R-Type [1987]

The first big question that, for me, looms over R-Type [1987] (and many arcade titles of its ilk) is a stupid, but fundamental one: why is there so much dang video game inside this video game?

Dead Can Dance – Dawn Of The Iconoclasts [1987]

R-Type is way longer than it seems to “need” to be. It has eight levels, twice as many as Donkey Kong [1981], which does not sound like very many, but really, really is. While the levels aren’t themselves particularly long in geographic terms, they are extremely long in experiential terms. You see, R-Type is also famously very hard. It takes hours and hours of failing and trying again to get through the game’s content. I tried to keep track of how much I was “spending” at my simulated arcade machine. I lost count at around 40 bucks, spent one virtual quarter for 5 lives at a time, by which point I was only halfway through the game, and even then I only got that far by the grace of generous checkpointing that I could only take advantage of because I had infinite money and I could hog the cabinet as long as I wanted. I would estimate the amount of time I spent actually playing the game to get that far was 10 hours or so, just uptime; in reality, I could pause to take a break and come back the next day without losing any progress. 4 bucks an hour is a fair enough rate I suppose, it’s not really the numbers that bother me here.

What nags at me is this, to rephrase my original question: who could possibly find the sheer time at a physical cabinet in an arcade to get very far into this game at all? Most people who ever stepped up to the cabinet must have lost, and lost fast and often, then ran out of cash or patience before even scratching the surface to see everything that was put into this game. Those 10 hours I spent would, in 1987, have to be spread out piecemeal over somewhere between a workweek and a month depending on your other scheduling commitments, and at the end you still wouldn’t be very good at the game. You basically have to make R-Type your hobby, a regular fixture in your life. Maybe starting from the start more often gives you an edge over me especially because you get to keep your power-ups, maybe you’re better at video games than I am, but for as perfectly likely as those propositions sound to me, I kinda doubt they make an exponential difference to the first-time player coming in cold. Generalized skill and knowledge of how to play this kind of game well certainly helps, but R-Type is designed in large part around rote memorization of its levels — in other words, specific knowledge of R-Type, and R-Type alone, that must be experienced from playing R-Type. I’ll tell you who can find the time to learn R-Type by heart: those who have deep pockets and lots of free time, so either middle-class single adults or rich kids, and within that subset only those who will get truly dedicated to a single video game, so… nerds. Not exactly a revelatory conclusion, but bear with me.

Does this dynamic merely emerge from economics? Is this the most profitable possible way to make an arcade game? If you’re creating an arcade game, it’s been commonly observed making it very deadly and difficult has an obvious profit motive. A player who is currently playing isn’t presently paying you, so it behooves you to put an end to that as quick as possible so you can get paid again, be it by them or by the next person in line. The counterbalancing factor to this is the fact that you also don’t get paid if nobody wants to play you. R-Type’s strategy to resolve this dynamic is to present a ruthless meat-grinder to newbies and the seasoned alike, but especially it targets what we now call “whales,” players who really will just stand there and constantly feed quarters in for long stretches of time. (Slot machines also seek whales.) R-Type uses its length to intrigue these players, to draw them in to the commitment. The majority of the game that exists is actually only there for this devoted minority.

It cannot be seriously considered for very long that R-Type was somehow, though an arcade game, ultimately intended for the home experience where a player could more plausibly chip away at its depths more cheaply and conveniently. It was way too large even for that, down to its literal high resolution. It took until the 90s for home hardware to be capable of handling the full R-Type. The PC-Engine release, one of the most faithful, even initially had to be split in two halves just to fit it all. I am told by friends that the ZX Spectrum release is a technical triumph, and boy, would it have to be. This is an intentional strategy, of course: arcade games are competing for the game player’s time and attention with home video games and are wise to present something they can do that home games cannot, like how movie theater movies went for widescreen and color and assorted other gimmicks when they felt they had to compete with television. Arcade games have the crucial advantage of being built on and for bespoke hardware which can be more technologically cutting-edge than an all-purpose machine that was born 5 years ago.

