Radiant Silvergun was one of the last games released for Sega's ill-fated Saturn. The game is a vertically scrolling shooter (or "shmup") and is considered one of, if not the, best games in the genre ever made. Its high acclaim combined with a limited, Japan-only release has made the game exceedingly rare, with copies on eBay going for upwards of $300 USD. Reasons for its status vary: the graphics, gameplay and soundtrack are all extremely impressive even eleven years after it was released.
What often goes overlooked, and what makes Radiant Silvergun special, is the parallel between the narrative and how the game is played (this post assumes familiarity with the plot and basic mechanics, check Wikipedia and the full plot translation at Silver Translations to get caught up). Just as the story is about an endless cycle, the gameplay encourages the player to enact out a similar cycle through several mechanisms.
The first is genre convention: shmups are typically designed to be played through over and over again, with the assumption that the player will be continually trying to improve his or her score. As a result the games are usually quite short; Radiant Silvergun can be finished in around ninety minutes.
The second is the leveling system: using a weapon to earn points causes it to gain levels, increasing the damage it inflicts. When the player runs out of lives or finishes the game they have the option to save their game, which in actuality only saves the weapon level. A new game can then be started from the save file, so the player begins the game with stronger weapons. This encourages continually using the same save file: playing the game, saving, starting over from that point, and so on. Each time the player does this the game gets slightly easier because the player's weapons are more powerful.
Next there is the chain system: every enemy ship is colored red, blue, or yellow. For every three ships destroyed of the same color the player earns bonus points. The bonus awarded increases with the number of chains, which in turn levels the weapons faster. This encourages the player to practice levels in order to learn how to chain most effectively, leading to more replays. There is also the "secret" chain, earned by destroying one red, one blue, then one yellow, and then continued by destroying groups of three yellows. This type of chain earns many more points than regular chains but is much harder to accomplish.
Finally there are two types of hidden bonuses spread throughout the game: Merry the dog and "weapon" bonuses. Merry is located in various points throughout the entire game, and can only be found by using the lock-on homing weapon. The weapon will target Merry, revealing him or her and awarding bonus points; there is no other way to find Merry. The "weapon" bonuses are also spread throughout the game; by using the correct weapon at the right time the player is awarded a "weapon" bonus. Both of these bonus types are left to the player to discover.
Normally we might say that all of these mechanics are included to increase replay value. On one level this is true of Radiant Silvergun, but there is an ulterior motive: by playing the game over and over again the player is enacting out the same type of cyclical existence presented in the narrative. Doris Rusch calls this "fictional alignment": the player experiences the endless, unbreakable cycle just as the characters do (from personal correspondence / forthcoming research).
It is this alignment that makes Radiant Silvergun so brilliant. By designing to maximize replay value, Treasure has created a game where the player wants the cycle to continue, further emphasizing the inevitably of the outcome. This is a spin on the classic adage of creative writing: show, don't tell. When the player realizes the parallel it is all the more powerful an experience because he or she was implicated in it from the beginning.
Shmups and similar arcade-style games are often derided for their emphasis on memorization and repetition, and have largely gone out of style. Radiant Silvergun shows how even an outdated form can create a compelling gameplay experience, suggesting that such an achievement might be possible for other classic game designs.