Squaresoft was a creative juggernaut in the 1990s. Their most important game being Final Fantasy VII proved to be the a crucial killer-app for the PlayStation. The sales were staggering, and they single-handedly made JRPGs mainstream in the west.
While roleplaying games were their bread and butter, Squaresoft used this newly earned clout and creative freedom to experiment across many genres during this renaissance. They would go on to prove themselves with esoteric fighting games like Tobal No. 1, a kart racer with Chocobo Racing, and even a few survival horror games.
One genre that nobody expected Squaresoft would ever return to would be the shoot ’em up. Their only other effort was 1986’s woefully mediocre King’s Knight, but the magic that made Final Fantasy VII possible was still in the air at the Squaresoft offices. To this day, Einhänder still holds up as one of the best shootem-ups ever made.
Platforms: PlayStation, PlayStation 3 (via Japanese PSN)
Release Date: November 20, 1997 (Japan), May 5, 1998 (North America)
Price: ¥628 (approx. $6.00)
If you need help buying games from PSN Japan, you can find our guide here.
Squaresoft games on PlayStation have an otherworldly allure about them, especially if it’s Einhänder. Just one look at the Japanese box art and it becomes obvious just how hip and modern it still is. It inspires intrigue and mystery with its x-ray skeletal hand, a striking font, and captivating title. It doesn’t even resemble video game box art, but some kind of avant garde album cover.
Sadly, most won’t be able to enjoy owning a physical copy. Einhänder is very rare and extremely cost-prohibitive; with some listings around the $150 range. It does not matter if it is the North American release or the Japanese version; its pricey no matter what.
To this day, Einhänder is still exclusive to the PlayStation and has never been ported to anything, except as a download as a PS1 Classic on PlayStation 3. For about $6, Einhänder can be acquired via the Japanese PlayStation Network and it is almost entirely in English. All audio is voice acted in English, and so is most text. Only ship descriptions and a few negligible instances are in Japanese.
The lucky devils who manage to acquire a copy or where cheeky enough to assemble a Japanese PSN account will find that Einhänder is an impressive technical achievement on PlayStation. While it was common for 2D games on the console to be 60 frames per second, a staggering majority of PlayStation games with 3D graphics were 30 fps. Einhänder is a rare 60 fps PlayStation 2.5D example.
Einhänder may be a horizontal 2D shootem-up, but it uses 3D models to great effect. The camera position will adjust its angle to create a more dynamic visual for purposes of excitement. It is never too showy, often the perspective change is subtle enough that it never impacts the action. It is a visual flourish that has made Einhänder stand out from most shooters.
The introductory prerendered cutscene establishes a war between the Earth and Moon. The player character happens to be an unnamed pilot who is recruited for a suicide mission to pilot one of the three Einhänder crafts; Astraea Mk. I, or the two Endymion models. The pilot’s mission is to assault the Earth’s base, where the corrupt regime runs rampant. It is simple and to the point; very un-Squaresoft.
Commencing the assault sends the player into the most PlayStation looking city imaginable. Chunky and pixelated textures patched together to create a very strong impression of a cyberpunk setting. Flashy neon signs and glowing lights from distant building glisten across the screen like an impressionist painting.
Enemy ships are simple models but effective in their design, with clearly defined shapes that stand out from the lurid background. Explosions have a crunchy and visceral weight that only the 90s could depict. The way polygons jitter and flicker only adds the the ferocity of the aggressive assault inflicted by the player’s ceaseless gunfire.
If Einhänder were made today by developers trying to copy the PlayStation aesthetic, they could never get this right. The chunkiness may seem quaint by today’s standards, but it is truly a quality that is ubiquitous to the era. It is no different than the modern indie game art that fetishize minimalistic pixel art; but the difference is that Einhänder is doing it out of necessity, not irony.
Being able to see the seams of how the graphics are made can make creative people appreciate the craft to a greater degree. It brings the viewer in on the process, spurring their imagination.