In the arcade, R-Type’s strategy was obviously very profitable. It was the second-highest-grossing arcade game of the year in Japan, after OutRun [1986] which isn’t as extensive but has a similar approach to depth and pizazz. But I asked if it was the MOST profitable. Look at earlier mega-hits like Space Invaders [1978], look at Asteroids [1979], look at Pac-Man [1980], look at Galaga [1981] most relevantly of all. All of those games, Galaga aside, racked up all-time-high profits. They offer little to no sense of progression whatsoever, just the same situation(s) repeating forever until you fail. Yet nevertheless, about half of that list attracted devoted nerd-whales to famously exhaust those games anyway, having made no special provisions at all to attract or create them. This suggests that a game does not need to expend particular effort to attract whales. R-Type and Donkey Kong before it also repeat forever after they’re out of novel content anyway.

What really changed in arcade gaming in the intervening 5 years? There are two reasonable possibilities that occur to me. First: Space Invaders and Pac-Man and Pong [1971] before it were games for the masses that were even installed in non-arcade venues and relied on this ubiquity and casual players for their profits. As the gold rush began, the arcade market got more and more crowded, so any individual arcade game could not hope to capture a broader audience than Pac-Man, and so the industry refocused instead on capturing narrower audiences more intensely. It was discovered that whales may be marginal, but that those margins can be quite profitably expanded by games that entice them. This suggests that even in the late golden years of their popularity, arcades were almost willfully marginalizing themselves. This all does have some explanatory appeal… but seems like a just-so kind of story.

Or there’s option 2: There was perhaps little to no change in the fundamental economic basis of arcade gaming that would have kept another endless and slight game like Space Invaders from success. (After all, Tetris [1984] was a sensation in the 1990s.) It was simply a change in fashion, in aesthetic fascinations. The answer to how we get from Galaga, which is pretty barebones and still recognizably riffing on the Space Invaders [1978] template, to the baroque R-Type, runs through Xevious [1982]. After Xevious’ more detailed setting plus the likes of Donkey Kong and Dragon’s Lair [1983], and later in the shadow of the growing sophistication of popular console games, developers and players were now more attracted to the intrigue of a lengthier progression sequence, and a kind of arms’ race ensued. Despite my cold cynicism, I must admit I find this hypothesis more convincing, though both can easily be simultaneously true. I am thereby forced to conclude that the creators of R-Type put so much R-Type into R-Type out of sheer love! Love of the game, love of creation, love for the devoted nerds.

So let’s talk about R-Type’s aesthetics, which is probably its most compelling aspect. Curiously, when you’re actually engaged in the game, you don’t get to appreciate it as much on an aesthetic level, because a player gets so wrapped up in reading the screen for practical information that will be immediately useful for the quick reflexes demanded. It’s not even really advisable to look away from your pawn. Conversely, a disembodied observer may have an easier time noticing and memorizing the changing field R-Type presents them with, and then applying that information in their own runs. The player themselves becomes a theatrical performer. Its striking looks are instead there to intrigue the non-playing spectator, to operate as an advertisement that might inspire them to pay to play themselves.

There are a few visual artists from entirely outside of the computer world who nevertheless wind up serving as notable generational influences on digital artwork. MC Escher is a great example: his work was first embraced by computer culture in the 1960s, and directly inspired both Ant Attack [1983] and Q*Bert [1982] among others, and underwent a resurgent wave in the games of the 2010s. MC Escher’s style is one of clinical precision, one that is explicitly mathematical and often preoccupied with optics and perception, but his works are nevertheless always playful and creative and inventive. His works pursue their internal logical axioms rigorously, clear into illogical, unrealistic territory. Why this artist might perennially appeal to computer programmers with an interest in making art is rather obvious, especially when you consider that everything in a computer has to be made from scratch out of logic.

