It’s no question that the shump (shoot em’ up) genre is well-trodden. From its genesis in the late 70’s to the present day, side-scrolling shooters have had plenty of time to evolve. Early games like 1978’s Space Invaders laid the foundation for what would become a ubiquitous style in the 80’s, the golden age of arcade games. During this period, the genre spawned huge hits like Asteroids, and offerings like Ikari Warriors brought shumps from space to earth, capitalizing on the West’s action-movie fever. Though new releases slowed to a crawl in the 90’s as the market became saturated, bullet hell games (in which players are forced to dodge overwhelming swarms of projectiles) found a following among competitive arcade gamers, a niche which they still occupy to this day in Japan.
As the home console and PC markets grew, on-the-rails shooters became less and less common: for the most part, their audience had moved on to first-person shooter games. The close of the decade brought Treasure’s Radiant Silvergun, a vertical-scroller with narrative elements, released exclusively for the Japanese market in 1998. Three years later, Treasure released a spiritual successor, Ikaruga, for the Sega NAOMI. Ikaruga sold modestly well at first, but eventually critical acclaim and word of mouth made it the most popular and recognizable shoot em’ up of the 2000’s. It made an appearance on the Xbox Live Arcade in 2008, and was ported to Windows in 2014 through Steam’s greenlight program.
Despite the storied history of this genre, however, shump developers have been slow to innovate as of late. Though bullet hell games increasingly demand fast reactions and precise maneuvers from the player, control schemes have changed little to cope with the heightened difficulty. Just as in mechanically intense games like Starcraft, it’s hard for the average gamer to see a great bullet hell player as anything but superhuman. Many find it hard to experience a game like Ikaruga for its full tactical depth, simply because they never reach the skill threshold required to enjoy it at a basic level.
Enter Kickbomb Entertainment’s Legacy of the Elder Star, an admirable attempt by a small independent studio at distilling the fun part of bullet hell games: dodging obstacles at high speeds. To that end, the control scheme involves neither your WASD keys nor a joystick. Instead, you play with your mouse, and only your mouse. The player-character, a cute little sprite called the Cosmonaut, is permanently tethered to your cursor. No matter how high your mouse sensitivity is, the Cosmonaut will dutifully fly wherever you direct him. The left mouse button fires your main weapon, while holding down the right button activates your secondary weapon. When your special meter is fully charged, you can press both mouse buttons at the same time and the Cosmonaut will unleash a high-damage special ability.
These innovative yet simple controls allow the player to zoom around space with great speed and accuracy, avoiding projectiles and opponents while simultaneously striking back with the Cosmonaut’s weapons. The game scrolls from left to right, and though you can only shoot to the right, enemies will often flank you, forcing an adjustment and chastening those who camp by the far left side of the screen. Opponents have varied weapons and attack patterns, keeping the player engaged, surprised, and occasionally terrified. Some release cluster bombs that explode into smaller projectiles as they approach, others shoot streams of bullets in a cone, and still others emit laser beams after charging briefly. Bosses will often utilize two or more attack patterns at the same time, and even release additional minions to further pressure the Cosmonaut.
Weapons interact well with each other, encouraging aggressive play yet punishing poorly-executed greed. Your default secondary weapon, Star Dash, does heavy damage to all enemies it passes through while you hold down the right mouse button, and gives you invincibility while it’s active. You can use it to clear large groups of enemies that are hard to bring down efficiently with your main gun. Employed intelligently, your secondary allows you to maximize your score by destroying all the opponents who appear on your screen.
Careful, though: sometimes, you’ll need Star Dash’s invincibility property to escape some of the more numerous and persistent projectiles. You only have a limited amount of Star Dash, and if you deplete the meter completely, a cooldown will come into effect and the weapon won’t recharge. The best players will watch the meter carefully and release their secondary weapon right before it’s depleted, but this becomes fairly difficult as the enemies start demanding more attention. This mechanic forces the player to make quick decisions, and weigh the possibility for a higher score against loss of health and possible death.
Although death isn’t permanent, as you can continue an unlimited number of times, you will take an indirect score hit. When you die, the charge for your special ability is drained completely, so you won’t take down bosses quite as quickly. Your score multiplier, which increases the longer you stay alive, will also be reset to 1.0. This allows new players to learn from repeated deaths, yet encourages careful play by the serious enthusiast. The game’s advertised as friendly to those with disabilities, and includes the ability to slow down or speed up the gameplay, in addition to a colorblind mode. For the wider audience though, you might say that Legacy is drunk-friendly. Online leaderboards are well done, and provide a competitive incentive. I only wish that local leaderboards had been included, given Legacy of the Elder Star’s potential as a party game.
That potential is buttressed by Legacy’s natural suitability for the Steam controller, a rare attribute even among Steam-released indie games. I was scratching my head when I saw that the developers hadn’t included a default configuration, but it only took me a few minutes to put my own together. The game works better than I expected with the Steam controller’s trackball pad, and with a bit of fine-tuning and practice it could be comparable to a mouse. I’ll definitely be hooking my computer up to a TV and testing this more, and I hope that Kickbomb does the same.
Aesthetically, Legacy of the Elder Star knocks it out of the park, retaining the retro charm of the genre without shackling itself to the past. This is an indie game that understands it’s being released in 2016, and doesn’t need to rely on nostalgia alone to generate interest. The game immediately greets you with a soundtrack that doesn’t impose silly 8-bit limits on itself, yet somehow manages to feel distinctly arcade-y. Energetic synthesizer melodies meld with distorted rhythm guitars, while contemporary beats with trap-influenced hi-hats remind you what decade you’re in. Whoever produced this soundtrack needs to write anime theme songs, now. The rest of the music ranges from atmospheric to ominous (when you’re in a boss battle), and it’s all perfect. Sound effects have that distinct retro crunch, but explosions feel powerful and the screen shivers satisfyingly as you take down a boss.
The visuals are similarly impressive, and the graphics are well-defined. Legacy of the Elder Star is a vibrant game, and as the Cosmonaut travels from one environment to the next, the purples and oranges of an asteroid field give way to the canopy of an alien jungle. You visit a pink and turquoise stage reminiscent of Cloud City or Nagrand, battle your way through a horde of angry red-tinted space robots, and enter single combat with the game’s final boss above a dying star. When you die or land a hefty hit on an enemy, the landscape is peppered with smoke and fire, emphasizing the chaos of the war you take part in.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get enough of this game. Legacy of the Elder Star’s campaign clocks in at just over half an hour, and while it’s meant to be replayed Diablo-style, I still think it could have benefited from a bit more meat with a $15 pricetag. Replayability isn’t too sparse: every time you complete the story, you unlock a weapon. These new guns are awesome, but I wish I could have used them during my first play-through, rather than having to grind just to witness their effects. Additionally, the antagonists, the Infinite Legion, could have used a bit more diversity in their design, and a longer game might have supported more variety. The only boss I thought was truly intimidating was Sigma-201, a giant robotic spider… maybe I just have an arachnid anxiety.
Thankfully, Kickbomb saw fit to include various additional modes which add replay value, including a practice mode, a daily challenge in which your foes are randomized, and a hardcore “Gauntlet” mode which challenges you to defeat all bosses with only one life. The developers have arranged an easy way to dispense new content via daily challenges, but I’m eagerly awaiting another campaign to test my abilities. If Kickbomb continues to support this title day-to-day, they’ll have built an audience for future successes and fostered clout as an independent developer. Legacy of the Elder Star is a superb debut release, and the developers should be proud to have produced such a polished first attempt.
Image Credits: Steam; Madewith.unity.com; Sigma-201, Indie-DB.com