Say that ten times, but faster…
I know it might be a mouthful, but developer Bare Knuckle’s modern re-imagining of classic retro space shooters embodies all of its titular words in excess, and despite simplistic initial appearances, actually takes those ideas and develops them into a very intelligent 2D shooter that embodies the description easy to pick up, hard to master perfectly.
The narrative lowdown – In the mid 21st century, humanity launched 9 huge, unmanned, automated spacecraft. These spacecraft were known as The 9 Mothers – gigantic probes that were designed to seek out inhabitable planets, to remedy humanity’s plight as we struggle to exist on a poisoned, smog ridden, tar soaked Earth. It seems we’re in luck as one of the Mothers has found a habitable planet for us to up sticks to. Unfortunately the local residents don’t feel like laying out the welcome wagon. Naturally – because we’re humans – we take it upon ourselves to blast the local “aliens” using one of the Mother’s Space Blasters – remotely controlled gunships that can be activated and controlled from Earth. It’s a nice little back story, and gives us an unexpected context to the relentless blasting that arcade shooters tend to adhere to.
The first thing you’ll notice when you fire SMSBS up, aside from the killer atmospheric soundtrack, is your ship selection screen. This is where the game immediately demonstrates its modern evolution from more typical examples of the genre. There are in fact 10 ships that you can choose from; with only one selectable at the start of the game. The Nibula, as it’s called, has a selection of statistics such as speed, handling, fire rate etc, as well as an indication of shield, and bomb capacity. I didn’t pay much attention to this on my first play through, considering I only had the one ship to use. We just want to blast stuff, right?
And boy, was I not disappointed! 10 seconds into the game, and I found myself blasting asteroids apart with satisfying gusto. Fragmented shards of rock flew across the screen. Rockets propelled themselves from the edges of the void, accelerating in all directions. Soon, alien ships began firing their cannons at me with relentless savagery. Through cunning agility, I soon eviscerated my foes with my lasers of fury – resulting in delightfully colourful explosions! The artwork for the game is very simple, vibrant, and sharp – a crisp hand drawn artistic style that ensures that you never lose sight your ship amidst the chaos – a pitfall well avoided here that can often ruin a perfectly good bullet hell game.
Game mechanics and appropriate tactics are quick to make themselves known. I swiftly noted that the ship I was using never stopped accelerating, and this added a whole new element of gameplay. I was forced to constantly turn, dodging the ever increasing plethora of space junk and alien boys. Not to be left feeling completely out of control though, I was afforded a brake, and boost functionality, which once got the hang of became fundamental to my mastery of the game.
Power-ups provide another key source of crowd control that the player must take into consideration. There’s a wide selection of consumable power-ups, each providing an offensive or defensive ability. From simple rapid fire abilities, to shotgun like scatter shots, bouncing wall shots, homing rockets, looming space mines, and close quarter – almost melee like laser beams; there are a lot of options available. The key is working out which weapons (and ships) are best suited for your play style. Other drops include bombs that can be used to instakill the entire enemy force – perfect for when you’re overwhelmed, and golden coins are occasionally dropped, which can be used to unlock newer ships.
It can’t be overstated enough that your primary objective early game should be to unlock new ships. I played with the original ship for some time, saving up my coins to unlock an expensive ship rather than one of the easier to reach cheaper ones. However, it was on just the third, relatively affordable ship unlock that I could have made things a whole lot easier for myself. The third ship offered a second turret on my spacecraft, so instead of just firing from the nose, I now had a separate weapon to control with the right thumb stick, essentially turning the game into a twin stick shooter. This was a literal game changer, and kind of left me wondering why there were any ships without turrets at all. If I had opted to unlock the ships in order, I would have come across this more quickly, but for those that think like myself, you may be left at a disadvantage longer than necessary.
The ships are incredibly well designed – each one feeling entirely different to the last. They’re all individually named, and have their own features and perks. Some are equipped with shields, whilst others may hold more bombs from the start of play. What was clear for me was that each ship unlock was a definite improvement on the last, and by the time I had the final ship unlocked, I felt entirely more in control of my game – equipped with fantastic handling, and decent, but controllable speed. It’s clear the game wants you to earn the ability to be able to reach those high scores more easily. The ships increase in cost very quickly – ultimately costing 50 gold coins for the final ship, whereas the first cost just 8, if my memory serves me. Fortunately SMSBS sets out 20 in-game challenges that can be completed whilst you play, rewarding you with buckets of gold coins. These challenges differ greatly, but they’re all fun to attempt. One was given for not letting go of the boost button for a certain amount of time. Another for protecting Mother for a set period without her taking a hit. Another was for using 9 individual weapons/power-ups in one game. I loved these challenges, and felt they added another component to a game that could otherwise be considered just a score beater. I must admit, I do wish there were twice as many as there are, as I’ve found with just my 2.5 hours of gameplay that I’ve whittled those challenges down to just one remaining. There are achievements as well, but as most of these are based around unlocking ships and beating scores, they feel less unique than their challenge counterparts.