The visuals of R-Type, conversely, owe a tremendous and obvious debt to the work of HR Giger, especially by way of Alien [1979] and Aliens [1986]. R-Type is far from alone in this. Certainly, Metroid [1986] draws from the same well. HR Giger’s influence in video games never really ebbs much from this point in time forward. His perennial appeal to computer programmers making art is also down to philosophical and dispositional affinities, but markedly different and even a little troubling ones. Much if not all of HR Giger’s work is meant to be provocative or horrifying or disgusting, confronting the audience with sexual imagery and distressing social commentary on humanity’s symbiotic relationship to post-industrial technology. For example, one of his most famous pictures depicts the inner workings of a revolver loaded with fetuses. Flesh, plant life, and machinery associate and integrate quite freely and fluidly with one another in a gut-churning but fascinating hellscape where an intestine might well screw into a pipe fitting clamp for at-best-obscure function. MC Escher proposes that you provisionally entrain your mind into a hypothetical system of logic, whereas under HR Giger’s regime your body is brutally contorted into an extension of the machine.

That concept harmonizes well with the video game, which hijacks the player’s reflexes and prioperception, and especially is congruent with the arcade game which can more readily think of its whole self as an embodied unit, rather than an abstract trinity of portable software and generic hardware and player. The muscle memory aspect of R-Type slowly recarves the player’s flesh and brain into a shape more optimal for the tool. Its seemingly-external radioactive screen becomes deeply internalized. This depicted world is a grotesque, inhuman, hostile vacuum of inner space. The first level is all-mechanical, all right angles and intentional curves and symmetry and clunky giant robots, until you get to the first boss, a screen-filling iconic bony yet bulbous creature supported and fed by electrical wire, with a scorpion tail as its only appendage and a second head in its chest. From that point forward, the very architecture is often wrought of nonspecific biological filigree that can look like cells under a microscope scaled up to macro size, or a raw cut of beef exposing the marbled sinew and muscle and fat, or a field of chopped-off organs, or overgrown ivy, or tentacles and baleen, or an assemblage of bone, teeth, blood, and eyes. These aspects are always mixed with glass or metal or rust, to where you sometimes can’t tell which is which or where one ends and the other begins. The enemies follow suit, they are gross cyborgs with body parts recalling deep-sea creatures and insects, apex creepy-crawlies.

Curiously, though, there doesn’t seem to me to be any lingering horror effect in R-Type’s use of these visuals. Rather than deploying this imagery as unsettling and disturbing, it’s just… cool. Even a little sleek. HR Giger’s aesthetic is here championed and subverted by the very perpetrators of the phenomena he means to critique, a classic example of recuperation. There is a militarized restoration fantasy at the core of the experience: the environment and the enemies may be obviously wrong, but you’re here to correct it, to disinfect it with the cleansing potential of incredible violence to eradicate the unsettling. (The end text singles out “scaring people” as the aliens’ only enumerated crime.) The player’s pawn remains visually of a part with the initial mechanical look. Though its power-up sequence is directly inspired by the dung beetle — it is not quite philosophically inviolate of the bio-logic of the territory it invades.

If R-Type redirects the horror, though, much more remains of the sexual themes, though nothing is explicitly depicted. In one ecological theory, an “r-selection” organism is a prey species which produces many offspring because there’s less chance of any particular one surviving to maturity. (This is opposed to the “K-selection” organism, which produces fewer offspring that mature more slowly.) As in Galaga before it, the player’s lone spaceship is absolutely swarmed with masses of alien bugs and monsters, invoking xenophobia in its purest sense, who seem to have no regard for their own individual preservation and work in uncannily tight coordination. These aliens are “r-type.” R-type is also, more commonly, used to refer to a type of lectin. This lectin can be a building block of an organism, an enzyme that can help to break apart and recombine items into useful configurations. But the R in this instance of the phrase stands for “ricin”, which if ingested is incredibly toxic and lethal even in doses measured by the molecules, preventing organisms on multiple fronts from the kind of microscopic binding activities other R-type lectins help with, and quickly causing cell death.

But then, it’s not like the player’s trusty ship isn’t ALSO r-type. It’s of course under enormous predation pressure, but is in turn astoundingly lethal, even in low dose. You are the invading infection, on a journey of ingestion, inexorably from left to right penetrating deeper and deeper into a yawning, fleshy, downright yonic chasm. Admittedly, the chance of any individual instance of a player character surviving for the whole game is very, very low. It is only through industrial-scale reproduction, one quarter at a time, that success is wrought. Thousands upon thousands of these ships plunge in, and when you beat the final boss you are joined by a swarm of some of your compatriot spaceships. The plot here is the struggle of a sperm, a gendered dialectic cast in the most violent and oppositional light it can muster. In short, R-Type is sex.

