Monday, 7 April 2014

...I Chose To End In Song.

Full disclosure: In fourteen-plus hours of play I haven’t completed close to every challenge in Luftrausers, nor have I gotten the final round of unlocks. In spite of the grevious rust on my arcade skills and that unsettling new noise my PS3 is starting to make, I did manage to reach the maximum experience level, unlock all of the 'core' parts and (most crucially) complete the Reverse Noah, killing at least two of every enemy. So while this isn’t a completely comprehensive review, it’s as close as I’m going to get to “finishing” Luftrausers while it’s still remotely current. I also don’t have any screenshots, as I bought the PS3 edition – the only version I'm actually equipped to run – and don’t have a means of taking captures. I’ll be making do with MAME caps of its most evident ancestors and a staggeringly awkward and nerdy parody of a MIDI approximation of a rock-and-roll cover of a public domain folk song, if you want to stop reading now.
Three aspects of Luftrausers piqued my interest from the very beginning:
First, the initial resemblance to Time Pilot and Choplifter, two of the titles that helped define my early gaming experience. These games helped me to develop the Zen that allows one to accept constantly, frustratingly, unfairly dying in a tiny pretend aircraft without giving in to anger and destroying expensive electronics – and this proved to be a valuable trait indeed when playing Luftrausers.
Second, the Vlambeer and Devolver brands. I’ve come to associate both of these with brain-eating outings that extract surprisingly deep gameplay from very simple mechanics. This is the team-up my more misanthropic side is curious to see take on a real life Polybius (although some copyright troll is likely sitting on the name) - though, as I’ve mentioned before, Devolver-published Hotline:Miami might already have been it.
Finally, it was less than ten bucks on PS Plus, but wasn’t painfully artistique and looked more robust than a port of some sucky mobile game or yet more tower defense (full disclosure continues).
Oh, it starts out sort of like Time Pilot
At its core, Luftrausers does operate – and feel – much like Time Pilot (although with heavy gravity and an Asteroids-like thrust mechanic). As a plane that turns via rotation rather than on its axis, you fly through a free-scrolling environment shooting down “small” enemies chained as quickly as possible until a “big” enemy appears. Tension is maintained with constant opportunities to push things just slightly too far, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and those opportunities do often prove irresistible.
In Time Pilot this usually involves trying to grab parachutists or challenge far too many fighters at once (to burn the 'shot down' counter) where retreat would be the much wiser path. In Luftrausers the situation tends to arise when trying to keep a score-multiplying combo going for just one more enemy, or refusing to pull back from a near-sunk battleship to heal despite being one hit from destruction.
But it feels more like Joust when you fall
While the basic gameplay remains the same throughout, the feel of Luftrausers changes dramatically with the first weapon unlock. Trading the generic Machine Gun for the Beam results in a strange, vaguely WarioWare-esque situation of fending off an incoming armada with what handles like a broadsword strapped to a turntable. Even a change as seemingly minor as swapping the Default body for the armoured Heavy radically changes the nature of engagement – being able to soak damage makes for a very different response to a bullet hell environment, but you can almost physically feel your Rauser struggling to ascend, to the point where I had to double-check if the controller was rumbling (no).
With the bullet spam of Raiden Fighters
The options only become more varied from there, from essentially playing as a torpedo when equipped with the Nuke body (smartbomb on death) and the Underwater engine (no damage from the bottom boundary), to gently bobbing about the sky blasting apart swarms of fighters from within with the self-explanatory Spread gun, Bomb body and Hover engine. Mercifully, the game’s progressive goals are keyed to individual parts rather than specific combinations, so you never find yourself stuck with one of the more…esoteric…loadouts for any duration. Even the ‘Random’ kit options (unlocked after collecting all the base parts) have goals for the option rather than its result, allowing you to redraw until you pull a viable setup. Of course, this will immediately be exploded, sticking you with the Homing Missiles and Booster engine again on respawn. After the first hundred games or so, I settled into the Warturtle (tank-suitable Heavy body, Underwater engine, and the cluster-firing Cannon) as my default build. Sacrificing dozens to experimentation, I developed the primary tactic of flying straight up to attract a combo-raising wing of fighters, turning suddenly at the cloud line, then diving down below the surface, finally breaching like a majestic manatee to shell ships’ decks. The Heavy body can survive a pass through a Battleship’s fire in each direction, and the Underwater engine turns what would be certain death into a respite from the worst of the barrage. Also, the Warturtle’s music lays down a funky robot-detective groove. This is only my example – the sheer range of options and potential tactics provides at least one ship for every preference (and a few that, I contend, no-one could possibly want, ever).
But it isn't much like Gorf at all!
Aside from the volume of objects onscreen, Luftrausers’ gameplay is surprisingly era-appropriate. It’s presentation, however, is much more anachronistic. Again like Hotline:Miami, it gives the impression of the age it emulates, while subtly incorporating technical feats not possible before recent hardware. This is not necessarily a negative, and ultimately defines a lot of the Luftrausers experience - it succeeds in capturing the spirit of the time and genre while applying modern sensibilities and sophistication to the rougher parts.
(theremin solo)
Luftrausers’ graphics are monotone - limited to a half-dozen colours per palette - and enemies are single-shade silhouettes, but it keeps track of dozens of them, along with their damage status, even when offscreen. On-screen, these masses are displayed along with their shots (which reach ridiculous quantities when Battleships are present), your shots, and particle effects representing damage and smoke. Even excluding the real-time reflection of all of the above when the water’s surface is visible, this “retro” experience would easily require more computing power than an entire arcade’s worth of actual 1982 games. For comparison, above is the Commodore 64 version of Choplifter already pushing the limits of the display (at least what could be done with it in 1982), and below is a moderately calm moment from the PS3 version of Luftrausers.
(extended theremin solo)
Compounding the confounding (but charming nonetheless), scenes are also punctuated with distinctly late-80s/early 90s talking heads. As was the style at the time, these are huge and lavishly detailed but with movement suspiciously limited to “mouth flap”, “hand flap” and “zoom”
The sound, like the graphics, presents a deceptive simplicity. Actual chiptunes begin to grate very quickly unless they’re exceptional. Fortunately, like the visuals, the sound in Luftrausers captures the essence of its inspiration but with thoroughly modern production.
The scene unfolds something like Choplifter
The composition is more modern than the retro tones of the instruments would suggest. Each possible ship has its own variation of the BGM, and the music soars from sparse to lush and triumphant as you push towards the two-minutes-alive mark (although it loops seconds after).  Enemies explode with a satisfying ‘POM’, and distinct tones alert you when the combo meter is at maximum or about to expire. Maddeningly, there is one tone that isn’t distinct – although it only becomes an issue using the Bomb engine. The sound of an enemy Fighter exploding is the same as that of a missed Bomb going off harmlessly. There’s a clear ‘chirp’ for each enemy killed on a full combo meter, but before that there’s no audible difference between a missed Bomb and a hit target. If you’re trying to count hits without a life-risking glance up at the counter, this can prove a nuisance. It’s an exceedingly minor gripe, but it did cost me a couple of runs at achievements that by all rights I should have had that play.

