Einhänder: because sometimes being the kamikaze vanguard in the war between the Moon and the Earth is just the right thing to do.
When I was but a young lad, I played a lot of shoot ‘em ups. The thing is, at the time, they were called shooters, because there weren’t all that many first-person murder simulators out there yet, and the ones we did have weren’t “first-person shooters“. They were “Doom clones.” Given how much I fail at FPS games, in my tiny black heart I still like to call shmups “shooters” even though that guarantees that no one is going to know what I am talking about.
The original PlayStation was a bastion for this genre. There are dozens of examples, and while my own game collection certainly does not have a complete accounting of all of them, it does include some of the best.
On top of all that, there was a time when Squaresoft could be trusted more or less implicitly to put out games that I wanted to play. That bridge of goodwill has long been burned, but early in the PlayStation era, well before Legend of Mana and The Bouncer and the merger with Enix, you could reliably assume that a game with their (curiously) triangular logo was going to bring me joy.
Out of this magical confluence came one of my favorite games. Einhänder is very much about what I wrote in my opening. You are a pilot for the Moon’s forces in their war against Earth. You are sent in, alone, on a reconnaissance mission.
Then, as one might expect, the Mooninite leadership turns on you, because their culture has advanced beyond all that you can possibly comprehend with 100% of your brain. Turns out (SPOILER ALERT) that your whole shit has been about testing a new unmanned fighter, and you’ll be rewarded with some posthumous nonsense after that fighter passes its final test by BLOWING YOU THE HELL OUT OF THE SKY. Or SPACE. Or whatever.
Obviously that doesn’t happen, if for no other reason than game narratives in the late ’90s were not cynical enough to render your entire play experience pointless, at least plot-wise. You take your treasonous vengeance to the point where both sides are too crippled to continue fighting, thus bringing about the end of the war. So no pressure there, you know?
Thing is, as much as I agree with my colleague Matt London’s feelings about game narrative, the story in shoot ‘em ups does not really mean jack. Probably more than any genre besides fighting games, it’s window dressing. The reason that I love Einhänder enough to write about it over a decade later is because the gameplay was amazing. Frenzied, high-pressure, with beautiful patterns that you had to learn to win. Oh, and also, you could pick up a fucking lightsaber.
Tragically, it was not long after that shmups evolved beyond my abilities. Less than five years later, right as the PlayStation transitioned into the PS2, the devolution of the genre from arcade mainstay to the nietzsche-est of niche products was complete.
I love Ikaruga, I really do. But I also know that I am simply not good enough to master it. I mean… I may not have a life, but still.
At least I’m not this guy.
Every time I hear about a great shoot ‘em up now, it’s a bullet hell game, often from CAVE. I am not a proud man. I know my limits, and the last thing I want is to have to replace my controllers because I snapped them in half or spiked them in a fit of nintemper. So in many ways my days with shooters are over.
None of that was able to temper my excitement when my brother sent me a message one day with a link to the trailer for Zweihänder. A sequel to one of my favorite games? Out of nowhere? Yes please!
Tragically, the video he linked me to is no longer a going concern on the internet, so I can’t show you the majesty. Just know, it was the one and only time that I have ever successfully been rickrolled. I didn’t get the joke at first; “Never Gonna Give You Up” had been an in-joke in our friend circle for a few years before that, at least, and I thought that’s why he sent me the link. I had no idea it was part of a wider phenomenon, and I wouldn’t learn that fact until several months later. I grew to appreciate it, especially when Rick Astley himself rickrolled the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
I’m still a little bitter about that one time, though. As you can tell, I love Einhänder, and I am not the only one. There’s even a whole Let’s Play about it. I lost a little bit of trust in the internet that day, and it has done little to gain that trust back.
Ultimately I think the lesson I took from all that is this: the world can be a very harsh place sometimes. And I still want Zweihänder.