One thing the Sega Saturn wasn’t lacking, especially in Japan, was quality arcade shoot ‘em ups. From the universally acclaimed (and horrendously expensive) Radiant Silvergun, to the more obscure titles such as Shippuu Mahou Daisakusen, the Saturn is a shoot ‘em up fan’s dream. Unfortunately, as was Sega’s way at the time, their mistaken assumption that gamers in the West were only interested in 3D polygon games on their 32-bit machine meant that many of these classic shooters never left Japan. This of course led to games like Radiant Silvergun, DoDonPachi and Battle Garegga becoming highly sought after and prohibitively expensive to buy for Saturn collectors who don’t have stupidly deep pockets.
However, this wasn’t the case with the game I’m reviewing today. In my mission to expand my collection of Japanese Saturn games, whilst simultaneously avoiding the wrath of the Missus, I’m always on the lookout for those lesser known, cheaper ‘hidden gems’ that don’t get the attention or attract the prices of some of the games mentioned above. It was while searching for some ‘alternative’ 2D shooters that I came across LAYER SECTION (were the caps really necessary?? – Ed :)). The game was released as Galactic Attack in the USA and Europe but I think you’ll find that LAYER SECTION is a much more catchy title… (stop it! – Ed).
Originally an arcade game titled ‘Rayforce’, the Saturn port was renamed ‘Layer Section’ in Japan due to trademarking issues. Later, when Acclaim (arrggggghhh – Ed) published the Saturn port in North America and Europe it was again renamed as the incredibly generic sounding ‘Galactic Attack’. To make things even more confusing, the original Rayforce arcade game was known as ‘Gunlock’ in Europe! From here on in, I’ll be calling it Layer Section as that’s the name of the game I bought and played for this review.
Released in the arcades in 1994 and the Sega Saturn in 1995, Layer Section is a classic vertically scrolling shooter with a few neat touches that set it apart, which I’ll go into later. The plot has you taking on a massive supercomputer named ‘Con-Human’, which has gained sentience and gone insane. ‘Con-Human’ has gradually destroyed the planet it was created to protect and started replacing living organisms (including its human creators) with corrupted clones, that it sees as improved versions of themselves. Its eventual goal is to destroy all traces of ‘old’ life from the universe, leaving only what it has personally created remaining. The last vestiges of humanity who fled the dying Earth to live on space colonies have launched an all-out assault on the crazed machine, and it is down to you, piloting the RVA-818 X-LAY starfighter (catchy huh?) to put an end to ‘Con-Human’s’ reign of terror and destruction.
Your ship is equipped with two weapons, both of which can be powered up by collecting icons as the game progresses: a primary weapon that fires lasers straight ahead of you, and a secondary laser which operates via a ‘lock-on’ system, which can target up to 8 enemies at once. This weapon is used to attack enemies below you, on a separate plane. It’s this ‘lock-on’ system that gave Layer Section’s gameplay an edge over some of its contemporaries, and, one can only assume, its new name in Japan. A targeting reticle appears on screen ahead of your craft at all times, and as you hover it over an enemy it will lock on automatically. You can then rain down laser powered death from above, destroying the targeted foes.
This unusual, multi layered lock-on style of gameplay, mixed with the standard straight ahead shooting, make Layer Section a hell of a lot of fun. The multiple layers mean there’s always something happening, and it’s a real test of your concentration to make sure you spot everything that’s going on in front of and below you. I’m a huge fan of the lock-on mechanic, it never gets boring lining up a host of targets beneath you, then unleashing your lasers on them with the press of a button. It’s not a complicated game to pick up and play, and it’s easy to get straight in and have a lot of fun with. Like most shooters it gets pretty tough in the later levels, so it’s no cakewalk, but it’s far from the hardest game of its type that I’ve played.
The enemies you come up against are your usual anime-inspired mixture of spacecraft and Macross-esque mechs, and the bosses, although large, aren’t the most exciting creations we’ve ever seen in a shooter. It’s probably also worth noting that your ship isn’t the most handsome spacecraft in the galaxy. If this sounds like the start of a (galactic) attack on Layer Section’s graphics, then I apologise for misleading you, because this is a GREAT looking game (there he goes again… – Ed). Although the actual character/enemy sprites aren’t particularly memorable, the way Layer Section is presented is outstanding for the time. As was often the case when talking about the Saturn’s 2D arcade ports, this is pretty much arcade perfect in terms of its looks. There’s some lovely anime artwork in the opening cut scenes, and this high standard of presentation continues throughout. The whole premise of the layer-based gameplay is reliant on smoothly scrolling layers, and the Saturn handles this with ease. At no point while playing did I notice any slowdown, and this is a game that, at its most hectic, throws enemies at you from all directions on those two layers. As you transition between layers there are some fantastic scrolling effects, such as the moment you head beneath the Earth’s surface into lava filled caverns, or on a later stage as the background creates a clever 3D effect that makes it look as though you are flying into the screen.
An interesting feature on this Saturn version of the game is the inclusion of something called ‘Tate’ mode, which was a feature of many vertical shooters at the time. If you’ve never heard of ‘Tate’ mode, let me explain. Due to the resolution and display ratio of the game when ported to home console, if playing in ‘Saturn’ mode, the game scrolls vertically as usual, but with wide black bars either side of the playing area, giving a much smaller view of the game. If you select Tate mode, it will rotate the screen 90 degrees to the right, and display the entire playing field. The idea then is that you turn your TV or monitor on its side, so you get the full screen, arcade view (“Tate” is a shortened form of the Japanese verb “tateru,” which means ‘to stand’) This however is only intended to work with TV’s or monitors that are designed to be turned on their side – try it with your own CRT at your own risk, as it’ll likely break!
As well as being a great looking game, Layer Section is also a great sounding game. Benefitting from the CD format, there’s a lot of really clear, really nice speech samples. The soundtrack is excellent, with a nice mix of tunes, ranging from fairly chilled and funk-filled affairs to more intense and epic sounding themes for some of the boss battles and later stages.
It’s interesting to look back at how Layer Section was received at the time. Although it scored well in terms of presentation and gameplay, it was seemingly regarded as being dated, even in 1995. Sadly, the view Sega had of western audiences only being interested in flashy, polygon based games was fuelled partly by gaming journalists of the time, who unfavourably compared Layer Section to games like Virtua Fighter 2 and Sega Rally, questioning whether games like Layer Section were the reason people spent £300 on a Saturn.
Well as far as I’m concerned, it’s their loss. As people have discovered over the years, there is an absolute goldmine of these types of games in the Saturn library, unloved at the time of release, but there for us to discover now, 20 years on. Layer Section is fun, good looking, great sounding and immensely playable, and as one of the cheaper games of its type on the Saturn, comes highly recommended.