The 16 year quest to unlock R-Type Final’s 101 ships

The truism that the longer something takes, the more satisfying its completion isn’t always applicable to videogames. Many of my joyless grinds have ended in a bitter sense of relief rather than waves of joy. But when that game is R-Type Final and the grind is unlocking the full ship roster, the little ding that announced I’d unlocked the final of Final was a profoundly personal moment of deep satisfaction. 16 years in the making, it’s probably the longest grind I’ve ever undertaken and alarmingly it only took 40 hours of gameplay to achieve, which tinged the whole thing with a weird sense of guilt. I should have done this a lot sooner. But nonetheless, the deed was finally done and my instance of the glorious R Museum is now resplendent with a complete catalogue..

It started easily enough. I bought the game on the 26th March 2004, nabbed a princely dog tag (of R-9DV2 Northern Lights) and embarked on R-Type Final’s unusually affecting and funereal challenge. I’ve written about Final’s air of its own finality before, and this sense of the end of an iconic series being played out as a deliberate farewell grew as the first few stages were cleared and the grand unlocking began. Reliant on a mish-mash of flight time, game progression and serial releases of cascading variants, the unlocks come sometimes as regular dribs and drabs, sometimes flying out like popcorn. Towards the end, they come with great gulfs of time between them and depending on your preferential route through the museum, this means a lot of stage clears in ships that aren’t that much fun to shoot Bydo with. It’s a lumpy journey, especially when broken into three major chunks over a decade and a half.

On the 30th March 2004, I reached the first milestone that R-Type Final records – 20 fighters developed. That’s just four days after starting, so I must have had a very R-Type weekend. I clearly remember wanting to unlock the ship that was on my dog tag, the Northern Lights. It was the 33rd ship in the roster, so I set about following its path and it popped out on the 31st March. I was more than pleasantly surprised to see the Northern Lights’ colourway of green body and orange canopy evoked less the Aurora Borealis and instead reminded me more of a certain herb I encountered in the 1990s. I remember being less than satisfied with its wave cannon. But by then, I had bigger fish to fry. I can vaguely recall chasing the R-9D Shooting Star lineage to end up at the 31st ship, R-9DH3 Concertmaster, which I unlocked on the 7th June 2004. This easily made up for the disappointment of Northern Lights as it’s a towering colossus in the ‘best wave cannon ever’ stakes.

How do I know my ship arrivals and game milestones so precisely? Well, R-Type Final keeps a lovely bunch of statistics. There are ‘Battle Records’ and ‘Awards’, with the latter recording game milestones and the former being performance data, such as the greatest gaming stat imaginable: the total sum of wave cannon damage you’ve ever discharged (48,018,800 points, if you must know). The R Museum also has its own quirks of amazingness in the stats arena. What’s particularly magnificent is that it records all of your ship unlocking dates but goes deep canon by using a starting year of 2164. Therefore my R Museum runs from 2164 to 2180, so its timeline is unique to me – and 16 years sounds kind of reasonable to develop 101 spaceships and fight off the sort of Bydo invasion that starts with a Colony Drop.

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The next milestone came three years later. On the 20th February 2007 I clearly had committed deeply and passed 50 ships. I must have been researching the unlock trees at this point, as this represents the bulk of the game’s ship archetypes. This includes lots of the R-9 derivatives and stretches right down to bonkers Bydo hybrids like Sexy Dynamite and Misty Lady – the one that uses weather as a weapon. It looks like these were laurels to rest on, at least for a while. I’d unlocked my coterie of favourite craft and had reached two of the three endings. The third is, by all accounts (including my own), a tricky one to finish. Mostly because it’s a one-life-only battle against ridiculous odds as you fly backwards in time. Sadly, I didn’t manage to out-meta the meta by completing the roster while completing Final-C. I was able to practice that stage in the score battle mode, but I was too worried time spent there wasn’t logged as flight time and hence no use for the great unlocking challenge.

My return to R-Type Final and the 2020 playthrough started with a forum post. A fellow shmup-fan announced that he’d attained R-Type Final’s full roster of 101 ships, with a screenshot for proof. While this sparked more than a little jealousy, it gave me the faith that it was possible. That I could, and really fucking should, do the same. The second motivation was a new Kickstarter round for R-Type Final 2. I simply had to complete the roster before the sequel was released.

Coming back after several years presented several difficulties. The PS2 and disc were fine, but finding the memory card took a fair amount of storage diving. After a sidequest through PlayStation 2 nostalgia of its own, the card emerged and thankfully, the save was intact. Sadly, I didn’t find my Northern Lights dog tag, though I did find the logo-emblazoned plastic case, only to find a Metal Slug dog tag inside. I had clearly crossed the streams on my horizontal shooting ephemera and suspect the missing tag lurks deeper in my (frankly terrifying) archive.

Next I needed to adopt a serious, structured approach to my remaining unlocks, so I went back to the ways of 2003 and did the truly sensible thing. I printed out two FAQs, complete with misaligned ASCII logos and delightfully comprehensive unlocking info. Huge thanks to GameFAQs, the legendary Slateman (top FAQ author, proprietor of the R-Type Final ship list website) and Mike Maraldo (the dedicated ship unlocking FAQ).

