capcom themselves. As a noted developer and publisher for the Famicom/NES, they had long adopted the practice of reworking arcade conversions for a home audience. This transformed arcade titles from relatively shallow experiences designed to eat quarters and 10p pieces into something with a bit more gameplay depth. This was their approach to the SNES version. The basic gameplay remained the same, but was significantly tweaked. Here, your pilot begins with a bog standard jet to which only a limited number of special weapons can be attached. The player has to accumulate enough cash to acquire increasingly powerful and specialised craft optimised for dealing with certain baddies. In addition, rather than progressing through the game in a linear fashion there is a level selection option that opens as you liberate successive areas. The game presents itself as a military map with any movements pinpointed. Their two lots of airforce and multiple supply convoys move around each turn, conveying a limited sense of being part of a campaign. They also have a sneaky nuclear submarine that was absent in the original.

Needless to say, the conversion was an absolute triumph. Few games in the 16 bit area were better than their arcade inspiration, but UN Squadron was one of them. On all three fronts - graphics, sound, and gameplay the Super Nintendo exceeded the original. It was just a very well-crafted game. And when it was released, all it had to compete with in the horizontally-scrolling department were Super R-Type and the little bit ropey Gradius III. The game was tough without being cheap, the bosses taxing without being frustrating, and the right sort of difficulty pitch that meant you got that little bit further with each returning play. Enemy design was utterly superb, if sometimes a little far fetched. As cool as they look, I cannot see the military utility of fixing booster rockets to huge boulders. Justifiably, it was critically acclaimed and has since settled into a snug corner in the SNES video game canon. That helps explains why a complete version can set you back a few nicker these days.

Bereft of its Area 88 background, UN Squadron slotted into the gaming landscape as yet another military shooter though, to be fair, jet-based fighting was and remained a relatively under used art style compared with the science fiction theme of most contemporary blasters. By this point the faceless, unproblematic cannon fodder of arcade enemies were well-established. Here, it's Project 4 waging aggressive war against an undefended population. What UN Squadron helped contribute toward, albeit in a minor, relatively insignificant way, was the sacralisation of the United Nations itself as an equally uncomplicated force for good. The instruction manual has it that all the available jets are manufactured by different countries with the most advanced, intriguingly, hailing from the Soviet Union. In essentials, the games utilises the pooled military know-how of member states to see off rogue nations with the player acting under the direct authority of the UN. Never mind that it has no sovereignty as such, never mind that it has long been the plaything of great power shenanigans. But, of course, what gave the UN Squadron scenario some plausibility is that by the time the SNES version was released in 1991, the second Gulf War had been and gone. Here, the official narrative of an aggressor invading a peaceful kingdom to whose aid the international community scrambled was pre-empted by and being programmed as the massacre of Iraq's ramshackle military was taking place. A fortuitous coincidence for Capcom, which helped give their game a contemporary edge. I'm sure it was not lost on the many gamers who picked it up. More than a few young players would have fantasised blasting away at Saddam Hussein's stealth bomber/battleship/land carrier/rocket-powered boulders. What the game did was in this context establish equivalence between the unproblematic good of liberating the kingdom from Project 4 and the liberation of Kuwait by allied forces.

UN Squadron is a very good, playable game I'd recommend to anyone, but it also serves as a useful case study (of which there are thousands of other examples) of fighting shy of narrative complexity, using existing tropes to construct a simple good and evil fairy tale that can influence and condition gameplayers' thinking about complex real world issues.

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