Huge thanks to Shmuplations who have basically the only information on the development of the original R-Type I could find anywhere. Thanks to John Thyer. Thanks also again to Dalm, who went to college for biology and spelled out some of this stuff for me, and this page for my information on R-type lectins.

In life news, it’s been a while since my last post on account of I moved to San Jose in April! If you’re in the bay area and know of cool things or places or just want to hang out, write to me via the contact form. Or, hell, if you know of any good job opportunities for an ex-electrician who can’t code… In the meantime, I’m actually gonna go ahead and plug my Patreon, where I put up posts early. It turns out moving is expensive.


9 thoughts on “R-Type [1987]

  1. It was a blue-chip game. Even though I was bad at it, I always played it once per visit.

    If you could play R-Type for a decent while on one quarter, you had instant arcade cred. Even if you were kind of unlikable, you could be a giant: arcade royalty, even.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “What really changed in arcade gaming in the intervening 5 years?”

    I think Option 1 and Option 2 above are each quite insightful, & they do go a long way towards satisfying our curiosity about this question! But after chatting with Art a bit on the Critical Distance discord server, I’m here to present a super-quick and incomplete “Option 3” based on my reading of the W. David Marx book “Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change”. The book is really great and its argument is really sophisticated; I’ma have to butcher it here because I don’t have 100 paragraphs of space lol, but here goes:

    Let’s suppose that the gamers in an arcade are all part of some big social group, and within this group they have a particular human interest: Ranking each group member implicitly from ‘the least-cool’ to ‘the most cool’. We’ll provisionally define ‘coolness’ as “a proven ability to be the first person embracing what later becomes a triend”. The coolest gamers in this arcade group are people who rock the latest ‘cool’ fashions, speak the latest ‘cool’ lingo and crucially also play the latest ‘cool’ videogames.

    The book’s argument is again really sophisticated so again I’m really kludging it, but BASICALLY we could say that ‘coolness’ is arbitrary. There can never be some objectively-better quality to the latest fashion (whether it’s new clothing or a new game) because there can never really be anything new under the sun; instead it’s all about momentary conditions of abundance and scarcity! It’s cool to be the FIRST person wearing an wristwatch made to be worn on one’s ankle; it’s cool to wear one in the moments when an ankle watch is new/in demand/difficult to find. Unfortunately as soon as enough people go and buy themselves an ankle watch, the momentary conditions will dissipate (and wearing a watch on your motherfucking ankle will again revert from ‘being cool’ into ‘being really silly and impractical’).

    Culture is constantly changing as the momentary ‘coolness gradient’ bends and twists around; those chasing ‘coolness’ go with their fingers held up to the wind, trying to figure out where the ‘gradient’ is pointed next (where they can go to find something other people don’t yet have, but which they will soon momentarily want). this is why the book title mentions ‘CONSTANT’ change: The constant change is necessary in order to maintain an actionable ‘coolness gradient’!

    Okay so having set up a bunch of theory way too quickly, let’s analyse “R-Type” way too quicky! Why would gamers and game-makers choose to pursue this interesting and weird and seemingly-very-capricious arcade game design, rather than seeking out better-fitted arcade game forms that resemble the international smash hit “Pac-Man “? It’s because any new game that comes out and ‘resembles Pac-Man ‘ is a game that provides very little incline along the ‘coolness gradient’. If everybody else is playing Pac-Man and you are… well, also just playing another game that kinda seems similar to Pac-Man , that means you are the same as everyone else (not cool).

    But imagine instead that everyone else is playing Pac-Man while you’re playing “R-Type” with its weird HR Giger-inspired art style and its curiously-long content progression. People in the arcade will be able to instantly recognize how this game is in fact very different from Pac-Man , and because they’re noticeably-different that means they can easily form a ‘coolness gradient’ in people’s eyes (leading from Pac-Man towards R-Type). Anybody who wants to be ‘cool’ under these conditions will at this point be forced to either depart from Pac-Man now or else keep playing it for 30 years (when enough people have abandoned it for long enough that now it’s rare and ‘cool’ once again).

