The Final Charge
Perhaps playing nothing but shmups for an entire month has caused me to lose a few marbles, because, for the final week of Shmuptember, I decided to play twice as many games! For this shmup mini-marathon, I played a grab bag of retro and indie shmups from various shmup sub-genres. This included head-to-head shmups, run ‘n' gun games, and 3D rail shooters; I also snuck in one traditional scrolling shmup just for good measure. Doubling down also brought my total games played up to 10, which felt like a nice round number.
I was only able to beat two of this week's shmup selections, so this article features a mix of reviews and impressions.
Geek to Geek Media was provided with review copies of G-Darius HD, XenoGunner, and ExZeus The Complete Collection. Rival MegaGun was selected by viewers on my Twitch channel via channel points redemption.
Rival MegaGun (Switch)
Rival MegaGun is a head-to-head battle shmup. The game is structured similarly to a fighting game or competitive puzzle game (e.g. Puyo Puyo) in which players take on AI-controlled rivals in the campaign, or other players in multiplayer mode. The screen is divided down the center and each player plays their own separate vertically scrolling shmup stage. By scoring combos, the player can spawn more enemies and obstacles to populate their opponent's screen in hopes of causing them to crash. The player who survives the longest wins the match. By scoring enough combos to max out their energy meter, a player can transform themself into a giant “MegaGun”, which serves as a boss for their rival to face.
Note: At the time of press, I did not have the time to try the multiplayer mode. Thus, this review is based on the single-player campaign.
While certainly not the first shmup to use this competitive format, Rival MegaGun pulls it off exceptionally well and adds some unique wrinkles of its own. I especially liked the MegaGun mechanic; saving up your energy to transform into a boss to crush your rival was extremely satisfying. I also liked how each selectable character has unique powers and abilities to mix up the gameplay.
From an aesthetic perspective, Rival MegaGun features strong pixel art and upbeat music to psych you up for battle. The story of the campaign isn't anything especially ground-breaking but the characters' quirky personalities were more than enough to keep me engaged and elicit the occasional chuckle.
This game's campaign is exceptionally hard. Having many shmups under my belt at this point, I can often do just fine on the Normal difficulty level; this was definitely not the case for Rival MegaGun. On anything higher than Easy, I could barely manage to score a hit on the first opponent. The game was tough yet manageable on Easy but also proved to be a bit uneven with some AI-controlled rivals playing nearly flawless matches and others quickly self-destructing.
Maybe it's just my aging millennial brain and eyes not being up to the task, but I also found keeping track of everything on screen to be pretty tough in Rival MegaGun. Being this far into my Shmuptember journey, I'm pretty well-acclimated to bullet barrages, but doing it in stereo is a lot! The game's busy background art can also make keeping track of your ship difficult.
Once I came to accept that I was going to be stuck in Easy mode (like an amateur), I really enjoyed Rival MegaGun. The campaign is a nice short pick-up-and-play experience that I will probably be returning to in order to try out more characters. I'm also looking forward to setting up some multiplayer sessions with friends.
Geek to Geek Rating: 4 out of 5 Vanquished Rivals
Link to stream video: Rival MegaGun – Twitch
G-Darius HD (Switch)
This was the most traditional shmup I played this week. G-Darius HD takes the 1997 entry in the long-running Darius series and cleans it up for better enjoyment on modern displays. The package also includes the original non-HD version but the content of both games is otherwise the same. The features that set G-Darius apart from other horizontally scrolling shmups are its branching levels and giant aquatic-themed bosses. Another unique aspect of this game is that you can capture enemies and have them fight alongside you.
G-Darius‘s signature mechanic, enemy capturing, is really cool. Each type of enemy has unique movement and bullet patterns that are fun to experiment with. Seeing a new enemy for the first time and capturing it to see what it does leads to some fun discoveries. I also like the strategic versatility that this mechanic grants since you can detonate the captured enemy at any point to clear the screen. You can also sacrifice a captured enemy to fire a massive laser beam. During boss battles, you can use this laser to counter the boss's lasers, which I found immensely gratifying. However, since captured enemies are lost any time you get hit, using this mechanic effectively requires a lot of finesse.
The boss battles in G-Darius are a real spectacle, even over 20 years after the original release. Each one is absolutely massive and has multiple phases with distinct patterns and animations. Being a 2.5D game, I really appreciated the way the bosses make use of 3D space as they dart in and out of foreground and background. The art direction for these giant enemies is an interesting choice, robot alien sea creatures, but I kind of love how weird it is. The moody industrial music that plays during these encounters further adds to the otherworldly feel of the bosses.
Compared to most other arcade-style shmups, G-Darius feels like it has more content and replay value. Each run through the campaign is fairly short, but there are many paths to the end of the game. Similar to a game like Star Fox, you only play through a handful of stages in a run, but which stages those are is a function of the choices you make. For this review, I played through two routes which featured a mixture of original levels and remixes. I would estimate that I would need to play through the game two or three more times to see everything it has to offer.
The main negative I experienced when playing G-Darius was screen readability. Like many older 2.5D games, discerning the background from the foreground can prove difficult in the heat of battle. I died a lot in this game (it's hard like you'd expect from a retro shmup) and many of those deaths were due to losing myself on the screen.
This last point isn't a con per se, it's more of a matter of expectations. G-Darius HD is the most barebones possible remaster. Initially, it didn't feel like much of an upgrade at all until I switched to the non-HD mode. The antialiased polygons and cleaned-up textures definitely make this game look much better on a modern screen. However, that's the full extent of the HD upgrade. The gameplay has been completely untouched, and with the exception of the player's ship, everything retains the low-poly PS1-era look. If you're expecting something on par with Cotton Reboot, you may be disappointed with G-Darius HD.
