Space ships and the title emerging from an explosion, where do I sign up?
Everyone who knows about the 32X also knows that it has gotten a reputation for being a piece of crap. It deservedly earned it for being one of the most poorly planned and executed ideas ever to surface in history of the video game industry. By fracturing Sega's Genesis user-base into those who had the 32X and those who did not, as well as releasing an expensive piece of hardware right before moving on to their next generation system, Sega did irreparable harm to its consumer trust.
I don't know why they changed the title to Shadow Squadron but it sounds much cooler.
All of the marketing stuff aside; the poor downtrodden 32X is actually a decent add-on, when it works, with a handful of okay games. Therein lies the problem since the okay games only number a handful and none of the games were exactly must-have classics even though arguments have been made for a few. Add to this the absurd asking price of the 32X and you can see why it never took off. Though Sega billed it as a 32-bit system, which it was, even its best games are still limited by the difficult to program for hardware and the storage capacity of Sega's cartridges. Most were decidedly last-generation in terms of graphics and production values which was not what Sega was promising with its over-hyped marketing. To pay so much for something so late in the life of the Genesis just to edge out the SNES in technology was crazy.
Right away they try to impress you with the graphics.
I can talk all day about why I feel the 32X was a bad idea and theorize about the harm it did to Sega but today we're here to give a short review of one of those okay games I mentioned earlier. Today we focus on Shadow Squadron.
Called Stellar Assault in other regions, the story isn't much to speak of and none of it is found in-game so I'm going to gloss over it quickly. An unknown force has destroyed your fleet's early warning systems and is approaching to attack. The hostilities have thrust you into war as a space-fighter pilot; a cadet recently assigned to the elite Shadow Squadron. The story doesn't really need to be here but perhaps having one to give more rhyme or reason to the often flavorless missions you face would have been nice.
An item viewer shows off the various ships.
Star Wars Arcade was one of the more popular titles released for Sega's mushroom shaped add-on. It revealed a genre that could play to the 3D strengths of the 32X without being too taxing though a sequel using that brand name was highly unlikely. Sega used Shadow Squadron to fill the gap by giving us a more generic setting brimming with polygon space-fighters and battleships to destroy. The graphics are somewhat impressive with flat-shaded polygons that evoke the memory of Star Fox on the SNES in most people. I feel they're a little more advanced than that and the game plays smoothly without any slowdown. There's no denying the similar visual style however. To some it will look archaic but to others it provides an interesting retro aesthetic. The weapon effects and explosions are all very nice as well and some of the little details like the systems check start-up sequence at the beginning of the game that aids in the presentation and makes you feel like you're really in the cockpit.
You can't enjoy the homing missiles because they waste precious energy.
The gameplay is deceptively simple. You pilot your fighter against waves of enemy fighters and larger capital ships with the objective of blowing up everything that gets in your way. Attacking large capital ships is fun because you pick them apart piece by piece instead of destroying them all at once. Blowing up the bridge or taking off a wing or a few engines is very satisfying and looks great. The game still becomes repetitive since the goal is the same in every mission with some minor changes in scenery such as asteroid fields. Unlike Star Wars Arcade which came before it you have full control of your fighter, unless you choose the autopilot mode which turns the game into a rail shooter, meaning you can maneuver in every direction and have better control over your speed with a break and afterburner. It's more of a true flight-sim with arcade style combat than its predecessor.
The numbers show how far away enemy fighters are.
Because of the nature of the genre you will require a six-button controller to play this game effectively. There just aren't enough buttons for maneuvering otherwise though the game makes clever use of button double-taps to give some buttons multiple purposes. Even the mode button is used which will switch the player view from the cockpit to a third-person perspective.
The main challenge in the game comes from conserving energy. Flying around and shooting will expend your energy bar. You also have a separate bar for shield energy that dictates how many hits you can take. If your ship runs out of energy your shield energy is used instead meaning you're going to die the next time you're hit. Enemy fighters will blast at you with their lasers and capital ships will launch larger, slow moving projectiles in attempt to ward off your attack runs.
Enemy fighter in a head-on attack.
How you play the game depends on which of the two fighter-craft you choose. Designated Feather 1 and Feather 2 the fighters are colored red and blue respectively though the game gives you the nifty option to recolor them as well as ally and enemy ships if you choose. Feather 1 has a rapid-fire double-laser cannon and lock-on homing missiles similar to many rail shooters. To defend itself from enemy attacks it has a temporary shield that's difficult to use. It has a low supply of energy that replenishes by docking with a support ship after every level.
