So, you think you’re good at videogames? You are “teh hardcorz” and play games on the hardest difficulty because you like a challenge? Modern games are just electronic babysitters, constantly handholding the player; not like those old-school games. Well, Studio Evil feels your pain and has responded with… more pain. The Italian-based indie developer has thrown down the gauntlet with their latest game, Syder Arcade.
With ‘ultra-challenging campaign levels’ that have ‘difficulty levels from easy to impossible’, they promise you should ‘prepare to smash your keyboard’. Pfft! Yeah yeah, OK Studio Evil. Back before a CD-Rom was even a thing, I’d beat bullet hell shmups that were clearly from the 7th circle of Dante’s Inferno.
I’ll play your little “old-school” space shooter, Studio Evil.
Alrighty, shooting dudes and... dammit.
Ok, maybe if I just… dammit.
Ok, I think I figured out how to… dammit.
Stop, no, no, hold on… stop shooting me!
Why won’t you die? Why won’t you just freaking die?
No, no, no, no, no, no, no… stop spawning more drones you f@*$ing @$$#0(& boss with your stupid homing missiles and your stupid long joke of a health bar.
I hate you! I hate you more than anything. Congratulations! Michael Bay movies, racists, Rush Limbaugh’s continued employment, that one jerk from high school, and people who use ‘to’ when they mean ‘too’… you are all now less hated than this damage sponge of a space boss.
Jerk jerk jerk jerk jerk jerk jerk jerk jerk jerk jerk jerk
Fine, the game is hard. I’ll admit it. When they say old-school hard they mean those games that were designed to consume your quarters like it’s laundry day. The difficulty smacks you in the face no matter where you place the difficulty setting. Setting it down to the easiest “Young Gun” setting effectively just means taking less damage from each hit. But just because the angry mob decided to beat on you with wiffleball bats instead of 2x4s, doesn’t mean you aren’t going to be sore in the morning.
At least when your ship explodes in the dark void of space, it’s really nice to look at while the aliens teabag your remains. Running on the Unity engine there are detailed 3D graphics with slick particle effects and not a lick of slowdown. Controls are accurate and simple (like any good shmup), with four movement keys, two firing buttons, and a flip maneuver. There are three different ships that are the standard: fast but weak, slow but tough, and well-rounded types of vehicles. You have full freedom to move in the 2D plane and have a handy radar that lets you see where all the enemies on the map are.
The developers clearly are wearing their nostalgic love on their sleeve. The music has that chiptune flair that blends well with the overall feel of the game. While a bit of a gimmick, there are 20 graphical filters you can use that resemble the classic computer systems of old. From Apple II and Amiga HAM, all the way to VGA 640, these are fun blast-from-the-past modes that will get a smile out of you if you are old enough to remember what it was like to play a game from a floppy disk. Sadly, they are just filters laid over the 3D graphics, so in some modes your ship’s color will match some areas of the background, turning it invisible to you. Because of this you'll probably end up just playing with the default modern graphic filter so you can see what's going on.
So, what makes this game oh so hard? Well, there are a few design choices that seem to purposely ignore certain innovations of the last three decades. While you have six campaign missions, they are quite long. Fifteen minutes may sound like a short time, but in a shmup it's forever. You only have one life and if you die you start that mission over, complete with having to go through the opening story dialog all over again. This all wouldn’t be an issue except for two key problems: random power-ups and enemy movement.
See, any great shmup, heck, any great game knows that the gamer wants to feel powerful and competent. That’s why RPGs let you see those massive damage numbers. That’s why platformers give you power-ups. That’s why every 1st person shooter has their version of the BFG. In Syder Arcade you feel like an ant at war with a boot army. Getting power-ups to boost your firepower or to repair your ship are practically necessary to succeed and also completely random. Much of the time defeating an enemy will get you absolutely nothing or a 100 point bonus (which is basically nothing). The power-ups can be a big help, but as random as they are, there is a good chance you’ll die before any show up. I would have preferred some form of upgrade system instead of getting through a level because I got a good dice roll.
He has the power to project plot from his crotch
Really, I could take all of the issues except for the big one: enemy movement. You control your ship with four movement buttons. So you move in a very grid-like pattern and can only fire directly forwards or (when you hit the flip button to turn around) directly backwards. Your enemies don’t have this hindrance. They can move freely, can fire in all directions, and will scatter while trying to flank you. Even the lowest level enemies take multiple hits to dispatch and these enemies outnumber you about a few thousand to one.
All of the minor issues, like long campaigns on single lives, and randomized power-ups, are magnified in their annoyance levels due to just how neutered you feel in your little space ship. While the controls are tight and responsive, you just feel incredibly underpowered to handle the task. You get the feeling that you're stuck playing Defender while the enemies are playing a twin stick shooter. This is basically like entering a drawing contest and being given an Etch-a-Sketch while everybody else gets drawing tablets.
Still, for $8 you do get a good amount of content. The individual ships play quite differently and beyond the campaign you have a survival mode with online leaderboards. There is a delicate balance between challenging and frustrating. For me, this falls more in the frustrating category, but others may love the challenge. It really just comes down to a balance issue. Studio Evil is clearly quite talented and passionate. I know it would just take a few small tweaks (shorter and more numerous campaigns, less damage-spongey enemies, a more consistent rewards system for power-ups) to make this game a must buy.
Let me try one more time…
Ha ha! I did it! I win! I have defeated you, you stupid smelly boss guy. Now on to the second mission.
An escort mission? The second level is an escort mission? Through an asteroid field? And there are more enemies than last time. More are teleporting in behind me. OK, yeah, I’ll just… just… my escort exploded. They have less health than I do.
Live by the explosion, die by the explosion
I have to start the mission over again.
This review is based on a digital copy of Syder Arcade, provided by the publisher.