The shoot ‘em up was once one of the foundational genres in gaming. But in recent years, the shooter’s popularity has waned. Fortunately, a number of indie developers have kept the genre relevant with a wellspring of new ideas, mechanics, and designs. Today, we venture into the pixel-art cosmos of Project Starship X and Habroxia 2, two remarkable efforts published by EastAsiaSoft.
Project Starship X, Panda Indie Studio, $14.99
Evasion is a fundamental part of any shooter, with players habitually steering through fields of enemy fire. But in Project Starship X, the avoidance move is indispensable. Often, you’ll encounter a continuous beam of weaponry across the vertically scrolling playfields. The only way to way through these hazardous obstructions is by utilizing the X Maneuver, which lets you teleport into a nearby position. There’s a slight delay before you can use this ability again, and Starship X will often test your timing.
Expectedly, you also have access to offensive weaponry. These differ based on your choice of playable pilots as well as the colliding into the pick-ups that periodically float around the screen. Here, the game feels a bit like a rogue-like, as you’ll acclimate to weapons like lasers that rotate around your ship or a virus gun that injects enemies with damaging disease. Nuance comes in coming different weapon types, but be warned, there’s some deliberately bad blends. While you’ll want a powerful loadout to battle bosses across the game’s five stage run (which draws from 14 different levels), dodging is often more important that destroying adversaries.
When the bosses do attack, they often showcase Project Starship X’s irrelevant humor. From battling a zombie Hitler to one-eye turtle who like a Mario Bros. mutant, the game is filled with weirdness. While play takes place in the middle-third of the screen, the borders are rarely stagnant. Risk death and you’ll spy everything from a portrait of you pilot pulling faces to a Lovecraftian monster straddling a toilet. There are even secret boss battles where your opponent tosses Italian food at you.
For better or worse, Project Starship X keeps the level of challenge elevated. Although rookies might be able to make it through the first stage without too much exertion, the difficulty ramps up soon after. At the second boss, the game flaunts bullet hell patterns, filling the screen with hypnotic patterns of projectiles. Here, you’ll have to carefully weave through patterns. But fortunately, firing reduces the speed of you ship, making pixel-sized adjustments possible.
Play is immensely enjoyable and challenging, but it’s Sinoryu’s (aka Novtos) amazing chiptune soundtrack that truly steals the show. From “Rise Up!”s soaring leads to “Far Far West”s staccato rhythms that evoke the opening theme of Contra, Project Starship X deserves to be played with either headphones or through an amp loud enough to disturb the neighbors.
Habroxia 2, Lillymo Games, $9.99
With foes that fly in orderly processions as well as ground and ceiling-based turrets that fill the screen with projectiles, Habroxia 2 might evoke memories of 1985’s Gradius. But as soon as title shifts from horizontally scrolling to a vertical scroll in the middle of a stage, it’s evident that inspiration is only superficial. Enemy designs and environments are a bit alike, but largely that’s where the similarity ends.
Unlike its predecessor which offered different firing formulation through a combination of trigger holds, Habroxia 2 adopts a much more accessible approach. Here, your guns are aimed with the right analog stick, offering a 360-degree offensive punch. Pleasingly, the game even provides an aiming indicator for assistance with far-flung enemies.
You’ll also enjoy two sets of selectable weapons mounted to the front of back of your ship, which are regulated by cooldown timers. Pick-ups dropped by defeated enemies and in destructible environmental blocks provide power for an auxiliary system that provides perks like a screen-filling laser or defensive shield. Finally, there’s a boosting, which is invaluable since you are invulnerable as you race right through obstructions and fields of enemy fire. Having multiple offensive options often makes you feel powerful which is essential since Habroxia 2’s difficulty isn’t too lenient.
Sure, if you’re a shooter veteran, you’ll probably sail right through several of the game’s branching succession of stages. Generously, Habroxia 2 is no ‘one hit and you’re dead’ shooter. You’re given a generous life bar and levels often contain heart icons that will refill the gauge. Additionally, you can spend credit collected in each stage to upgrade different aspects of your craft, augmenting everything from fire rate, shot spread, to the strength and duration of power-ups.
Another area where the game succeeds is enemy variety and behavior. Habroxia 2 strikes keen balance, offering enough variety to help make levels feel distinctive. Each foe has their own distinctive traits, with some racing by, taking an occasional potshot while others sail toward your ship with searing lasers. Naturally, success involves prioritizing your targets, often in an effect to reduce the amount of on-screen flak. But Habroxia 2 occasionally stumbles with its bosses. Some are recycled from the original game, which is a bit disappointing. But the bigger vexation is that many of these showdowns aren’t that exciting, with adversaries often exhibiting a single, predictable behavior.
Despite that blemish, Habroxia 2 gets a glowing recommendation for fans of retro shooters. Although the game evokes the feeling of playing classic titles, there’s more than enough distinction to ensure that Habroxia 2 doesn’t feel like a retread.
Project Starship X and Habroxia 2 were played on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 with code provided by the publisher