    To sum it all up: Why might arcade games change in ways that lead to less-well-adapted arcade experiences, confusing allocations of developer budget, premature abandonment of still-viable aesthetic and ludic traditions (such as Pac-Man) etc etc etc? Because

    a) Humans show an inbuilt tendency, even a deeply-held longing, to sort & rank themselves, and
    b) It’s impossible to sort or rank oneself by the acquisition of cultural products unless those products are constantly changing shape in very noticeable ways!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. When I was at college, there were two large arcades a couple blocks apart. I spent too many hours at them, more watching than playing. R-Type was one that I did play, and I rarely used the continue. Generally I avoided using continues, because games in that era were mostly fixed difficulty, not adapting to the player. Continuing would usually give you a shorter play session than starting over.

    This was a long time ago, so I’m not sure my memory is trustworthy, but I think most people I saw playing R-Type rarely used the continue either. Novices with money to burn I think would sometimes continue a few times, and then just give up, because the game doesn’t really reward continuing if you don’t know what you’re doing.

    R-Type is particularly bad for continuing because you don’t continue at the point you died. You always go back to a checkpoint, and the powerups you can get from a continue are not optimal. The game gets significantly harder whenever you die.

    Experts did sometimes occasionally continue. I think it was mostly to more efficiently practice the section they currently found hard, or to spend some more time at the fun level of intensity without doing the easy boring parts. This is kind of the same rationale for continue in games like Galaga.

    My general love of shmups is that they’re essentially rhythm games before the era of rhythm games, and I think a game like R-Type is basically a series of escalating rhythm challenges. You’re not playing to get to the end of the game, you’re playing to get to your level of challenge.

    And some shmups in that era made that more explicit by allowing you to choose what stage you wanted to start at. (R-Type II might have been one of those? It might also have been an operator setting to allow/disable that.)

    I think it was a different type of game that was deliberate at encouraging players to continue. Those games were mostly multi-player, people would die and then add another quarter to continue playing with their friend, and/or see more of the story. The difficulty tended to ramp up more slowly, you’d get about the same amount of playtime as starting over. This happened in many genres: Double-Dragon-like brawlers were the most common I remember, but some shmups did that too.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for the insight! This underlines how there’s a huge experience gulf between the shape of paying to play in an actual arcade in 1987 and MAME in 2023. Now that you mention it, my main experience with actual arcade games in an actual arcade are that Simpsons beat-em-up and Metal Slug, which both absolutely incentivized continues and feeding in quarters until your parents cut you off because of that multi-player collaboration aspect… that might have warped my perspective a bit, here.


  4. Thank you for this rock-solid and evocative exposition of one of the most memorable video games of what I’d call the last days of the golden age of the arcade. (Yeah, I admit, that’s a mouthful.) I think you are spot on with your observations about the aesthetics.

    But in focussing so strongly on the art style you’ve overlooked what to me is at least equally important: the sound design. Unlike any game I can think of before it, R-Type sounds solid. It sound chunky. It sounds like chunks of metal being smashed together. There is nothing of the Asteroids pew-pew-pew, very few cutesy elements. Even the basic gun that you start with sounds unrelentingly aggressive. It’s industrial. The only partial antecedent I can think of is the hurtling noise when you shoot a phoenix in stage 2 of the eponymous game and it splits in half, the two halves hurtling apart to the sides of the screen.

    This is important for two reasons, I think. First, it raises the stakes. By eliminating any sense in the sound design of the game being funny, it feels like it matters. And second, it’s just so darned satisfying to smash all those weapons into the bad guys.

    I’m not sure you get that same sense of brutality from a sounds design again until Doom.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great observations yourself! I often forget to take stock of sound unless I specifically focus on it. Heck, I’m oft-inclined to play games on mute. I think that Death Race’s soundscape was also pretty industrial and foreboding.

      And Doom — that’s another game with HR Giger all over it…


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