In week 2 of Shmuptember, I explored games whose genres were spun off from shoot 'em ups (shmups), or shmup-adjacent: Huntdown, a cyberpunk run & gun, and Skycadia, a cartoony aerial combat game. Not only were their gameplay styles drastically different, but so were my feelings about each game! Read on for a tale of the haves and the have-nots.
Huntdown is a pixel art run & gun game set in a gritty cyberpunk world. As a bounty hunter, you blast your way through squads of heavily armed gang members in service of your corporate overlords. You can choose between 3 different bounty hunters, each with their own set of standard weapons. You'll also be picking up weapons from enemies as you progress. Each level concludes with a boss battle against an over-the-top cybernetically enhanced crime lord; these produce some of the most memorable moments of the game.
The first thing that struck me when I booted up Huntdown was how well it nails the 80s sci-fi and action movie aesthetic. This game's pixel art of futuristic cityscapes is simply stunning; I was hitting the screenshot key regularly during my playthrough. The character designs and humorous one-liners are ridiculous and over the top, but in an earnest kind of way, further adding to the pulp retro vibes. Topping it all off artistically is a nice synthy soundtrack; the game features some copyrighted tracks that I had to toggle off during my stream (thankfully it features a setting for this) but I still enjoyed what I heard.
Gameplay-wise, Huntdown has simple mechanics that feel good to pull off. Alternating between your main weapon and sub-weapon is very satisfying when you pull it off right. And sliding into cover to avoid enemy fire feels straight out of a classic action movie. The weapons you can pick up off enemies keep the action feeling fresh and varied. Lastly, the level bosses are great setpieces with unique mechanics and gimmicks.
Huntdown is a rare case where I really can't think of any serious cons! The only possible downside is that this game's aesthetic influences, cyberpunk, 80's action movies, and Blaxploitation films are likely only going to be relatable to a narrow subset of the gaming population (Gen X and older millennials).
Huntdown is a game that succeeds in everything it tries to do and looks good and feels good while doing it. It's a must-play title for fans of old-school action games.
Highlight video: https://www.twitch.tv/videos/1596041259
Geek to Geek Rating: 5 out of 5 Techno Samurai
Skycadia is a 3D arcade-style aerial combat game with a Sega Dreamcast-inspired aesthetic. As a chicken fighter pilot, you fly sorties against an endless onslaught of anthropomorphic insects. (Shmups are weird, ok?) Initially, you are restricted to a single pilot/aircraft and one weapon but can unlock two more of each as you progress through the campaign. Each level is quite simple: shoot down all of the enemy aircraft and collect as much falling money as you can.
For me, the main appeal of Skycadia was in its aesthetics. The colorful low poly graphics are cute and make the action fairly easy to read in the heat of battle. I also appreciated the wordplay in the game's text: chicken jokes in the character select screen and classic song references in the level introductions. Later on in the game, Skycadia also features some catchy chiptunes.
The first issue I ran into with Skycadia is a hard one to put into words; the physics of handling the aircraft just feel off. Despite having a sharp turning radius, steering the plane still somehow feels stiff. Furthermore, the plane only has two speeds, standard and boosted. Being able to more finely control your airspeed would likely help the plane handling feel more natural. Considering that this is a very simple game, all you do is fly and shoot, it's not a good sign when half of that equation feels awkward.
Regarding the combat, the shooting itself feels fine, but is too simple for its own good. Your aircraft only has a single weapon equipped, a basic gun. There are no missiles, bombs, or powerups, so you essentially spend the whole game flying around and pressing a single button. Having a few special weapons or abilities to vary things up would make taking down enemies a lot more fun. The new characters and weapons you can unlock help a little, but you're still locked into a single weapon at a time. The enemy encounters further compound this lack of variety; very quickly, the mobs of enemies you fight begin to feel like copy-and-paste situations rather than designed confrontations.
The final issue I had with Skycadia is that it doesn't communicate certain key things to the player. While you can unlock new characters and weapons by earning money, the total amount you've earned in the campaign is not clearly displayed. Similarly, in battles, there isn't a radar or counter to tell you how many enemies are left in the level Thus, I often felt like I didn't have a good sense of progress either within the level or towards my next unlock. Another thing that isn't communicated well is the flight ceiling; in many levels, my aircraft suddenly hit max altitude despite there being enemies and health items above me.
Second Opinion From Data Error
Skycadia is a funny little game, even beyond its cheeky “birds vs. bees” theme. Sometimes, it's a nice, easygoing, colorful little dogfighter. Other times, enemies swarm in so thick that the winning strategy is wheeling in circles while AI planes collide into each other. While it's imperfect, its bite-sized levels and straightforward nature do make it easy to dive into little pick-up levels. It seems like a great fit given the Switch's handheld form factor.
…or it would, save for Skycadia's dogged dedication to updating its leaderboards. This is one, ironically, best not played on a plane, or anywhere without constant internet access. The reminders to re-connect after every single level had me taking flight to other titles.
Ultimately, the problem I had with Skycadia is that it's not focused enough to be engaging as a shmup and lacks the depth to be interesting as an aerial combat game. It's alright to play in short bursts here and there but there's just not enough here to give it lasting appeal. While I didn't finish Skycadia, I played through approximately half the game in the span of about 90 minutes and felt like I had already seen everything it had to offer.
Highlight video: https://www.twitch.tv/videos/1596043678
Geek to Geek Rating: 2 out 5 Swarms of Anthropomorphic Bee Men
Shmuptember 2022 Week 2 Closing Thoughts
Week 2 of Shmuptmember really emphasized for me that there is a lot of nuance to the world of shmups. Getting a seemingly simple game to feel right is a very tough thing to do! Next week, we'll divide our time between small indies and releases from a major publisher.