Posted on : 19-10-2010 | By : Tollmaster | In : Reviews
Hardware: Xbox 360
When the Xbox Live Indie Games service was first announced, it was hoped that lowering the normally draconian barrier of entry for developing on a console would allow small, independent teams to create an explosion of creativity not bound down by the corporate world. Despite the initial optimism, the XBLIG section proved to be as much of a curse as it was a blessing, because for each title that was genuinely worth taking a look at, there were nine titles that were either shoddily put together by amateurs or simple, exploitative cash-ins on other creative concepts or even just sex appeal, and the only users who browsed the XBLIGs were the truly adventurous, willing to wade through a cesspool of human waste to get the rare nugget of gold.
Appropriate then that Explosionade is a game where you find gold hidden in sewers, because it is one of the few games that justify the continued existence of XBLIGs. The principle behind the indie games movement was that developers not chained to the high stakes world of initial public offerings and demographics research would be able to create innovative games that users would want to play, rather than what users had proven in the past that they would be willing to play, and finally there is a mecha game on the XBLIG service that proves the indie movement right, because Explosionade is a love letter to the great 2D SNES mecha sidescrollers that adds just enough new gameplay mechanics to make it its own beast.
It’s also only 80 Microsoft Points, which translates to $1 in Real World American Currency, which also makes it the cheapest mecha game you can buy. I don’t know how some of the other authors on the Indie Games service sleep at nights knowing that Mommy’s Best Games’ Explosionade is both better and cheaper than their shovelware, but it likely involves soft beds made out of money. Should you buy Explosionade? It would probably cost you more money to keep yourself alive while reading this review than it would to go and purchase the game immediately, so “Yes.” You can still read the review, though. I worked awful hard on it.
Explosionade is a game about a fat soldier with poor trash-talking abilities who discovers a prototype mecha, GRenaDOS, sitting alone and unused in his base’s garage, and like all people who jump into prototype mecha they have no permission to use and with no prior training, his destiny is to single-handedly change the entire war effort.
The game plays similarly enough to Assault Suits Valken and Metal Warriors that I emailed the President of Mommy’s Best Games about whether it was an inspiration for them, and they admitted that they were indeed big fans of Cybernator (the name of the Western localization of Assault Suits Valken) and played a lot of Metal Warriors’ versus mode. If you’ve played either of those games, you know about what to expect from the basic controls: continuing to hold down the jump button at the apex of your jump activates a booster which gives you a bit more horizontal and vertical distance, but the boost takes a half-second to overcome the pull of gravity. You have a rapid-firing machine gun that fires in whatever direction you’re currently pressing the movement stick in, allowing diagonal fire while jumping so you can rain metal death below or attack cowardly enemies flying above you.
The machine guns can also be aimed with the right analogue stick, giving the game controls similar to anyone who has played any of the numerous twin stick shooters released lately, and this method is much more precise than using the Assault Suits Valken style aiming method. The default control scheme lets you play either way, with a face button (X) controlling the guns if you want to play Valken-style, which adds to the difficulty but is a really neat feature for fans of the 2D SNES games that were inspired by Valken, such as Metal Warriors and Front Mission: Gun Hazard. The one problem with this control setup is that it’s difficult to fire straight up while jumping if you’re using the dual analogue sticks exclusively, and I recommend changing the key mapping from the default to swapping the “jump/boost” and “zoom out” buttons around, but other than that the controls feel tight as hell.
The GRenaDOS has a few tricks that make it more than a mere Cybernator clone, however. As the imaginative title suggests, the game is prone to explosions and supplying them are your mecha’s ‘Meganades’, which are fired from a cannon and follow an arc like you would expect. A large portion of the gameplay is figuring out how to exploit the grenades’ arc to your advantage, so you can hit enemies while also avoiding their fire by hiding behind walls. The grenade launcher also fires two different types of grenades, depending on how long you hold the button, with “sticky” grenades, which don’t bounce and can adhere to walls being the default while holding the button down stops the grenade from sticking, and rather it’ll bounce around a while before it explodes. This is a complicated system at first, but after about ten levels or so it becomes second nature, and having two types of grenades available through a single button makes you feel like a badass. The grenades restock themselves as you use them for an infinite amount, and although you can only hold a stock of three grenades at once, in actual practice the reload time is quick enough that you can fire a steady stream of, well, explosionade at your enemies. Picking up ten of the “fried gold” items scattered throughout the levels also gives you a 25 second “Meganade Rush”, which lets you fire grenades with no restocking times at all, turning “constant explosions” into “I think someone just made the first Itano Circus of grenades.”