Let’s talk gametypes. In the narrative themed game type – Protect Mother – your primary goal is to prevent your Mothership from being destroyed by the many floating asteroids, rockets, gunships, and various other enemies that increase in difficulty as the game progresses. Interestingly, if you perform well you’ll be able to reward yourself with ammo and power-ups from Mother’s arsenal, which adds yet again another element of strategy. Mother is able to defend herself somewhat, popping up auto turrets to fire fiery blue shots into the stratosphere, which fortunately can’t harm you. There’s a health bar along the bottom of the screen indicating how much more damage Mother can take before it’s game over, but you’ll get a general indication from the wear and tear that Mother takes, exemplifying yet again the level of detail that Bareknuckle have gone to in order to make this title aesthetically pleasing. However, don’t think just because Mother’s got some firepower that you can fly about at top speed like am intergalactic wreckin’ ball – a shield will protect you for one extra hit, and there’s another defensive pick up that surrounds you in blue orbs that can soak up some punishment, but if you are hit directly, and hit you shall be, it only takes one shot to destroy you. To make matters worse, the edges of the map are fatal to your ship no matter what defensive perks you have, so the focus is always juggled between protecting Mother, dodging bullets like raindrops, and avoiding the great wall of death with your continuous acceleration. It starts fairly kind to you, but the game’s intensity really cranks up very quickly. No matter how many times I play Super Mega Space Blaster Special my heart is pounding by the end, and I love it for that.
“No matter how many times I play Super Mega Space Blaster Special, my heart is pounding by the end, and I love it for that.
The other single player game type – Survival – is slightly different. In Survival you’ll have no Mother to protect, but instead focus solely on staying alive. Differences to the previous mode include the inability to stop firing, meaning that your ammo count is constantly running down, and you’ll also slowly run out of fuel. Fuel is picked up from dead enemies – nicely detailed as glowing blue nuggets of energy, and the occasional large blue canister. You also have to account for the fact that you aren’t able to reward yourself with Mother’s extensive collection of gifts, so you’re not able to pop a shield out whenever you fancy one – you need to rely solely on what the enemies drop, which is of course entirely random. This second game type is a nice addition, and there’s enough difference between the two that it feels refreshing to switch it up, which ultimately left me in that Just One More Game mindset.
Both of these games have a couch co-op variant to play alongside your buddies, but there is also a third versus game type – To The Death – which splits your screen in two, and has you both protecting a separate Mother Ship as you try to rack up combos and send increasing amounts of enemies towards your opponent.
I previously mentioned SMSBS’s menu soundtrack, but this is further demonstrated in the in-game soundtrack and FX. Two more awesome retro 80’s synth tunes by Electric Fan Death – the musical alias for BareKnuckle’s own Ste Wilson – play while you blast. They’re a real treat, and you can listen to one of them on his Soundcloud. The sound design in general should be lauded, with incredibly satisfying pew pew pews, and multiple choices of AI voiceover to narrate your gameplay – and there’s undoubtedly something rather amusing about having your gameplay recited back to you in robotic Spanish.
“Super Mega Space Blaster Special is a game bursting with frantic fun – rippling with colour and crisp clarity.”
Super Mega Space Blaster Special is a game bursting with frantic fun – rippling with colour and crisp clarity. It’s an incredible amount of game for the price point – just 79p or 99c, and it’s clear that BareKnuckle have gone to lengths to ensure that this doesn’t succumb to the same quality and reputation that so many other indie games do at that price point. A great amount of time has been spent animating, and bringing this game to life – both visually and audibly, and the replayability factor with online scoreboards gives it that extra longevity. The promise of future free DLC further demonstrates this game’s value for money, and I implore you to pick this one up, and see if you can beat my score on the leader board ;).
Grab the game on Steam, and check the full trailer below, which much better captures the essence of the game than my frantic screenshots as I tried to hit F12 without dying.