Some of the effects are rudimentary 2D assets drawn in some obscure program, but with everything working together it creates an elaborate sci-fi tapestry. It may be quaint, but it is much less abstract than how modern games are built with their endless shaders and post processing effects with polygon counts into the millions.
Einhänder achieves the the best aspects of the PlayStation visual style but a high frame rate. The chunkiness of the graphics make the outlines of hit boxes very clearly defined. The jagged edges are clear as a crisp spring morning, promising easily identifiable threats.
The Einhänder crafts have excellent controls. The battles can be very hectic, and this was a game made before analogue control became standard, so Einhänder can only be played with the digital inputs of the directional buttons.
To make controls as tight as possible, players can pull the brakes with L2 to more carefully maneuver around enemy bullets. Using R2 will accelerate the ship for more evasive movements. Mastering when to slow down or speed up can make a difference when going up against some of the more diabolical minibosses.
All three of the main Einhänder crafts are equipped with a extending manipulator to grab weapons on the fly. This mechanical arm is the main gimmick of the gameplay that makes it stand out from other shoot ’em ups.
The Astraea is able to carry two gunpods, and is able to use both at the same time. The downside is that the basic firing weapon cannot be used when both gunpods are active. Gunpods tend to run out of ammo, and sometimes it is worth hanging onto a beefy missile launcher for a boss.
Endymion Mk. II is the high level play ship that can carry three gunpods, and can cycle through them at will. This does not affect the basic machine gun equipped at all, and the various weapons picked up can be used whenever is convenient. It also has a quirk of angling some weapons at an angle and carries the least amount of ammo.
The Endymion Mk. III is the most streamlined and basic of the Einhänder crafts. It can only carry a single gunpod, but makes up for this with double machine guns. Like its predecessor, some weapons it uses will be at an angle.
All three of the main Einhänders will be able to take weapons off of defeated enemies. Some of these are basic fare like railguns or a spread fire, but this is still a Squaresoft game and that means there are swords lightning cannons.
Some of these weapons are more useful depending on which Einhänder is in use. One weapon might be a total hassle to use due to it being positioned in an angle that might not suit the situation.
Another property of the Einhänders is that the manipulators can change the position of each weapon. Sometimes a weapon will get swung facing backwards. Other times it will be repositioned above the craft or the weapon will have a special function. The sword can be swung above or below the ship and is capable of launching a fireball with a simple fighting game style input.
For Squaresoft of all developers to make a deep shoot ’em up on PlayStation is nothing short of a miracle. Even more surprising is the soundtrack that defies expectations.
The pulsing beats through out make liberal use of the same sound samples featured in Final Fantasy VII and Parasite Eve, but with a Euro techno flair. It sounds like something heard in a really classy nightclub due to the aggressive sirens and electronically filtered German heard through out.
Light piano motifs get sprinkled in to emphasize the dramatic nature of the Einhänder suicide mission. It is a very effective soundtrack that draws the player into the setting, and sparks the imagination with the goings on with the background lore.
Einhänder has stood the test of time. However, it is not worth the price of whatever it is that collectors are saying it is. No game is worth $140; especially a shoot ’em up that can be beaten in a couple of hours. There are a couple of hidden ships to unlock that have their own unique traits, and bosses adapt new strategies depending on what parts gets destroyed.
Interested parties will likely have to opt for the Japanese version on PSN. This version runs cheap, and does have some qualities that make it different than the North American release. It has an unlockable very easy mode that grants unlimited continues, the overall the game has a slightly different balance adjustment to the ammo, and the gallery menu is different.
Einhänder is a very enjoyable and stylish shoot ’em up that is easy for anyone to pick up and play thanks to its methodical pace. It is a tour de force of sight and sound that is hard to put down, because the action feels very fluid. Even though it looks old, the art direction’s style shines through so effectively that even modern gamers of today could appreciate it.
Einhänder was reviewed on PlayStation 3 using a personal copy. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.