Vextor

Vextor (iOS/Android) is, easily, the best mobile arena shooter I’ve had the pleasure of playing.

I realise that many folk will read this and think “well, that’s quite a low bar” and you know, I think that’s fair. It’s not a genre that’s immediately well suited to touch controls.

Yak’s iOS take, Minotron, was as good as things got prior to Vextor. Minotron was very good indeed, there’s just the small problem of it no longer being available. There’s other nearly there games, the wonderfully titled Pewpew 2 got close, Geometry Wars 3 was rather let down by being a mobile port of the not-great Geometry Wars 3 but at least controlled okay. And there’s probably a couple more out there that I can’t recall right now. It’s been a while. Oh yeah, the Radian Games stuff – that was, is, pretty good.

Vextor though? Vextor is fantastic. It looks great and it plays great. I kinda wish it had existed sooner but I’m a patient person. Sometimes. Ok. Not often. But I’m sure I could be if I wanted to be.

Visually it owes a clear debt to Geometry Wars with its neon shapes and deformable grid, also to the absolutely wonderful Bezier (which nowhere near enough people have played – please fix that). It’s a lovely combination of two of my favourite arena shooters and, bonus, it has space fish. This is important. Please put a fish in your game.

Interestingly, Vextor plays differently depending on whether you play it in portrait or landscape mode. In landscape, it’s a traditional and familiar twin stick shooter. In portrait, it’s a mobile Neon Wars. (Although both Vextor and Neon Wars arrived at a similar junction independently, I’m glad it gives me a chance to mention a great and forgotten game).

I know most people have never even heard of Neon Wars, let alone played it. It was an attempt at making Geometry Wars work for a wider audience. Mainly, this meant that instead of having to manage with controlling two sticks, the player would only have to occupy themselves with the movement. Instead of the second stick to control shooting, the game settled on a system where you just had to be in the right place and the game would handle firing for you. It worked way better than it sounds on paper and coincidentally, provides the perfect controls for a one handed touch screen game.

So that’s Vextor, then.

It only took ten years or something but it’s really nice to see the Neon Wars control scheme made to work for a second time and more to the point, to finally be able to have a mobile arena shooter that Just Works(TM).

Vextor is fabulous stuff and I’m so glad it exists. Please do consider giving it a try.

R-Coil

I’m the first to admit that I tend to gravitate towards the flashier end of the arena shooters spectrum. I am, if nothing else, forever in awe of games that flash lights at you.

I know, I know, I’m an easy sell. A few neon glow effects and I’m suckered. In my defence though, I’m still a big fan of games that aren’t all that, even if (in my not so humble opinion) they could be. Like, erm, R-Coil for example.

It’s not that R-Coil doesn’t have it’s fair share of glowiness, it absolutely does, it’s just most definitely more restrained than most. It’s more Vectrex than Geometry Wars. And this is fine. Absolutely totally fine. I happen to like the Vectrex a fair bit. More than a fair bit, even.

Which is lucky because R-Coil eschews a lot of the more modern conceits we’ve come to associate with the arena shooters genre and not only looks like a Vectrex game but plays a great deal like one too. Albeit, a Vectrex game written by an absolute monster.

You see, whilst looking and feeling like an early eighties vector game, R-Coil is also an incredibly mean game. That’s a compliment, by the way. I happen to like my videogames mean sometimes.

The trick R-Coil is based around is one where your firing and your momentum are tied to the same buttons. There’s some stuff about your ship being broken blah blah blah but the essence of the game is that if you want to move, you’re going to have to be firing your guns to do so. But also, firing your guns is going to have some serious recoil. Hence, umm, R-Coil. Luckily, holding down the fire button will shunt you forward at speed giving you some control over your forwards momentum. Some.

As a result of this slightly brutal movement mechanism, R-Coil is a much more sedate game than most recent arena shooters aspire to be. Where the Geometry Wars formula is one where the screen is often filled with enemies, if not racing towards you then spawning around you, R-Coil plops just a handful on screen at a time. It’s a game that deliberately derives its difficulty from its controls and needs to give you more space than most else you’d be done for in seconds.

It’s masterable. Honest, it is. I’m not going to pretend it won’t take a fair few goes just to last more than however many seconds but it’s perfectly possible to hit a rhythm with it, to settle in to knowing how firing will effect your whereabouts on the screen, to know when it’ll push you away or towards danger. To know when to tap the fire button and when to hold to propel yourself forwards.

Once I’d found that rhythm myself, I began to really enjoy my time with the game. Sure, I would still die often (often at the hands of the same enemy, at that) but I didn’t care because *grits teeth* I was going to score higher very soon no matter what and there was nothing the game could do to stop me.

