In my Panzer Dragoon Saga retrospective, I described the battle system as “cinematic”. This seems like a very vague term but its message is simple: to demonstrate exciting action in a way to excite the player. Video games have been trying to accomplish this for decades through general absurdity of the situation (Bionic Commando), interjecting huge exposition dumps to make the game more atmospheric (Metal Gear Solid) or even going as far as to creating levels which replicate those found in adventure movies (the Uncharted series). Even though this trend has been omnipresent ever since the original Donkey Kong, Squaresoft has long been considered the pioneers of this tend with Final Fantasy 7 being described as the first video game that make this type of narrative choice into a possible reality (whether this is true or not is debatable). The biggest advocate of this trend were Squaresoft themselves, who used the Playstation’s processing power to tell narratives ranging from love stories (FFVIII), light-hearted escapades (FFIX) to bizarre FanFiction! (Kingdom Hearts). While some claim that Squaresoft has sold out their company from making beloved heart warming games back in the SNES era to cut scene heavy boredom simulators (FFXIII), they shall forever be remembered as creating the most cinematic video game of all time: Einhander: Or how I learnt to stop worrying and have more tracking shots than an Antonioni film.
By itself, the plot of Einhander isn’t anything special. The earth is being attacked by the moon through a one man fighter space craft called the Einhander. Unsurprisingly, this is you. However the reason for my above claim is not what the plot is about but how it is conveyed. The game starts by putting you into the centre of an array, with a mere split second to take this all in before a hoard of flying police cars representing the spinners from Blade Runner intercept the lone vehicle all while touring through the city. This game provides some of the best sense of pacing I have ever seen in any medium of fiction. From the aforementioned scene, while taking out the spinners you are suddenly thrust into an open landscape which gives a grasp of how small you are in comparison to the world around you. You then are given a single image of a poster showing a girl turning into a skeleton (it looks a lot better than my description makes it out to be), and then the camera tilts forty-five degrees behind the Einhander to show the vehicle progressing through various neon signs as you enter the city centre. At the end of the level when you’ve defeated a giant mechanical monstrosity (there’s no other way to describe it), a narrator tells you about your next goal while the results of the stage appear translucency over the game however (and this is crucial), there are no loading times or sudden shifts in scenery to progress, you are able to see your craft from the very start of the game to the very end creating a two-hour experience for which you are ALWAYS in control (The game starts at night-time and progresses so that dawn breaks during the game).
The entire game is constructed through scenes like this, using pitch perfect pacing to creating not only a great action game but a fully realised world for which you feel like you have barely explored even when you’ve finished the game (The only other games I have had this experience with are Panzer Dragoon Saga and, oddly enough, Garou: Mark of the Wolves). Part of this is due to the visual aesthetic. It helps that the game is blessed with some of the best graphics on the PS1 (this and Vagrant Story were pushing the bounds of the technology as far as 3D models go on the original PlayStation) however the aesthetics manage to convey the cyberpunk setting without falling into the traps of being in a cyberpunk setting (For example, the game is full of bright colours such as the blue and yellow tints on your ship, the voiceovers explain the mission in hand without seeming like an exposition dump etc).
It also helps that this game has, in my opinion, the best soundtrack in video game history. There are many games that have standalone tracks that will forever be remembered for their memorable composition and melodies, however Kenchiro Fukui manages to convey a whole spectrum of emotion that is bombastic when it needs to be, subtle when it needs to be and ambient when it needs to be (which is all the time otherwise the suspension of disbelief would be broken). What sets this apart from other OSTs is that even the most “unimportant” of tracks become just a memorable as the tracks that play during the boss battles or more action packed moments, a feat that it seems that only Yatsunori Mitsuda is credited for. The best thing about this is it creates a setting to be remembered through the music rather than a mere moment such as a boss battle or the end credits (This sets it apart from other space shooters of its kind such as G Darius or Border Down)
This tone alone would make Einhander an interesting game however the final factor that makes Einhander into Squaresoft’s best game is the gameplay. Ever since R Type, space shooters have had a relatively successful formula of a ship constantly travelling in a horizontal direction, with a variation of aliens or robots coming towards you, dropping a succession of power ups to prepare you for the rest of the level and the boss battle at the end. Einhander switches this up to a considerable degree by introducing the idea of ammo, a brilliant idea that to my knowledge has never been used as a single SHmup effectively since.
The wide array of weapons including a light saber, a machine gun, a rocket launcher and an RPG cannon (Rocket Propelled Grenade) each have a certain amount of times they can be used. This means you have to grab new weapons constantly to keep yourself in check with the enemy forces, creating a sense of depth in what can be considered a simplistic space shooter. Your vehicle also has one hand so that the weapons can be mounted in different positions that allows for a sense of customisation on your ship. Your placement has some have different effects such as the machine having recoil when used below the vehicle or the rocket launcher turning into homing missiles when used above). The ships speed can be turn into a last-ditch weapon in that you can speed up or brake to give your character a further sense of control over your ship, which is needed as the game provides a challenging and fair experience regardless of difficulty.
In conclusion, I find it ironic that companies such as Squaresoft have been striving for a true cinematic experience in their Final Fantasy series (maybe Dragon Quest to a lesser extent) and yet one of their lesser known titles is an absolute gold standard for creating a kinetic experience that is far greater than anything on Kinect (I’m looking at you Child of Eden). I highly doubt that Square Enix will create a sequel or even anything remotely like it again. The original PS1 copies of the JP & NA versions are as expensive as you might think a cult PS1 game would be, however the game is on Japanese PSN for a cheap price for anyone willing to give it a go. While there’s dialogue in the game, it’s mostly inconsequential of the amazing experience.