Side scrolling shooters are awesome. They have tons of great action set pieces, intense challenge, and they've been around forever. Whether you're talking about Defender, Daruis, or R-Type, The "shmup" is a genre that's filled with a multitude of bona fide classics. However, one game rises above the rest. One game got so much right, I would dare to say it's the best the genre has ever seen. It's also likely never to be seen again. That one game is UN Squadron for Super NES.
From the get go, UN Squadron had a lot going against it here in the US. First, in Japan, this game is called Area 88, based on the anime of the same name. That property didn't exactly have a lot of traction here in the states, so they decided to change the name, which leads us to its second problem: the name. UN Squadron? Are you a fighter pilot for the United Nations? That doesn't even make sense. If they were going to use a title that didn't make sense, they could have stuck with Area 88. Who knows, maybe the game could have drummed up some interest in the anime. Then, at least for the Super NES version, you have the box art. If you're in a store and you're looking at the front of the box, you're probably thinking "flight sim" and not "tough as nails, intense shooter". Unless you were lucky enough to have played the arcade version, and recognized the title, chances are you passed this game up. Which is a real shame.
UN Squadron was a decent arcade game, but it holds a place with games like Rygar, Soul Calibur, and TMNT: Turtles in Time in that the home version (specifically the Super NES game) was vastly superior to its arcade counterpart. Yes, UN Squadron was ported to a handful of other systems like the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum, but those versions attempted to emulate the arcade game. The Super NES game added new layers of depth to both the gameplay and overall experience. There was nothing quite like it at the time, and not much like it since.
In the arcade version, you chose one of 3 fighter pilots with different jets. The three jets had different attributes, like enhanced speed or power. Before the start of each mission, you were given an opportunity to buy various weapons, and that was pretty much that. It was a very cool, competent arcade shooter. The SNES version, on the other hand, took things a few steps further. First, you still chose between 3 pilots, but they weren't tied to specific ships. In the arcade game, as you played you had a life bar. As you took hits, your life bar depleted, and once it was empty, you lost a life. In the SNES game, you have a life bar, but it works differently. If you get hit, the life bar goes into danger mode. If you take a hit while in this mode, you're dead. This is where the different pilots come into play. Each pilot gets out of danger mode faster than others, with the trade off being how fast their ship flies. It adds a welcome layer of strategy to how you play the game.
Then, there's the mission structure. Whereas the arcade game simply followed a linear path, the SNES game allows you to choose what stages you want to play. You're provided with a map. On the left side is your base, and everywhere else you see what are effectively stages. Many of them stay stationary, but levels based around fighting a jet or submarine move between turns. (Each time you play a stage, whether you beat it or not, counts as a turn). If an enemy stage gets too close to your base, you're forced to play that stage until you beat it. Just like the arcade game, money is earned as you play, but now, you can buy more than just weapons.
In the SNES version, you have a total of 6 ships available for purchase. They all have different attributes, and a different selection of special weapons available to them, but unlike the arcade counterpart, any pilot can fly any ship. You start out with the basic F8E, but as you earn cash, you can afford to upgrade. This adds another slight RPG element to the game, as you can effectively grind to earn cash and get yourself the best ship before taking on the harder last stages.
Finally, there's the music. This game's soundtrack is just plain awesome. It's got a perfect, high octane rock soundtrack that perfectly fits every situation in the game. When there's danger, the music is ominous. When there's fast paced action, the music is fast and fun. It's just about as perfect as a soundtrack can be for this type of game.
As it stands, Capcom hasn't made any attempts to bring UN Squadron back in any way since its original release. Likely tied up in rights issues due to its Area 88 license, it seems like quite a longshot that this gem will ever see the light of day again. Still, it's not that tough to find. Loose copies can be had for around $12, and believe me when I say it's just about the best $12 you can spend.