Set in Sinistar's free-scrolling space
Looking at the game as a whole, WarioWare comes to mind in another way. The volume of distinct ships creates a considerable amount of variety, but in the form of a hundred and fifty short variations on a simple theme. There are a lot of ways to play Luftrausers, but beyond the achievements and the fleeting desire to “master” the game, there’s only so much of Luftrausers to play.
Is Luftrausers an outstanding game for eight (or even ten) dollars? Absolutely. Would I spend more than one roll of quarters on it (in retrospect) given the opportunity? Without question. I count Luftrausers as more then my money’s worth, because even assuming the concession of three lives per game, I still played more than five times the game’s price in credits. Do I anticipate making a lot of return visits to it, or feel any particular compulsion to acquire absolutely everything? No.
With the stark hopelessness of Defender
After unlocking all of the base parts and defeating the ‘major’ enemies (the Blimp, Submarine and Laser Ace, arguably the Battleship), any further satisfaction from the experience comes down to, essentially, setting high scores. The Blimp is a boss fight worthy of any shoot-'em-up - bullet hell or otherwise - filling the screen with homing rockets and helix-twisting bullets while flying enemies swarm up from below. This in many ways marks the "end" of Luftrausers, at least for the less obsessive/talented player. There are as many different ways to fight this one indisputably 'boss' enemy as there are part combinations, but it will always fight you the same way. Killing more boats and planes with more restrictive (or random) ship loadouts and victory conditions grants you the opportunity to apply your newly honed skills…by killing more boats and planes with more restrictive (or random) ship loadouts and victory conditions.  The goals themselves are varied enough, and offer a range of skill and bounty-based challenges – although some of them are matters of sheer attrition, particularly the ‘kill X total enemies’ targets. Until I reached my personal arbitrary point of “unfair”, this did serve as motiviation enough to keep playing. At that point, Luftrausers joined fellow arcade throwbacks Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World as an entertaining pick-up-and-play title I’ll likely revisit every few months, but not devote any significant further time to.
And with Cobra Command's big grey faaace!

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