Blah blah blah, war, blah blah blah up against it, blah blah blah race against time. We better send in our best shooty people who pilot wacky space-ships, that’s the only solution!
Looking to improve on the original vertical arcade-shooter Super Galaxy Squadron that was released in January of last year, EX offers a graphical overhaul and fully voiced cutscenes. The original is available to play as you launch up the game, but I only briefly stepped foot into it, choosing to focus my attention on the overhauled version.
Okay, so it’s the year something or other; just assume it’s far far into the future. There’s a war going on and the only hope is for the Super Galaxy Squadron to step in and annihilate everything. Just from the very offset, it was clear that I wasn’t going to be drenched in immersive plotlines that teased and tantalised me at every exciting turn. It was more akin to dipping my toe into the plot, presuming it to be stone-cold before it turning out to be a fairly warm and pleasant surprise that was actually quite nice. It’s not often you get a stab at a plot with an arcade bullet-hell, and Super Galaxy Squadron EX attempts to tie the action to a few narrated cutscenes. These scenes usually equated to pretty space-vistas accompanied by an urgent female voice that fell directly into the galactic trope of all “save the universe” tropes. Imagine the winner of “Voice which sounds most similar to Cortana from Halo 2016″ saying something like “You ought to save this planet because they’re advancing, there’s not much time left, you can do it, you’re our only hope!” Still, it was nice to have some degree of context supporting my actions, however forgettable they were.
Before you dive into combat, you’ve got to choose your mode. Do you want a – noticeably short and progressive experience in which you attempt to beat all six stages? Or do you want an endless battle against waves of enemies who become increasingly harder as time goes by? Thinking I was all high and mighty, scoffing at the difficulty settings, I decided to go straight in for Veteran in the classic Arcade mode. I was then presented with the option to browse through a bunch of hardy looking soldiers and their ships. Again, this was a pleasant surprise. Often in games like these, you’re able to scroll through a shit-ton of ships that lack any personality apart from their “pew-pew” ability. I nodded in approval, presenting my Dell screen with a thumbs up (this didn’t happen) as I got a nice backstory to whatever they were fighting in. “He’s the first battalion legend that slaughtered so many thousands of aliens and somehow managed to retain an immaculately groomed beard”. Right next to them, you’d see their funky ship, replete with details that actually corresponded to their pilot’s appearance and badass-ery. One in particular caught my eye; the portrait was resigned to a basic pinky-purple hue and underneath it stated that this was an alien who for some reason had decided to take up the fight against the enemy. I instantly clicked with this character; he had the same blithering ignorance as me. He obviously had no idea what was going on but decided to shoot things anyway. His/her/its ship should I say, resembled a pink doughnut that spewed an absolutely obscene torrent of bullets. I couldn’t believe my luck; this alien creature was practically my soulmate, embodying a frantic “oh f*ck it” nature in game.
Easy pea—Jesus Christ.
Having my arse handed to me, I gladly reverted to “Normal” difficulty and had a fairly fun time. I moved Pink Doughnut with the directional arrows on my keyboard, able to freely meander around my rectangular environment. Holding down the Z key caused me to spew forth my barrage of dominance. And so I did just that. Nicely designed robot entities flew in from the top of the screen, perhaps from the side, who knows. I’m only uncertain because half the time I never actually caught a glimpse of them before they practically disintegrated to my sheer alien power. The satisfying ping of blue tokens delighted my ears as they powered up my hyper move. I relished the wondrous arcade ding that sounded as I hoovered up primary and secondary power-ups that augmented my ship to shoot things at an even more ridiculous rate. Just when I thought I couldn’t bask in any more glory, I smashed the spacebar when the beam of light to my right screamed “Hyper Ready!”. Pink Doughnut immediately unleashed two enormous orbs of suffering that careered through the machinery in my vision, dismembering and evaporating everything into yet more blue tokens. Don’t get me wrong, I was attempting to dodge missiles and other projectiles but I felt like a janitor. All I really did throughout the start of each stage was strafe left and right whilst holding down Z. This allowed me to optimise my mopping regime. By mopping regime, I mean efficiently gathering the blue tokens as they flowed towards me amidst all the gunfire, explosions and utter anarchy.
At least cleaning up everyone’s mess was a visual and oral delight. I’m a huge fan of the classic arcade, 16-bit art style that gave the game a nice touch of class. Background environments, enemies and projectiles all have a simplistic, yet detailed finish, proving that this graphical style is hard to get wrong. Its timeless graphics are accompanied by upbeat techno-arcade music that did enough to get me pumped up and raring to mop.