The most useful facts were the unlocking flight times, as it allowed me to build the necessary roadmap. For example, I hadn’t followed the R-9Leo strand, because the Leo unlocks after you clear F-A, the first final stage. After doing the big run in 2007, Leo never tickled my fancy because the R-9 in R-Type Leo miffed me with its weird homing force-balls. Petty, sure, but this oversight left me with R-9Leo2 to unlock, which demands 60 minutes of flight time in the original Leo. Poor me, but off I went for 60 mins of homing force-balls to get the job done. And thus, I carved up the unlocks with precisely-timed play sessions to fill in my gaps, night by night. This took the edge off the grind, as I could split between ships I didn’t like and lineages I really, really did, such as the family that starts with RX-12 Cross The Rubicon.

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Cross The Rubicon and its offspring are emblematic of R-Type Final’s beauty and depth, not to mention the complexity of its unlocks. It starts off with RX-10 Albatross, which automatically unlocks after 90 minutes of playtime, so it pops up quickly. Then you fly the Albatross for an hour and then (in whatever ship) complete stage F-A. Ping! Cross The Rubicon arrives, and this is perhaps the most special ship in the entire R-Type Final Museum, as it has its own dedicated stage and boss, with a very deliberate call back to a previous game.

When you complete stage 3 with RX-12, you’re transported to 3.5 for an infernal face-off against a boss; the R-13 Cerberus that was captured by the Bydo in R-Type Delta! In the Museum, this gorgeous bit of self-reference splits the ship trees, being the first lineage in the bottom third of the grand display. The rubicon you’re crossing is away from the familiar hard-tech shores of the original R-9 designs and off into the wetlands of biomech Bydo hybrids, which itself complements the deeper lore of R-Type.The underlying story being that the Bydo were a human experiment gone wrong and that we can only win by uniting with them.

For the unlocking mission, I’d unlocked Cross The Rubicon and, by completing stage 3.5, R-13T Echidna but not the three ships that came after. Instead, I’d gone after all the crazy hybrids (which start unlocking after clearing Stage 6.1). 30 minutes in the Echidna unlocks R-13A Cerberus (now freed from imprisonment in a Bydo forest) and 30 mins in that gives you R-13A2 Hades, which is a total beast of a ship. It was nice to discover that after 16 years, I’d missed out on the best force ever – Anchor Force DX. In combo with a spectacular 3-loop wave cannon that zaps the whole screen with electricity, the Anchor Force DX clamps onto enemies when fired, leaving a chain of red dots leading back to the Hades. Which also does damage! After the Anchor Force has been clamped for a while, it goes feral, changing colour and rampaging at enemies all by itself. Is this evoking more of that human/Bydo hybrid theme? Of peaceful control and wild warfare? As with all ruminations about R-Type Final, feel free to navel-gaze at your leisure, but the point is that the last ship in this family, the R-13B Charon, takes 120 minutes of Hades play to unlock, so larking around with Anchor Force DX makes it quite the joy to run.

I ended up running a few two-hour marathons to tick off the remaining ships, leaving the four passworded ships to unlock. FAQ digging and my Japanese copy’s sleeve put paid to three of them way back in 2007, leaving ship number 100. The thing is, you can’t enter that password until you unlock ship 99 and therein is the point of the whole, glorious affair. R-99 Last Dancer arrives 1 minute of flight after you’ve unlocked 98 ships. Then you can enter the password for R-100 Curtain Call and 30 minutes in that grants you R-101 Grand Finale. These last three ships, which I observed in my original R-Type Final Piece were straight declarations of the game’s performative intent, are the chameleons of the R-Type Final Museum. You can select any combination of wave cannon, force type, bit or missile from the whole goddamn family. After my long, long haul to complete, this had me salivating. Of course it was met with a wave of deep satisfaction too. I’d finally done Final, though really it was the end of a new beginning.

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Now I have all the tools, I can actually finish the game properly. My dream is a one-credit-clear with stage F-C on normal difficulty, using that glorious Anchor Force DX and my favourite wave cannon. The one that isn’t actually a cannon at all, but a rod. It’s called the Hyper Tesla Pile Bunker from R-93DP Kenrouken, has 4 charge loops and only extends up to three ship lengths. I just adore it. I love the sheer bravado it demands and how it dramatically alters your playstyle, showcasing how wonderful the R-Type Final Museum is as an exploration of player craft for a horizontal shooting game.

To find this kinetic, physical weapon amongst a panoply of lasers, plasma, electricity, fire, love, liquid metal or weather is illustrative of how deep the creativity is in Kazuma Kujo’s opus, and that creativity shines today perhaps more brightly than it did in 2004, as you need to see – and play – the entire shipnomicron to witness its sheer profusion of imagination.

The Hyper Tesla Pile Bunker is noted as one of the most powerful wave cannons in the game, alongside the Giga Wave Cannon – which charges to seven loops of cumulative damage. The Giga Wave Cannon is truly spectacular and I recall it takes a full 45 seconds of no-shooting to charge those 7 loops, but it’s just another big fancy laser. The Pile Bunker is far cooler. It’s a ferociously intimate way to deal supreme damage, so my fantasy run will be full of the most daring boss takedowns I can muster.

And what a glorious last dance to the grand finale it’ll be. I can only hope I make it before the 29th April 2021, because there’ll be another museum to open up. I’m certain of one thing, though. I’ll be more than satisfied with getting a second museum full of beautiful, brilliant spaceships, even if it does take another 16 years to get there.

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