Feather 2 has a single laser with pin-point accurate targeting that's fired for every press of the button and a giant dumb-fire bomb that uses shield energy and deals massive damage. Instead of a shield for protection Feather 2's accurate laser can detonate enemy bombs before they reach you. It also does more damage than Feather 1's main weapon overall since you can fire faster by tapping the button. Feather 2 has a massive energy supply but no support ship to help it out so you have to make your energy reserve last the entire game. Energy is drawn from the main pool to recharge your shields after every level as well. Feather 1's cockpit is also enclosed while Feather 2 has an open HUD giving you a larger field of vision. The game gave me the impression that Feather 1 was sort of an old fighter while Feather 2 was a new top of the line one.
Autopilot makes the game a less-fun rail shooter.
Ultimately Feather 2 is the better fighter since Feather 1 has a more difficult time defending itself against enemy shots and cannot destroy enemy ships as fast making it very hard to survive in later levels. On the other hand Feather 2's limited energy means you'll also struggle to make it through to the final levels of the game and will need to learn to ration your supplies. This is somewhat negated by the fact that if you die Feather 2 will start out with full energy after you continue. Unfortunately the energy system will prevent you from using your ship's afterburner and missile/bomb attacks, if you want to get through the game without dying, because of their cost which is a shame considering they're really cool. I wish they would have come up with a better way to add challenge besides giving you limited energy.
Details like the pre-flight check add to the atmosphere.
The game also has a passable two player mode where one person pilots and the other controls the weapons. It's more fun to control the weapons though so you may want to switch positions with your friend between levels to make the most of it. A split-screen dogfight mode probably would have been a better idea.
The sound effects are convincing for this type of game though they could have been a little stronger. Shadow Squadron really shines in the music department with up-beat tracks suitable for wrecking things.
With a six-button controller you can access the chase camera.
Overall, Shadow Squadron is a fun space-sim that I found more entertaining and polished to play than Star Wars Arcade and its higher production values. The differences between how the two fighters operate adds a lot of variety but unfortunately the missions themselves offer little variation and the lack of any in-game story creates a sort of purposelessness to it all. No story works in games where the action is fast and furious but Shadow Squadron's slower and more deliberate pace gives you time to think and makes you wish you knew why you were going on these missions and what exactly you were accomplishing towards the war effort. This is what makes PC space-sims like Wing Commander and TIE Fighter shine in comparison. It's a minor quibble since Shadow Squadron is geared towards arcade-style play more-so than flight simulation. Because the game is only six missions long it's also unlikely you'll become that bored with the repetitious gameplay.
Feather 2 has a better HUD and better primary weapon but it can't refuel.
The smooth and responsive controls and lack of the choppiness present in Star Wars Arcade impresses me more than anything else and make the title worth playing. If you're a fan of the genre or the graphical style you'll undoubtedly enjoy blowing the crap out of the huge ships. Be warned though as the game starts off easy enough but quickly becomes very challenging. Having enough energy to beat the final mission is practically impossible and will require all of your skills as a pilot. To make it even worse the final mission is timed.
Shadow Squadron is one of the reasons I got a 32X and it still shines as one of the add-on's best titles. The design is very simple by today's standards but very fun and effective.
Feather 2's impressive bomb is unfortunately too wasteful to use often.
Presentation: 8 From the opening cinematic with rocking music that tries to impress with the game's 3D graphics to the little things like the pre-flight systems check, the game goes out of its way to put you into the action. Allowing you to change the colors of the ships is also a plus and providing very different cockpits for both fighters is a nice touch.
Gameplay: 8 The tight controls and fun mechanic of picking apart huge enemy battlecruisers makes Shadow Squadron an absolute blast. Things unfortunately get repetitive and unfair in later levels but the game's arcade simplicity that still provides more depth than Star Wars Arcade makes it fun and accessible for almost anyone.
Graphics: 9 One of the most graphically impressive games on the 32X that doesn't feel like it's pushing the 32X to its limits. The ships are all well designed and the weapon effects and explosions are cool to watch. It's very outdated today but I find the early textureless 3D look to be appealing in its own unique way. Early texture-mapped 3D was pretty horrible anyway.
Sound: 8 Fitting sound effects and a great soundtrack will keep you from caring that there's not supposed to be sound in space.
Lasting Appeal: 6 This is where the game takes the biggest hit. The missions don't have enough variety to keep bringing you back but the action is fun enough to transcend that somewhat. The two vastly different fighters do add some replay value. Most people will either beat it once and be done with it or get stuck on the last mission forever.
Overall Average: 7.8/10
Collector: If you've decided to start collecting for the 32X this game should be on the short list of must-have titles for the add-on. It's not very expensive either.
Gamer: If you're a fan of the space-sim genre or like the flat-shaded, polygonal spaceship aesthetics of Star Fox then this game is both fun and very challenging.