It was a friend’s birthday party, probably more than 20 years ago, where a bunch of us gathered at the arcade inside the bowling alley near my home. There were two games that I remember playing, and those games were Raiden DX and Strikers 1945.
Since I burnt through all my quarters in a matter of minutes, I spent the majority of the time watching others play. In a lot of ways, that was just as fun, because the appeal of Strikers 1945 for me was the visuals. Even still, I remember wondering, why is this game so hard?
After many years of not playing a single shoot ‘em up, I decided it was time to return to this very difficult genre. It's true that classic shooters have a dedicated following, and that there is often a barrier for casual players. But I have some personal memories attached to the genre, as I'm sure many others do. It all goes back to the bowling alley, watching people play Strikers and Raiden inside that small arcade room.
For this month’s band of bloggers theme, I decided to play and review two shoot ‘em ups from my backlog. My goal was to revisit a genre that I have not played in years, a genre that I remember being incredibly tough. I chose Sky Force Anniversary, which I received for free thanks to PlayStation Plus, and Sine Mora EX, which I picked up during a PSN sale because I was really into its art style.
Without further ado, here are the details of my return to shoot ‘em up games.
Sky Force Anniversary
For hardcore shoot ‘em up fans, the thought of a casual shooter is blasphemous. But that’s exactly what Sky Force Anniversary is. Imagine your standard overhead flight segment but slowed down, then throw in a level-up system that is quite rewarding, and an unlock system that is quite tedious.
Despite the slow pace of the game, there is a hard mode. If you’re looking for a challenge, it is certainly there. It just takes a slow, methodical crawl in order to find it. That didn’t stop me from enjoying the game, though. Overall, I think this game is the perfect fit for newcomers to the genre.
The most satisfying part of playing Sky Force was in slowly upgrading my ship, and afterwards testing out the upgrades in battle to see how they change the game. Unlocking missiles and other special weapons does give the player a major advantage, making it easier to collect stars along the way. The downside is that the missiles fire themselves, which I found to be a major letdown. Something feels amiss about not having control over your own special weapon.
The game also offers the player the option to save “humans” from the ground. This is purely for bonus points or to earn additional medals, but as a side game it works as an engaging little challenge to rescue people while evading enemy fire.
Because collecting stars to upgrade the ship is so integral to progressing through the game, I found it helpful to invest in the magnet early on. The magnet makes it easier to pick up stars, which act as currency for upgrades, thus allowing you to upgrade your ship faster.
This also indicates a flaw with the pacing of the game. In order to feel any action from this already slow-paced shooter, I had to grind through the first few levels multiple times before getting to the levels that were actually challenging. In fact, the pacing didn’t really pick up until near the end of stage three. Bearing in mind that the game has nine stages, that’s a full one third of the game before anything resembling a bullet-hell showed up.
As a highlight, the visual effects are very well done. The water below the ship and the clouds surrounding the area are visually striking and enjoyable to view. The art style reminds me of Army Men. The planes have a toy-like structure to them. Everything else, down to the rocks and the plants, resemble something out of a garden rather than a full-sized environment. The music is also nicely done, like Euro-House mixed with hip-hop instrumentals.
Sky Force is hindered by some of its game play elements, namely that the game forces the player to earn a set number of medals before progressing to new stages. This act proved to be somewhat tedious, and it took away the satisfaction I received from beating a mission because oftentimes I’d have to replay the same mission, grind for more stars, upgrade my ship, and re-attempt that very mission just to unlock more medals. To me, this progression system felt like an attempt to make the game feel longer than it actually is.
Despite the fact that the repetition made for a bit of a chore, the game play still offered a unique spin on the genre. I can’t say that hardcore shooter fans would be interested in Sky Force, but for first-timers or those who haven’t played shooters in a while, this game is worth a look.
Sine Mora EX
I’ve always been a sucker for airships. From the “Flutter” in Mega Man Legends to the mist-powered airships of Final Fantasy IX, something about these large, oversized aircraft and their impossible physics helps transport me to another world.
