One of the things I find kind of interesting about how gaming culture in general has developed over time is how people feel about “arcade games”.
Back in the 8- and 16-bit eras of computers and consoles that I grew up with, the seemingly unattainable dream was to have “the arcade experience at home” — or, well, more accurately, an authentic arcade experience at home. This was kind of strange when you think about it, because a lot of home computer and console games already offered experiences of greater complexity, depth and duration than your average quarter-muncher, but still the dream persisted.
Once we got to a stage where our home gaming hardware was more than up to the job of providing an “arcade-perfect” experience, however, many people had become so accustomed to those longer, deeper experiences that the dream of “arcade games” kind of fell by the wayside for a significant proportion of the gaming audience. And consequently, I suspect a fair few people missed out on highly enjoyable cheese like Sega’s Ghost Squad.
Ghost Squad was first released to arcades in 2004, and ran on Sega’s Pentium III-based Chihiro platform, a system board somewhat based on the architecture of Microsoft’s original Xbox console but with considerably more memory for both system purposes and media storage.
The game itself is a fairly traditional on-rails light gun shooter, and in its arcade incarnation featured a large cabinet for one or two players featuring force feedback-equipped light guns with working fire selector switches and iron sights, as well as the obligatory huge screen and thumping sound system.
In its original Japanese release, Ghost Squad made use of a system called “IC Cards” to allow players the opportunity to record persistent progression for up to a hundred games on the machine. Players would purchase a card and record their results on it after a playthrough, and in doing so would earn experience points to unlock new outfits, new weapons and rank titles for their profile as well as up to sixteen different difficulty levels. This feature was stripped out for most overseas machines, as has seemingly often been the case with many arcade titles that offer persistent progression over the years.
It wasn’t until 2007 that Ghost Squad would get a home release, with the port developed by Polygon Magic, a large and well-established company with its roots in arcade games dating all the way back to the mid-’90s. The game offered the full arcade game experience — only using the Wii Remote (with optional Wii Zapper mount) instead of a light gun — as well as Wii-exclusive four-player “Party” modes and a competitive “Training” mode.
2007 was a funny time for light gun games. By this point, the gaming community at large was well into the transition to HD that had primarily been kicked off by Microsoft’s popular Xbox 360 platform. One of the casualties of that great upheaval had seemingly been the light gun shooter: with the different way that HDTVs produced their image compared to older, standard-definition CRTs, the technology behind traditional light guns no longer worked, and with the aforementioned apparent thirst for longer, deeper, more complex experiences, no-one seemed in a particular hurry to find an alternative solution.
Nintendo’s 2006 release of the Wii naturally presented a solution to the issue, however: the way the Wii Remote controller made use of an external sensor bar rather than relying on the TV image meant that accurate “pointer” functionality was once again possible, regardless of whether the user had a standard- or high-definition television set. And where you can point, you can shoot! With that, the platform ushered in something of a resurgence of light gun (or at least light gun-style) shooters such as Ghost Squad. And, given the Wii’s reputation for being a more “casual-friendly” console, this type of game fit right in with the kind of people who would be drawn to the platform and its game.
So what is Ghost Squad? Well, it casts you in the role of the titular band of special forces soldiers (the Global Humanitarian Operation and Special Tactics squad, dontcha know) as they attempt to clear three missions by shooting everything except the things they aren’t supposed to.
Ghost Squad’s unique selling point is the fact that most of its missions feature branching pathways, presented to the player as tactical choices. In one mission you might have to choose between rescuing some hostages or clearing out the enemies, for example, while in another you might simply choose between several different pathways to follow as you attempt to locate a hostage.
A further twist on this — and replay value — is added by the “Mission Level” system. When you first start playing the game, all three missions are set to level 1. Successfully clear a mission by defeating its final boss and the mission level will increase; this makes it more challenging and provides more choices to make the next time you play it. Conversely, you can reach the end of a mission and have to abort it if you fail a key objective; in this case, you’ll still have technically “cleared” the mission so far as that playthrough is concerned, but the mission level will not increase for subsequent runthroughs until you get it right.
The choices aren’t just different routes around the level, either; different routes will often task you with objectives other than simply blasting everything in sight. You might have to handcuff hostages while fighting off enemies, for example, or you might have to ensure that no more than a certain number of enemies break through your defences and reach a key strategic location. Many of these objectives make use of an “action” button besides your gun’s trigger, so it’s important to make sure you press the right thing. Shooting a deadly anti-personnel mine is markedly less effective than the more well-established special forces technique of hitting it repeatedly with a pair of pliers, after all.
Successfully accomplishing mission tasks such as these — or simply pulling off good, quick, accurate shots — adds to a meter at the top of the screen marked “GS” (presumably for “Ghost Squad”). When this fills, your gun will be powered up, but you’ll also lose some “charge” in this meter if you fail to complete an objective, shoot one of your teammates or kill a hostage. It’s a fun means of measuring your skill and accuracy besides the simple score readout. Everyone loves filling up bars!
At the end of a mission, you’ll see a flowchart of the choices you made and whether or not you were successful in each of the main setpieces and challenges you reached. In this way, you can see the alternative routes you could have taken as well as what you have to expect at the higher mission level settings.
After the three missions are complete, the game ends rather abruptly; this isn’t a game anyone will be playing for the story, except perhaps to appreciate the delightfully po-faced cheesiness in the tradition of all great action movies. Instead, this is a game all about the pursuit of high scores, and to that end it provides an extensive high-score table, the ability to record your progress and unlock extras in the same way as the original arcade machine made use of its IC cards, and the now-traditional method of shaming credit-feeders by forever tainting the last digit of your score with how many times you had to continue.
The basic arcade game can be played by one or two players simultaneously, with both able to record their progression and unlocks independently of one another. The game also offers a “Party Mode” where players use a fixed equipment loadout, and this supports up to four players simultaneously.
Successfully meeting various conditions in the main arcade game also offers alternative ways to play the Party Mode, too, with a particular highlight being Ninja Mode — here, the two “player characters” in the cutscenes are dressed in ninja outfits, and your guns are replaced by ninja stars that you have to fire manually, but which never require reloading. Physics objects around the levels are also replaced with Japanese dolls that explode into various amusing poses when you hit them with a shuriken.
A completely Wii-exclusive mode comes in the form of the “training” section. Rather than being the patronising tutorial mode you might expect, this is instead a competitive mode for up to four players who have to compete in various shooting challenges without the aid of an on-screen crosshair. These challenges range from simple target shooting to a simulated mission against a very tight time limit. They’re lots of fun, and their competitive nature arguably makes them better for party play than the actual Party Mode.
You can tell Ghost Squad was originally built for hardware from the generation prior to the Wii. The polygonal graphics are a bit bland and the frame rate, although rock solid, is perhaps not what more modern gamers might be accustomed to. However, the whole experience is coated with that distinctive “Sega” polish, with giant colourful popups informing you when you’ve found powerups or achieved something particularly noteworthy, timers counting down in hundredths of a second because it’s more dramatic and flashing exhortations to “HOLD YOUR FIRE!” while cutscenes are playing.
In short, it’s the quintessential Sega arcade experience on your television, and as a result, while it won’t blow your eyeballs out with its technical proficiency or anything, by God is it fun. Sure, you can blow your way through the three missions on offer in less than twenty minutes, but like any good arcade game, the real joy here is in doing it again and again and again, just a little bit better each time…
More about Ghost Squad
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