City Connection, now a fairly prolific shoot-em-up publisher, have been hit-and-miss with its quality control. While some games land fine, others feature severe lag issues, leaderboards that don’t properly differentiate full clears (or disallow auto-fire registries), and usually come devoid of original bonuses. While Layer Section & Galactic Attack S-Tribute floundered with its Steam release — users posting videos of massive input lag combined with dire audio stuttering — thankfully neither of these issues are present on Switch, meaning for once, Nintendo’s console doesn’t get the short end of the stick.
To be clear, this isn’t a port of RayForce the arcade game, but a port of the Sega Saturn port of the arcade game; an odd choice that remains nevertheless sublime, owing to the quality of Taito’s original product; a beautiful, colossal, operatic experience defined by the artistic magic of ’90s sci-fi manga, and the uninterrupted segueing nature of its action.
Your ship’s straight laser fire, coupled with a lock-on bracket that can trace over destructible background objects, is a terrific tandem of armaments. The repeated blip-blip-blip sound of your lock-on finding its targets, rifling off intermittent volleys of homing strikes to pepper elements beneath you with satisfying explosions, is wonderfully crunchy.
Display adjustments are sadly limited, with very basic scanlines and anti-aliasing features, but the slow motion and rewind modes, practice features, save states, and parameter modifications are all welcome extras. One interesting addition is a new ‘Super Rapid’ option, increasing the speed of your laser to such a degree that you carve through enemies like butter when you’re at maximum power. It makes things easier, of course, but it’s a fun extra that will eventually receive its own leaderboard in the scheduled June patch, along with new wallpaper, the ability to start as the second player ship, and more detailed button mapping options.
What Layer Section still does better today than almost any other shoot-em-up in the great pantheon of releases post-1994 is cinematic bravado. The Zuntata soundtrack (Taito’s in-house music team) is an impeccably brilliant, infinitely listenable space-jazz fusion that’s perfectly married to the game’s unbroken, filmic journey through asteroid cores and underground city assaults. It’s graphically spectacular, using every special effect trick in the book to form a living, raging galactic war. Gunships tear out of fiery plumes before you peel off into a Star Wars-inspired theatre of war, scores of star destroyers parallax-peeling into the background. The sound effects, too, are award-worthy good, from the heavy grind of parting metal doors to the Inception-horn blare that signals the arrival of the stage two boss.
Its design blueprint is that of an epic, one-woman army against all odds, where the destruction of Gundam-esque space assailants and giant spacecraft elegantly dovetails into the next dramatic set-piece, skimming across planet surfaces and subterranean techno-military strongholds. The difficulty level sits on a comfortable arc, neither too hard or too easy, with a 25-minute runtime of escalating rank, adrenaline, and superior sprite scaling theatrics.
If there’s any single issue, it’s in getting used to certain elements of depth perception. Your craft is on the large side, and when guns on the layer below fire up toward you, judging the trajectory takes some adjustment. It’s a game of mostly slow-moving fire, but that fire is regularly in the form of elongated toothpick lasers, and it’s not always intuitive to navigate your rather large craft between them.
This, however, is a fairly minor gripe that’s easily overcome with practice. For the vast majority, Tatsuo Nakamura’s vision is an enduring masterpiece. For its operatic, voyaging nature, its stunning visual design and compulsive mechanics, there are few ’90s arcade games with such exceptional form: a result of the shoot-em-up’s relative simplicity combined with the brilliance of a coding team with something to prove.
Layer Section is a triumph, and one of the genre’s most creative passion projects. Some will prefer the arcade original to the slightly clipped Saturn version, but either way, it’s a remarkable thing to play. These facts make scoring it all the more difficult. Any publisher out there can acquire the license and slap a ROM on a modified version of Shima’s SSF Saturn emulator — which is essentially all this is. In fact, since City Connection’s previous Saturn port, hackers have already reversed engineered the S-Tribute code and used it to add their own games.
There are also no custom modes or musical arrangements — and crucially, no arcade original. It is, simply, a collection of two near-identical Saturn ports from different regions, with a few modern adjustment options for good measure.
Layer Section will always be a high-roller, and if you’ve never played it, you’re in a ride like few others. As a Switch port, on the other hand, the relatively bare-bones production is the only real negative. Notable historical works deserve the gold standard: a bigger, bolder package that offers the best possible representation. To that end, City Connection has failed to do this game the justice it deserves, which makes it very lucky that Layer Section & Galactic Attack S-Tribute is still so damn good.