The Switch might be one of the younger pieces of dedicated hardware, but Nintendo’s hybrid already has a rich software library. For shoot ‘em up fans, the system has a several compelling offerings, with Ikaruga, Sine Mora EX, Gunbird, and Danmaku Unlimited 3 illuminating touchscreens and televisions with showers of enemy bullets. Hoping to enter this pantheon of projectile-dodging delights is Artax Games’ Iro Hero, a vertical scrolling shooter intended to test to abilities of the genre’s most experienced fans.
Although the title contains some Japanese (“iro” means “color”) and borrows the polarity-switching mechanic from Treasure’s beloved STG, Artax is based in Madrid, Spain. But with anime-styled character portraits and backdrops drenched in neo-futurism, Iro’s inspiration is undoubtedly Japanese. Even the game’s rainbow-gradient logo seems culled from an era when Konami was a publisher worth caring about. But mimicking the elegance of top Japan’s premier shooters is no easy task, and all too frequently Iro Hero falters in its attempt at homage.
Narratives are often superfluous in shoot ‘em ups, but at least Iro makes a valiant attempt. The impetus behind the action occurs when aliens bestow humans with the ability to harness electricity from their bodies. But as anyone who has seen The Matrix probably knows, the practice is ripe for exploitation. Soon, humanity becomes little more than a large collection of li-ion batteries, with hope arriving in the form of young man conveniently named Iro. Because he can swap the polarity of his inner energy, he commanders the opposition. Hoping to liberate society from the obligation of being bipedal power banks, he takes to the skies above, whittling away the enemy’s numbers.
Sure, the game’s still images look a bit amateurish, but it’s the storytelling during stages that really falters. On both sides of the playfield, character portraits exchange dialog. Unfortunately, it’s unvoiced so you’ll need to read the smallish fonts while you’re navigating through formations of foes. Given the difficulty of Iro Hero, it’s a near-impossible undertaking to do both, forcing you to forgo the conversations. Ideally, the game should have followed Sine Mora’s lead, offering exposition in between action sequences.
If the actual gameplay was top-notch, this problem might be forgiven, but the game’s nine stages contain their own set of issues. Like Ikaruga, the game requires players to switch colors, with red and blue replacing the monochromic states of Treasure’s title. Similarly, you can absorb like-colored shots while your own offensive output must be the opposite color. But where the famed shooter opted for a frantic pace, Iro Hero scrolls rather leisurely. Oddly, the title manages shifts between being tedious and exceedingly taxing.
Iro’s early stages have quite a few obstacles that are easily navigated around, extending the length of the levels. When enemies do appear, the difficulty takes a sharp turn skyward, since formations are dense and collisions with the hordes of opponent craft are likely. Whereas Ikaruga’s gameplay was bolstered by an improvisational risk-reward system once you understood the basics of survival, Iro Hero’s opts for the integration of light puzzling aspects. When you initially discover elements like reflective surfaces and colored zones, the game feels appropriately nerve-wracking as you frantically try to understand each new wrinkle. But with each subsequent playthrough, memorization ushers you through these things.
Spontaneity is encouraged through the game’s combo system. Shooting at least four enemies in rapid succession makes an orb materialize on-screen and any additional kills fills the sphere. Stop destroying foes and the circle will plummet downward. But all too often, the orb will be in the middle of a formation of opponents, and it’s rarely worth risking one of your three fighters to nab it. End of levels offer the ability to purchase an additional ship if you’re willing to sacrifice a chunk of your score. Since you’ll have to restart the entire game when your fleet is destroyed, it’s an uncomplicated decision.
No matter if you select the campaign, arcade, or normal mode, you’ll probably be retreading the same territory. Artax Games favors old-school mastery, meaning you’ll replay stages until every enemy behavior and boss attack pattern are remembered. For some, that will be a deal breaker, and Iro Hero can feel more like work that fun. So, unless you’re a masochist when it comes to shoot ‘em ups, you’re better off with some of the Switch’s more tolerant shoot ‘em up titles.
Iro Hero was played on the Switch with review code provided by the publisher.