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Published by Charcoal Styles
Price $9.99
Primary Genre Secondary Genre

Before I even had a chance to test this week’s review game I had to spend the best part of 40 minutes preparing my PC to be able to run SHMUP. It requires an installation of Microsoft XNA Game Studio 3.1, which in turn (on my machine) needed to have Microsoft Visual Studio 2008 installed as well. Whether it was a slow download speed on my normally reasonable DSL connection or perhaps just a tedious updating of system files and such, I have no idea. Both of these are free downloads available from the Microsoft website, and thankfully the game’s installer package does link the download location to the user quite early on in the piece. But players that are not very comfortable with installing Windows components may well be put off by the rigmarole needed just to get the game to work. If I hadn’t been reviewing the game, I certainly would have given up long before I did. Surely there must be a better way to do things?

Using homing missiles to attack a shielded enemy. Close up of player's ships and enemies.

Once I had the game installed (and after a short break to compose myself) I found SHMUP to be a likable yet somewhat unremarkable side-scrolling shooter that will probably attract more of a casual audience than hardcore shooter fans.

The first aspect of the game to strike me was the simple, abstract presentation. The graphics and effects are attractive without being beautiful, the models are simple geometric shapes, the backgrounds are featureless and bland and the absence of any kind of narrative or plot left me feeling a bit empty. The player’s ship simply moves through a constant horizontally scrolling world. Enemies approach from the right of the screen and it is the player’s one and only duty in the game to stop them from damaging and ultimately destroying sections of a wall on the far left extremity of the playfield. If the wall is penetrated the player loses.

The melee ensues. Now that's one big boss enemy!

By using mouse movement, the player actually controls a small cursor which their ships will follow. At first this seemed a little awkward, but after a while the imprecise nature of the control actually began to feel quite intuitive and relaxing. A stream of bullets constantly erupt from the player’s ships and fly to the right, obliterating any enemies directly in front. The mouse buttons control a burst of missile fire that is quite devastating and very useful against shielded enemies, or packs of tough enemies flying in tight formation. The missiles are guided, but are unable to be directly controlled by the player once in flight. They tend to seek out and attack the closest enemies to the player.

There are 3 flavours of pickups that randomly appear from destroyed enemies. Red disks slow down the gameworld with the exception of the player, allowing a chance to dodge out of an otherwise dangerous situation, or pummel a tough target with concentrated fire. Blue disks heal damage done to the player’s ships while green disks replenish supply of the homing missile cache.

At the end of each round, the player has to face a daunting boss character. These all have a heart or nerve centre that needs to be destroyed for the battle to conclude. There are often interesting choices to be made as to whether a full frontal assault, chipping away at the sides, or a sneaky manoeuvre around to the rear is the best option. Of course, since the bullets from the player’s ship only fly to the right, attacking from the side or rear needs a good supply of missile ammo. Bosses don’t drop powerups, so a conservative approach to attacking the minions at the start of the round will pay off here.

One of the most interesting features of the game is the shop that can be used between rounds and after games, and allows purchasing of combat upgrades to the player. Earned points are the currency here. Without any upgrades, the difficulty level at about round 3 or 4 can make progress quite hard. Upgrades carry over between games, and going back and obliterating earlier rounds that might have seemed tough on the first play through gives a satisfying feeling of progression and adds a little to the longevity of the game. For example, some upgrades can increase the number of ships in your swarm, increase missile damage, toughen the wall, and make powerups more numerous. With just 15 standard rounds and a handful of challenge levels, there’s not a massive amount of content here. Upgrades will eventually max out, and the only challenge after that is to up the spawn speed of enemies to match the devastation that you increasingly deliver. In any case I managed to beat all standard levels with a 3.5x spawn rate modifier and all of the stock challenge levels within a couple of hours. I like achievement systems in games like this. Users of Steam will be instantly familiar with the concept; they just award the player a recognition of hitting certain milestones in gameplay. Kill 100 enemies, spend 10,000 points in the shop, drill 500 enemies with homing missiles - that kind of stuff. SHMUP has a lot of these!

I’d like to see a bit more eye candy; the backgrounds are just dull, and more explosive effects would be warmly received. The slowdown powerup actually decolourises the gamefield into a type of sepia making it even more featureless. The missiles shot by the player and those of the enemies are the same shape and colour, making it very difficult to know in a big firefight (where homing missiles are doubling back on each other) what you’re supposed to be avoiding. Obviously more content would also be welcomed. Randomly generated levels might be a good option here, I’m not sure, but as it stands the game is certainly maxed out and over far too quickly.

SHMUP is a good, casual shooter. There are a couple of novel concepts here, and a good bit of play spread over a few hours. The way that the player can tailor the difficulty level (by way of the enemy spawn speed multiplier) on each individual round is great, and there’s sure to be a sweet spot for gamers of all skill levels. Nothing extraordinary, but solid and fun to play.

Graphics 67%
Sound 74%
Playability 86%
Longevity 35%
Overall Score 71%
Bronze Star

Published on 19 Feb 2010
Reviewed by Steve Blanch

Keywords: s.h.m.u.p review, charcoal styles reviews, charcoal styles games, s.h.m.u.p scores, pc game reviews, indie game reviews, independent gaming.