Last Level Press

Hidden Gem Review: Einhander

Reviewer: Cliff Davenport

There was a time, in the era of great chaos, when the Earth and the Moon were at war with each other.  A daredevil from the moon piloted a bizarre aircraft. It was feared, and because of its shape, called,Einhander.

Remember what I said in my last review about 1998 being such an awesome year for gamers?  Turns out, it was even better than I thought.  Not only were a legion of ground-breaking titles released that year, but a handful of gaming’s finest gems flew right under the radar along with them.  One of those gems just happens to be my favorite side-scroller of all time, Einhander.  

I recall as a lad, in the summer of 1998, picking up my latest issue of Gamepro (remember when magazines mattered?), and stumbling across a preview for the North American release of Einhander, a side-scrolling ship shooter that had already received high praise in Japan.  It looked interesting, and, conveniently enough, the late 90s were the golden years of demo discs.  As it happened, this issue contained such a trove of tantalization, and Einhander was amongst the titles available for demo.  I popped it in, gave it a whirl, and found myself staring at the most beautifully rendered intro cutscene I had ever seen.  A vaguely defined future-war between Earth and its colonized moon-nation, Selene, unfolded before me,  and dropped me into the action as a pilot of Selene’s latest prototype fighter, conducting assault-recon on Earth’s defenses.  

And its strip clubs.  Critical points of interest, those.

One level later, I was hooked.  Off to the internet I ran, pleading with my mother to put aside her distrust of all things e-commerce related, just this once, and to my elation, I got my wish.  Einhander was on its way.  And so, I waited.  And waited, and waited, checking the mailbox every day after school, as my game was shipped from God’s holy hell knows where, finally arriving a full month after the projected delivery date.  That’s an awful lot of buildup time, and even at the tender age of nine, I knew that I might have set myself up for disappointment.  

“More like ‘death appointment!’  Eh? Ehh?  

…Up yours too, buddy.”

I was wrong.  Gloriously, beautifully wrong.  Einhander was all I wanted it to be and more.  Its art, its music, even its intro cutscene; all were beautifully rendered, artfully arranged, and refreshingly unique from anything else on the side-scroller market at the time.  Nostalgia, however, has a way of clouding the glasses of recollection, so how good is Einhander, really?  Like most titles of a time two consoles removed from the current generation, it’s only aged so well, but certain facets of its design and execution remain standout, even today.  

Foremost among these qualities is the game’s soundtrack.  Kenichiro Fukui composed Einhander’s score, largely comprised of techno tracks interlaced with elements of house, piano, and opera, and it is easily one of the best in the Playstation catalogue.  Every track is different and memorable, and each one elicits a different sort of emotion appropriate to the environment of its corresponding game stage.  From fast-paced rave tracks that one can’t help but head-bob along to, to serene technoscapes befitting a deceptively perilous dogfight in space, every track of Fukui’s score has the potential to bore its way into your head for days.  I, for one, rarely make any effort to dislodge such tunes.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

Gameplay wise, Einhander delivers fast-paced, aesthetically pleasing action, blending traditional side-scroller gameplay with three-dimensional background environments, allowing for dynamic camera angles and fluid transitions, often used to present forward-looking establishing shots of new levels or boss encounters.  The levels themselves vary widely, from desolate wastelands of mesas and dust to neon-lit metropoli and flooded military bunkers, and every level merges seamlessly into the next, broken up only by a brief overlay of players’ scores at the end of each stage.  Some levels are certainly better designed than others, occasionally requiring a stretched suspension of disbelief at the sheer size of some levels’ enclosed interiors.  Others, however, elicit a sensation of wonder not unlike that of Fallout or Mass Effect titles, as players witness the eerily detailed, ruined husks of bygone civilizations whizzing by between explosions.  

Speaking of explosions, Einhander’s controls handle tightly and smoothly, and thankfully so, as even on easy difficulty settings, this game will test players’ reflexes.  The various difficulty settings themselves have more to do with how much damage one can take before dying than any notable A.I. adjustments, so for veterans of the side-scroller genre, I encourage you to test yourselves against a worthy opponent the likes of Einhander’s iconic bosses at mid-to-high difficulty.  

“I’ll be gentle.  Don’t I look gentle?”