At first glance, the aircraft in Sine Mora EX have that very appeal, and the boss battles are no exception: gigantic floating power plants, cartoony submarine vessels with huge robotic legs, and freight trains with boxcars that contain small apartment complexes on them. The insane aesthetic of the game is hard to miss.
As for the story, if you told me that Sine Mora was rooted in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, I’d believe it. Everything from the lore to the music is dark and unsettling. The narrative deals with everything from nuclear explosions, to slavery and imprisonment, to coercion and sexual assault, and ultimately, to an empire that uses experiments to turn its prisoners into blind, deaf, mute creatures that are devoid of sensory perception. This mixture of depressing and somewhat sadistic elements may not bode well with every player.
The narrative follows an atypical structure, and it was admittedly hard to follow. Despite the confusing story structure, I still found myself rooting for the characters, a diverse array of anthropomorphic creatures that must contend against the terrifying empire for a variety of reasons. For some, the mixture of lighthearted cartoon characters with violence and terror might just make for the perfect game.
As for game play, more unique than anything is how you take damage. Instead of a health bar you have a clock, and if the time runs out you die. Not only that, when you take damage, you lose time on the clock. Is there any better way to teach players not to get hit than by punishying them?
The only way to add time on the clock is to kill enemies, and this made for some frenetic moments. I regularly found myself in a bullet maze, trying to dodge enemy fire, while searching the screen for the next enemy to shoot at, all the while making sure that I still had time on the clock. Fans of hectic, bullet-hell type games would be right at home here.
There are plenty of special weapons and skills. The game offers a time manipulation ability that slows the game down, which was incredibly helpful, although the capsules that replenish it are few and far between and you run out of the stuff fast. It’s a safe bet not to rely on time manipulation as a way to get through the stage, but rather as a last minute aid during a frantic moment.
Also, as a way to mix up the game play, there were non-shooting segments that required the player to utilize the environment for help. One segment sees the player flying next to a field of debris to avoid being sucked into giant air vents. I did appreciate this bit of experimentation, as something to add variety in the game play.
I found this game to be pretty darn tough, even on normal mode. I’m glad I gave it a shot, though, as it forced me to play the sort of game that I don’t normally play: fast-paced game play with constant bullet dodging. I can say that Sine Mora successfully pushed me outside of my comfort zone.
Earlier this month I started playing Final Fantasy X, which I completely put on hold in order to take a detour into the world of shoot ‘em ups. Despite the fact that I was harsh on Sky Force, and despite the fact that Sine Mora was quite tough, I had a blast playing these two games. The chance was low that I would have played them anytime soon, so I’m glad that dephoenix created this band of bloggers prompt for the month of April.
Sine Mora is proof that there are passionate developers who want to take the shoot ‘em up and experiment with it. From a running clock in place of a health bar, to the occasional non-shooting segments, this game successfully experimented on the genre.
When playing arcade shooters many years ago, the goal was never to “beat” the game. For me, it was always to see how far I could get. Since quarters were scarce and since I was never very patient with shooters, I knew I’d likely never beat Strikers 1945 or Raiden, but it was still fun to try. Sometimes the biggest joy was encountering a boss you’d never seen before, even if he crushes you almost instantly. Just getting that far was satisfying, especially with a friend next to you.
As for Sky Force, my favorite part was in upgrading my ship. If there is such thing as a shoot ‘em up with light RPG elements, then that is a game I could see myself enjoying. The lack of challenge in Sky Force was a problem, but the upgrade system reminded me that I so often appreciation customization in a video game.
Aside from the fast-paced, twitchiness that is required to play shooters, I came to understand that this genre is all about learning from your mistakes. While I do think that shooters are for a special breed of gamers, I still believe that with enough patience, the average gamer can take on this difficult style of game play. It simply requires a lot of dying.