Well, except kill me again, of course. Which it did do. Frequently. But aside from that.

R-Coil is the sort of small, simple, game that I can pump a silly amount of time into. It’s a few quid on Steam and well worth a look. Oh, and it also has a nice accessibility mode where it removes lives and just lets you play, you know, in case you find the steep difficulty a bit much.

Shadow Of The Beast

I’ve never been the greatest fan of Shadow Of The Beast in its earliest incarnations.

The box art, the fantasy art inspired graphics and that scrolling definitely made for a heady mix on release. It was a mix that, for me anyway, the games could never hope to match and indeed, didn’t. Try as I might, there was little in the way of joy I could squeeze out of them. At their best they felt so much like faintly average platform games in a fancy coat and each iteration appeared to do little to change my opinions.

Yet, despite this, if you asked me to pin down what Shadow Of The Beast was, is, or should be, I would find myself pausing, not entirely sure of myself. It’s a videogame that exists in an almost liminal space, a hazy moment of nostalgia, a work of visual art in the transition from 8 to 16 bit, of a moment when the bedroom coder would be giving way to studios and brands and the videogame industry itself would never be the same again. That’s what Shadow Of The Beast is, something more than a videogame. It’s a point in time.

It helps, I’m sure, that the videogame part is so skeletal. There are a thousand ways to expand on it, a thousand different directions you can explore. My problem with it has always been that because it is so much less a videogame and more a moment, I’ve never found myself interested in anyone revisiting it. When a reboot was announced for the PS4, my first reaction was little more than “Why?” and a shrug.

With each trailer, all so focused on the combat system present in the new game, that why became overwhelming. Whatever Shadow Of The Beast is, it is not this, I thought.

And so I very nearly passed on the rebooted game entirely. In these times of videogame abundance it’s never been easier to pass on something. I understood that the team behind the reboot weren’t just doing this on a whim but still I thought “what use is Shadow Of The Beast in 2016? The moment for it has long gone.” and put it out of my mind.

This is, I’ll admit, hugely unfair. There are a great many fans of the videogame out there and not everything has to be for me, it’s perfectly okay for it to be made for them, whoever they may be. For me, Shadow Of The Beast’s time was on the Amiga and the Amiga is long dead.

I’m not sure what made me give the new version a punt now. Boredom, maybe? Out of all the videogames I could have been playing on the PS4, I guess there was still this curiosity around the game there. Like, how do you make a playable game out of Shadow Of The Beast? Can you even make a half decent game of Shadow Of The Beast?

I went in with low expectations, 30 years having done little to dim my memories of trying to get to grips with playing the original.

The thing is, it’s not half bad. It’s rough around the edges, it’s clearly overambitious, it’s slightly broken at times. These are pretty much all the qualities I admire in a videogame, you know? But what really took me by surprise was how, yes, this felt like it could be, should be, Shadow Of The Beast. That was not a feeling I was expecting to walk away with at all.

It is at its heart a slightly daft combo based scrapper game, tackle a bunch of enemies and try and come out with the highest score from each assault. It’s a game about punching things, mainly. Just, you know, it looks like a modern Shadow Of The Beast. It feels nice to play. It has the right sort of slightly strange Roger Dean painting come alive vibe that makes it slot neatly into the box labelled “Shadow Of The Beast”.

It is amply mysterious, slightly off kilter and sinister. There are moments of frustration as it’s clear that ambition beat resources at times – the tutorial is very full on, the bosses are, well, very videogame bosses but there’s something about it, something I can’t quite put my finger on that just works and it works in a way that, in my not so humble opinion, earns the right to the name Shadow Of The Beast. That’s more than enough, you know?

There’s a moment on the first stage where the camera pulls back as you climb this hill towards a very Roger Dean fortress. You remain in control the entire time, the beast becoming smaller as it climbs into the distance. Seconds later, it jolts you into a battle with some hooded folk but for that brief moment I could see where the game is reaching toward. That thing where no matter how scrappy the videogame turned out to be, you can see the thought and the consideration. How the game wanted me to feel bled through to reality and it just worked. The world felt so large, so overwhelming and I was only a tiny, inexplicable, part of it.

It was the vibe I would get from staring for far too long at the box art, that vibe of somewhere quite strange, of inexplicable structures, of mysterious forests and of course, of beasts.

It took just a moment to sell me on the game because sometimes, it’s the smallest things that endear me to something. Sometimes that’s just a small moment of the sublime in a scrappy videogame. Sometimes that’s so much more than enough. I know I’m easily pleased but I’ve enjoyed my time with the game. It might seem like small praise but it just feels right, like Shadow Of The Beast has finally found its videogame. And I dunno, I’m not sure I could ask for anything more from Shadow Of The Beast in 2018.