At game-start, players must choose which of the three eponymous “einhander” craft they’d like to pilot, each model varying slightly depending upon player preference.  A minimally effective chaingun comes standard to each variation, but I’ll be honest, I rarely touched it save for the occasional burst into a group of weak enemies.  The ships’ namesake feature, however, a modular weapon mount “arm,” allows players to equip and switch out up to two external “gunpods,” which players will frequently get the opportunity to snatch from downed enemies.  Grab them quickly though, as enemies’ death throe explosions will often send perfectly good gunpods hurtling offscreen into wasted-asset hell.   These weapons range from the mundane, such as large Vulcan chainguns and punishing cannons, to more exotic weapons, like short-range beam swords and guided missiles.  The latter sort are more rarely encountered, and often come with a very limited amount of ammunition, rendering them “candy” equipment at best, but their inclusion breaks up the monotony frequently enough to keep combat interesting.  

Enemies are refreshingly varied throughout Einhander, especially compared to other side-scrollers, to say nothing of most action games in general, as many are often unique to their own stages, and every model, from the tiniest fighter to the bulkiest giant mech is impressively detailed.  Many foes sport multiple defensive layers, requiring players to dodge or fend off swarms of lesser ships as they gun for the tougher, more punishing foes.  Fortune favors the precise in such dogfights, as many of these same enemies also possess weak spots that, when shot, can often down them in as little as one or two well-placed cannon rounds.  Of course, that’s assuming you have a precision weapon equipped, and aren’t just jedi’ing your way through levels with a pair of looted beam swords as I’ve been wont to do.  


Boss encounters are likewise diverse and challenging, occasionally requiring a bit of trial-and-error gameplay in order to discover a boss’ weaknesses and attack patterns.  Some are obvious and telegraphed, but others not so much, and in an out and out slugfest, players simply lack the resources to down most bosses outright, so strategy is key.  While not as soul-crushingly unforgiving as, say, Demons’ Souls, Einhander is a rather challenging game, and all but the sharpest of players should expect to go down in blazing glory at least once.  

Or just blazing, as the case may be.  

Now, all that said, I must address that which my inner child fears to face: Einhander’s flaws, of which there are a fair number.  I’ll start with its most dire offense, which even as a child, I railed against: its utter lack of multiplayer.  There, I said it.  Come on, Squaresoft, Einhander is a side scrolling shooter!  They were made to be arcade-style ‘splosion fests for gamers in room full of friends!  98’ certainly predates any online functionality, but this genre easily allows for multiple players onscreen at one time.  Take a look at Contra or Gradius, or hell, any of the other legion of movie-licensed knockoffs that flooded the 90s’ arcades and consoles.

Oh yeah.  I went there.  

It’s this well-established precedent for Einhander’s untapped potential that drives its shortcomings home all the more painfully, and what’s more, as I find myself saying about a lot of games whose memories I recall bittersweetly, there simply isn’t enough of Einhander.  Clocking in at just over an hour long, it’s an agonizingly short game, and its single mode of gameplay doesn’t endear itself to much replay value, despite its quality.  There’s some extra time to be burnt poring over players’ albums of unlocked concept art, renders, and storyboards after the game’s completion, and there are two unlockable ships for future playthroughs, but if you’re not an art buff or a completionist, those rewards might not even register on your radar.

Really though, more developers should include touches like this again.

There’s no joke here.  I really want to see more art!

As little of it as there is though, I still love Einhander, and as a quality-over-quantity sort of guy, I can forgive the short ride and enjoy it while it lasts.  I can honestly say that this is the only game I’ve ever hunted down with such rabidity, incensed as I was for it from what little I could experience of its demo.  As it stands, Einhander is a brief, but densely packed game whose graphics and soundtrack pushed the limits of the Playstation console, offering one of the most intense shoot’em up experiences of its generation.  If fast-paced action isn’t your thing, but you’re otherwise a fan of Squaresoft, I encourage you to give Einhander a shot despite itself.  You just might be surprised at how often Square’s roots show through along Einhander’s refreshingly well-defined narrative, and again, its difficulty settings lend it accessibility to gamers of every skill level.  As for genre veterans, rejoice if you haven’t already, and take the time to track this Hidden Gem down.  Tough as it is to come by these days, Einhander is worth the hunt, especially as games like Zone of the Enders and Viewtiful Joe sing the dirge of the lost and dying breed that this oft-underappreciated title championed.  

Rating: 7.4

Visuals: 8
Controls & Mechanics: 6
Atmosphere & Experience: 7
Entertainment Value: 6

  Consoles: (PS1), PSN

  Developer: Squaresoft

  Publisher: Square/ Sony Computer Ent.

  Release Date (U.S.):  May 5, 1998

  Release Date (U.K.):  N/A

  Release Date (JP):  Nov 20, 1997

Final Verdict:


Last Level Press © Copyright Cliff Davenport  Est. 2013.  Links | Legal Notices

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