The best feature of the mecha though is, strangely enough, the shield. Holding down the left trigger activates an energy shield that renders GRenaDOS impervious to damage, and while the shield overheats fairly quickly, if you’re quick on the draw you can wade into bullet hell situations and come out completely unscathed, making extremely aggressive play possible. The shield opens up tactical options that other games just don’t have, and rather than being forced to play conservatively with shoot-and-run tactics, you can choose whether to fire grenades over walls and take cover frequently, or to charge right in and mix it up all the while hoping your Newtype response times will let you activate the shield just before the enemies’ shots hit you, and that you can destroy the enemy before the shield overheats. I’m not usually a fan of bullet hell type games, but being able to push through enemy shots with the shield active rather than trying to carefully wade between the curtains of fire is sweet revenge for all the ships I’ve lost in shmups.
What makes the shield a game change is that not only does it make you impenetrable to enemy attacks, but that, if you activate it before hitting a wall, floor or ceiling, it makes you bounce. This sounds somewhat wonky, but once you understand how it works it completely transforms the game, because it enables movement options that simply wouldn’t have been possible in the Assault Suits games. Jumping up to your full height and falling straight down with the shield up gives you a much higher bounce than your jump alone would have given you; you can bounce off of walls to launch yourself completely across the room; and in general the shield function lets you get around higher and faster than you would with the jump alone. It even increases the efficiency of your boost, because the booster at the apex of your jump has to start “pushing” against gravity, and with the bounce already moving you upwards that initial need for a “push” is nullified, meaning you get an immediate–and drastic–increase in your speed, allowing you to really rocket off.
The shield jumping is actually such an amazing feature that I sent an email to the creators about why they weren’t (in my own words) “pimping that hot shit” in their trailer and website, because it opens up the game so much, and the reply I got back was that they were worried that it could alienate potential consumers–the shield bouncing isn’t really required in any of the areas, although the game mentions it and gives you rewards for performing it, but showing a trailer with the crazy antics you can get up to with it could have made people think you might need to be a hardcore gamer to really appreciate the game. As it is, the system is there for the hardcore gamer to (ab)use, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun, but having played two-player co-op with my 14 year old brother, it’s not necessary to play the game and you can bring along friends for the ride who don’t want to learn a complex gameplay system, and would rather just hose down subterranean aliens with gunfire.
The game takes place over 40 stages designed like the “Challenge Rooms” of other games, and each level usually has a tiny gimmick to its design or theme that makes it unique, so you’re always challenged to use your existing skillset in new ways. It’s a fairly short ride, and there isn’t too much in the way of variety in the graphics, but considering the price of the game is one whole dollar, there’s a hell of a lot of content there for the price. The enemies also don’t have quite as much variety as I could have wished for, but they’re so well-designed and smoothly animated that not only won’t you notice, but you’ll start to question how the hell they are able to sell the game so cheaply, when other companies seem to have forgotten the art of 2D sprites and usually just try to cover up their ugliness with extreme blurring and anti-aliasing. I heard a rumour (which I started) that Mommy’s Best Games is able to provide these quality sprites by eating live scorpions they find outside exclusively and passing those savings onto you, the consumer. Whether that’s true or not, it’s absolute proof that a lot of the 2D games being remade these days don’t have to look like shit if they cost ten times as much as Explosionade does – never mind the fact that Explosionade is likely a better game anyway.
The one sticking point I have with the game is the difficulty–even on the highest difficulty setting it’s still a bit too easy for my tastes. I initially attributed it not to my own personal skill but because I was taking full advantage of all the game’s systems–grenade arcs, shield jumping, shield shot absorbing, etc. – far more than the average user would, and my cutting edge research by playing with my little brother seems to confirm that this is true to some extent. And while I feel like a complete ass for complain about an extreme budget title, I played the game for the first time on the Normal difficulty and only died twice, and I was able to get through the entire game fairly easily on Serious difficulty at 200% base speed! Proper use of the shield to avoid damage and judicious saving of fried gold bars (which heal your mecha to full health) in each level makes the game a lot easier than it would be for the less hardcore, and the game’s levels are designed with them in mind. While the design of the game is very much “arcade” in nature, where the first play through isn’t intended to be the whole game but rather racking up high scores and challenging yourself (and others on the High Score lists) to do better, I still want to say that I feel like there could have been an extra set of “hardcore” rooms, maybe even just 10 or so, that would have required judicious use of all the more advanced features of the game mechanics to get through. I had a hell of a lot of fun with the game, but I like to feel like there’s always something just beyond my reach in terms of gaming skill, as mastering a game that doesn’t challenge you doesn’t feel like mastery at all.
So: great 2D mecha game, has some truly insane and fun gameplay mechanics, great title, supports indie developers, maybe a tad too easy if you’re badder than the average badass, COSTS ONLY A DOLLAR. That’s a winner in my book. I can’t imagine someone buying this and feeling like they wasted their money–even if you play through it once on the easiest difficulty, it’s still more game for a single dollar than you’re going to get anywhere else, and frankly it puts to shame most of the five, ten, or even fifteen dollar releases out there. As much of a Must Buy! as a mecha game is likely to get, especially (but not solely) due to the price.