Super Galaxy Squadron EX really shines when the stages come to a close. At the end of each stage you have to fight a boss. I adored these encounters as it freed me from the clutter and did away with the mess. It was Pink Doughnut vs. one worthy opponent. I remember one fight which stood out to me; it involved this little “Prototype” figure that resembled a mini Metroid-inspired suit of armour. He’d whizz around the arena, firing off all sorts of projectiles – a wide range of them too. He’d blast waves of slow moving spikes I’d be forced to slip through, before harassing me with faster moving purple orbs that spiralled in my direction. Darting to and fro, he was hard to keep up with, and because he’d keep me locked into a dodging routine, I often found it tricky to tell where he was in relation to me. Eventually I’d whittled him down – but he had another trick up his sleeve. Sliding out of nowhere, an enormous Gundam-inspired suit of armour appears before me. And the crafty little shit slots perfectly into the hole where the helmet should be. Now he wasn’t so nimble, but his attack patterns completely changed. No longer darting around the arena, he’d just move slowly throwing out dozens of orbs and spikes; the whole shebang. It felt tense and it was a gratifying experience, having weaved my way through his attacks in order to work my calculated magic on his declining health bar.
Let’s fast-forward. I’m at the final boss, attempt number twenty something, and I simply cannot do it. He’s taken cues from Mother Nature, pelting projectiles at me with the ferocity of a Hurricane Henry, letting me catch my breath only to laugh pitifully at my pathetic attempts to scratch him to death. First he barrages me with slow moving spikes and I revert to the classic “take it easy and slip past” approach. Fine, we nailed it. Now he throws out purple beams with his yellow spikes in a threeway line. It requires you to simultaneously keep an eye on three different attacks: weave out of yellow spike, dodge faster purple orb and narrowly escape the clutches of an even faster orb that blocks your path having avoided the attack previous to it. Phew; we just about made it. I’ve taken a few hits but thankfully he’s dropped a health pack that generously tops up my waning health bar. Suddenly he decides to go into a bit of a frenzy, practically dishing out purple orbs as if they’re going out of fashion. In no seeming pattern he chucks them my way. Resembling an undulating shoal of fish, they swoosh past Pink Doughnut as I desperately fly upwards and around the arena. But it’s too late, I’ve taken a hit which was suddenly followed by another hit, then another. I’m dead. Press Z to exit? Yes please.
It’s at this point, right at the very end of the game where my frustration truly lies. And no, it’s not due to my obvious lack of skill. I understand that I’ll need to try over and over to up my game and get on this bastard’s level. But not without understanding how on earth hit detection works in Super Galaxy Squadron EX. At first it was puzzling me; how is Pink Doughnut not taking any damage when I’m most certainly colliding with projectiles? I even strafed directly into an incoming orb only for it to seemingly pass through me. During overwhelming bombardments, I casually smashed left and right repeatedly to see if I could cheat my way out of taking damage. Weirdly enough it seemed to work. Far too often I’d question myself; am I really good at dodging things? Or is the game holding my hand? Sometimes you’d take a hit, followed by a number of hits, which if you hadn’t taken an initial beating, probably wouldn’t have counted as anything. Only after you’ve been hit once did a certain level of vulnerability seem to come about. It’s almost as if the game flips a switch from invulnerable to vulnerable. After so many attempts, I hesitantly believe the weak spot is where the pilot is located in the bright green cockpit. It’s miniscule and many would say that it’s a good thing. However for me it was infinitely confusing. I’d rather have the whole ship be vulnerable than just a tiny green blob that’s barely visible. It makes it stupidly tough to really plan your movements or believe in your dodging mechanics when you’re not 100 percent sure you’re going to get hit or not. This means that my final showdown relies heavily on muttering curse-words whilst merely hoping to dodge his attacks, because quite frankly I have no idea what’s going on when the game demands that you’re at your most tactile.
Super Galaxy Squadron EX is a great bullet-hell shooter. You’ve got a great choice of ships with forgettable yet pleasant context that’s always welcome when you’re trying to find a connection between you and what you’re shooting. Each ship fires different projectiles and has a unique special move that’s always bound to be satisfying. My favourite happened to be a shield; I like to think I’m practical. The graphics are clean and timeless, the gameplay is fun and frenetic. It’s not mind-blowing but it’s moreish in nature, and the inventive boss battles are the main highlight as they’re challenging and clutter-free. However at times Super Galaxy Squadron EX can feel a little stale as you wipe the floor with every basic enemy in the run up to the boss, although this is easily remedied if you up the difficulty. It’s also marred by odd hit detection that hardcore arcade fanatics might be used to, but for us mere mortals it’s actually frustrating to the point where you question if you’re playing the game at all. Am I dodging things, or am I being let off? I still don’t know. My inability to learn if I’m playing the game correctly doesn’t allow me to keep track of progress.
Maybe one day I’ll stumble into a victory against my arch-nemesis.