I can be a real sucker for punishment when it comes to bullet hell games. I love being under pressure, having 3/4 of my screen turn into some nightmarish hellscape. I love feeling like I’m utterly doomed and it’s only by some stroke of luck that I escape. I love knowing that there’s futility in most of my attempts, that if I close my eyes, it’s over. I love playing games that make my eyes feel like I’m wearing contacts and standing in front of an air conditioner. I love Burnout and Stuntman. I love games that make me try over and over again for perfection.
I mean, I also love pie and chill ass JRPGs, but that’s not really where we’re going right now. That’s why I was pumped to return to the shmup (or ‘shoot ’em up’ for the abbreviationally challenged) with Super Galaxy Squadron EX. But the sad truth is, I didn’t feel that crushing pressure during my time with the game. I mean, I’m no master at this stuff, but I can certainly hold my own. I booted up the highest difficulty, whipped out my arcade stick and found that I made it all the way through to the boss of level 4 without a single death. I was enjoying myself while doing it, and had dry eyes at the end of every level from trying not to blink, but hitting the game’s ceiling on my first go meant there wasn’t much for me to explore in the end game.
Instead, I flew my ship through the galaxy, fought off an alien force, packed my stick away and went to do something else. That’s not what I want from a genre that usually drags me back in a fit of rage.
There are a few things that SGSEX gets very right, but much of it is pretty unremarkable. The dramatic intro voice over is a welcome start to the whole experience, giving us an idea that the world is larger than just some ships shooting stuff. But instead of someone on the edge of a war, it sounds like someone daydreaming into the mic. The pixel art is, for the most part, artfully done, but the game has some issues with distinguishing foreground and background objects. I had a few moments of trying to avoid two objects, just to find that only one of them was actually dangerous – the other was background art.
I get it, few genres come with as much emotional baggage as the shmup. From its early coin-op dominance onwards, the genre has been built around the idea of altering the rules of the metagame, freeing it from the shackles of the almighty quarter. We’ve had twists on the classic formula such as Ikaruga (which the hardest of hardcore might not even call a shmup) and Bangai-O (side-scrolling combo shmup), from Einhander to anything by Cave Interactive… The list goes on and on. The genre has been tweaked and twisted in every direction, from the player perspective to the metagame that holds it all together, but despite all that, shmups have still mostly fallen by the mass market’s wayside. With all of this baggage comes an unbelievably difficult challenge for any game maker trying to make something new, interesting, and most importantly fun. While Super Galaxy Squadron EX is an agreeable enough shmup by any standards, it doesn’t bring enough new to the table for me to be interested in seconds.
So, then, what to do? I mean, these guys put a dumb amount of work into this stuff, and I respect the hell out of it. It’s been a while since I fully delved into the genre, so, maybe this game is a return to form of sorts. Almost like a Devil Daggers for the shmup world. But if anything, I felt like I was giving a hobby project a shot, instead of a game that was meant to compete with some of the most difficult games on my hard drive.
Look, I get it, making this stuff is hard. And when dealing with a shmup, what more can we add, right? We’ve taken this baby pretty far and there are about 25 years of games to return to. It’s exciting to think that people are looking towards the future of this genre and thinking, ‘What next?’ But while this game is a comfortable return for the shmup, it doesn’t push anything forward. Instead, it’s an homage. I’m not looking to revisit the world of bullet hells just because it’s there. I want to feel like I’m doing a little more than winding through little jerk-hole pellets that want to tear through my ship’s armor. I want to feel like after I escape the cloud of bullets I need to keep in mind about 5 other aspects of the game structure or else the leader boards will laugh at my shitty initials – and not because they spell ASS, POO or SEX. SGSEX never gave me the fear I need.