I've included screenshots of the same location in both the non-HD and HD modes available in G-Darius HD. The difference is subtle but not insignificant.
Playing G-Darius HD was a really interesting experience. I was expecting a bog-standard horizontal scroller and was pleasantly surprised to find it offered much more depth than that. Players who burnt themselves out on the original game won't find anything new here to reel them back in, but for everyone else, this is a solid shmup pickup despite it being a fairly barebones package.
Geek to Geek Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Giant Robot Space Fish
Link to stream video: G-Darius HD – Twitch
XenoGunner (Switch & PC)
XenoGunner is a 2D run ‘n' gun game that takes inspiration from 16-bit classics such as Gunstar Heroes. Each level consists of a relatively short platforming segment followed by a challenging boss battle. During the platforming segments, downed enemies drop health pickups that can raise your character's HP above 100. Thus, being skillful in these areas can give you an edge in the subsequent confrontation with the boss. There are two playable characters with their own stories and different powers.
Note: I was only able to get partway through the first character's story during my stream. Thus, the scope of these impressions is limited.
This Game Is Familiar
XenoGunner really effectively captures the look and sound of a Sega Genesis game. In particular, the high-contrast color pallet is distinctly 90s Sega. Similarly, the music has a very synthy soundtrack full of popping tracks that would sound right at home in a Sonic game. A few pieces even had me grooving in my chair as I played. Yet another throwback: XenoGunner uses a password system instead of a save system. Thankfully, you can freely select which chapter of the game to play from the menu, so losing a password would only mean a minimal loss of progress.
This Game Is Weird
Despite the aesthetics being so similar to retro classics, XenoGunner also has a bizarre flavor all of its own. It features a story with a sense of humor I can't quite describe or place, but it's definitely different. A standout moment in the section I played was an absurd game show scene that took place between levels.
The other bizarre thing about this game is its control scheme. I initially started out playing XenoGunner on Switch where jumping and dashing mapped to the trigger buttons and projectiles can be aimed in any direction using the right stick. This felt very awkward to me. Partway through my session with the game, I switched over to the PC version of XenoGunner. On PC, projectiles are aimed with the mouse and the space bar handles jumping; this felt much more natural. Being a game in which you're always shooting something, having the extra precision of the mouse was very helpful.
Another odd thing to note: This game doesn't have a traditional easy/normal/hard difficulty scale. Instead, you can adjust parameters such as frequency of healing item drops and the number of i-frames after taking damage. I found that the game's difficulty was really only manageable for me with i-frames turned up to the max setting.
XenoGunner is arguably the most indie-feeling shmup I played this month. On one hand, it takes clear inspiration from older games, on the other, it's also not quite like anything else I've ever played. Ultimately, it feels like a strange fever dream that I'm interested in returning to.
Link to stream video: XenoGunner – Twitch
ExZeus: The Complete Collection (Switch)
ExZeus The Complete Collection features ports of two 3D rail shooters, ExZeus 1 & 2, that were originally released in 2003 and 2012 respectively. In ExZeus 1, players fly a giant robot through 5 stages, blasting aliens along the way. ExZeus 2 has similar flying rail shooting segments but also mixes in ground combat and vehicles. In both games, the player can upgrade their mech using the currency they collect in each level.
I found the older game in this collection to be a fun but very simple shmup. You fly through each level in a fairly straight line with only a minimal amount of movement. At first, I was tempted to compare it to Starfox, but it's actually even more arcadey than that; Space Harrier and After Burner are better points of comparison.
Mechanically, the main thing that stood out to me in ExZeus 1 was your mech's slowly charging mega laser. Waiting for this meter to fill and then unleashing the laser blast at a pivotal moment in a boss battle was a fun way to add tension to the game. The other thing that stood out to me was that you have a finite number of lives, but the game never clearly displays this. As a result, it took me a few attempts at running through the game to ensure that my death count stayed above the invisible threshold to prevent a game over. Ultimately, I did manage to make it through to the end and found it to be a fun but very one-note experience.
The second game seems to be the real meat of this collection. However, I only had the opportunity to take a small taste. Unfortunately, a bug in the game made it impossible for me to advance beyond the first level. (I'll update these impressions once the game has been patched.)
From what I was able to play, I was immediately struck by how much more ambitious the second game is. The ground combat and vehicle sections mix up the gameplay quite a bit and the flying sections feel greatly refined compared to the first game. The controls for the ground combat feel a little clunky but that seemed appropriate for operating a big stompy robot. From what I played, I felt like ExZeus 2 was far more successful than its predecessor at combining the rail shooter and mecha genres.
The ExZeus games are simple straightforward fun that gave me a lot of nostalgia for my teen years spent in arcades. It's a shame that technical issues made me unable to see everything this collection had to offer. However, my initial take is that these games are great picks for short and mindless, but still very enjoyable, action gaming sessions. After a patch comes out, I'll be sure to come back to ExZeus The Complete Collection for a full review.
Link to stream video: ExZeus The Complete Collection – Twitch
Shmuptember Closing Thoughts
When I signed up to play nothing but shmups for a whole month, I wasn't sure how I would feel about it when the month came to a close. My fingers are tired, my eyes are tired, but I had so much fun! With how complex and often bloated most other types of games have become, the simplicity of the shmup is actually quite refreshing. And while the genre may be simple in premise, the games themselves offered a surprising amount of variety and depth. While I'll be taking a break from shmups for a little while, this is a genre that I think I'll keep in my rotation from now on for those times when I feel weighed down by massive RPGs and action-adventure games.
Acknowledgment: The Shmuptember theme for this article series came from the Community Game-Along calendar.