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iOS Shooter Index

All the shmups, all the time

by Burkhart von Klitzing

MiniSquadron Special Edition - iOS, Android, PSP (2010)

This section kicks off with one of the rare free-roaming shooters, where you are viewing your craft from the side, instead of from a bird's view. In eight stages you're piloting a brave little plane (or chopper...or a piece of alien hovering technology) through empty battle fields, wiping out twelve waves of similarly sized foes to not only aim for a new high score, but also hopefully receive a couple of new crafts for yourself to use. Every enemy you encounter is playable once you have defeated it at least once, and since some waves are randomly set up, this stimulates the same brain region as the Pokémon series and its “Gotta catch 'em all" motto do.

There are dozens of crafts with specific stats and weapons available. Some fly fast, while others make up for their lack of speed with sturdier armor. One of the most important defining features of every vehicle meanwhile is its weaponry. A machine gun for example benefits from a high rate of fire, whereas a rocket launcher is slower, yet packs more of a punch when it hits. Then there are different missiles flying at an arc, which lends themselves for clever use against enemies below you, fireballs, bombs, double and triple cannons, and more.

Another important difference between the crafts is the “turning rate", which determines how quickly they can turn around to face the opposite direction. Compared to top-down shooters such as Geometry Wars, MiniSquadron puts considerably more emphasis on physics. Most planes have to fly a rather large circle for turning, which makes for intense battles as you can't just head straight for the next target and be done with it. Every pilot has more or less the same chance of getting behind his opponent, and shaking a fiend off of your tail can prove just as much fun. It is actually a lot like Star Fox 64's multiplayer battles, just in 2D. Choppers and a couple of futuristic aircrafts meanwhile turn around instantly. This in turn means that they only shoot horizontally as opposed to planes, which fire in whatever direction their nose is pointing when diving or rising. Flying down also increases your speed, and touching the upper boundary of the playing field sends your plane plummeting down until you steer it back on track...or crash into the ground.

The already varied and intense dog fights are further mixed up by regularly appearing bonus stars and hearts falling down. While the latter grant an additional life and wildly zoom around the playing field, the stars merely float straight down and activate one of many different special effects, such as freezing your enemies for some time, drastically increasing your rate of fire and launching a devastating air strike. Bad news about all of these goodies, though, is that any pilot including the enemies can grab them, but luckily the clever radar system marks both foes and items for a better overview.

Scoring involves a multiplier increasing with each consecutive kill without getting hit even once yourself in-between. Apart from that, every stage features some kind of non-aggressive creature flying left and right, that also grants some points when being shot.

These creatures fit the theme of the current stage, like flying Kung Fu monks in China (is it just me or do they look like a guy in Yie Ar Kung Fu?) or cute cats in candy land. The settings are generally outlandish and varied, with beautifully drawn, yet non-animated backgrounds full of neat little details. Musically, MiniSquadron also does an admirable job by using numerous famous pieces of classic music from revered composers Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaichovsky among others.

MiniSquadron Special Edition

MiniSquadron Special Edition

MiniSquadron Special Edition


MiniSquadron - iOS, Palm, Android (2009)

MiniSquadron Special Edition actually is the second (and final, so far) entry in a short-lived series, building on the original MiniSquadron. The differences are rather marginal, so both games are of about the same quality, with your personal preference mostly depending on your appreciation for the sequel's crazier settings, as the original game only takes you across forests, islands, and similarly standard landscapes.

The first MiniSquadron already had dozens of planes, 96 waves in eight stages, the same physics, the classic music and simply all of the fun the sequel also has. What it doesn't have, though, are the fireball weapon, two of the temporary special abilities (the rapid fire and the freezer) and any helicopters or other hovering vehicles. So, again, both are absolutely worthwhile and fairly unique, and if you have to decide for either, perhaps the second one's a tad bit better for having that additional layer of variety due to the helicopters, but if a realistic setting is more important to you, then the original game is a great choice as well.

MiniSquadron


Space Miner Blast - iOS (2010)

Space Miner Blast is essentially an arcadey version of Space Miner: Space Ore Bust which in turn is an extremely simplified 2D space exploration adventure type game akin to Elite, Privateer and X. Instead of travelling through various sectors, completing missions and finding upgrades, the player is tasked with destroying all asteroids around him to advance to the next wave which pits him against a new slew of asteroids as well as other enemies. Space Miner Blast seems similar to dual-stick shooters at first and in fact I was really tempted to put it into that section. However, this didn't happen, simply because there is no second (virtual) stick, hence no dual-stick controls. Instead, Venan opted for the classic Asteroids control scheme where the stick only aligns the ship, whereas an acceleration button makes it pick up speed in whatever direction it is currently pointing at. This is extremely alienating at first, especially with the need to also hit another button to shoot and yet one more for smart bombs, but eventually it grows on the player and actually allows for some swift manoeuvers and simply gives the game a refreshingly different feel compared to most other shooters.

All waves take place amidst the same bland scenery, with only bland, dark asteroids floating around at the beginning. The more you progress, the more variety comes in, thankfully, as different colored asteroids begin appearing as well as hostile UFOs, mines, fire balls, ice boulders and indestructable metal spheres that reflect any shots. Especially at the beginning of a wave the playing field can be utterly cramped with hazards and UFOs tend to aim pretty precisely, so it's nice to have an appropriate counter-measure for all the perils at hand. Destroying a small asteroid (bigger ones first collapse into smaller ones) often reveals a piece of ore that can be collected via an automatic tractor beam. Doing so not only provides a small amount of cash but also activates a combo meter. As long as you keep picking up new ore while the meter is still running, the meter keeps running and ore gets worth more money, which serves as experience. Level-ups allow for an upgrade in one of three categories inbetween stages. The blasters are upgraded from a single shot over a dual shot to triple shot after which the damage dealt can still be further upgraded, Shields provide more maximum health and the better your ore collecting abilities, the more is every piece of ore worth and the longer will the combo meter last.

This level-up system makes it nigh mandatory to efficiently hunt down ore in little time, resulting in some frustrating situations, but ultimately it mostly serves to keep the game from getting stale and to place a good amount of tension on the player. The various hazards ask for different approaches with mines trying to home in on you, ice asteroids shattering into dangerous shards that fly off in all directions and UFOs that prove to be just as dangerous as some governments would want us to believe. Unfortunately, the controls aren't always the perfect match for a game that theoretically requires such quick reactions unlike Asteroids, so luckily you can carry up to three screen clearing smart bombs with you and destroyed UFOs sometimes leave behind a powerup like new smart bombs or an incredibly shield turning you temporarily invincible. Still, after about fifteen waves the game decides to flip the madness switch (or Sparta switch, if you will) and makes it extremely difficult to further advance without perfect understanding of the controls and wise upgrading.

That is unless you decide to purchase a new and improved ship in this otherwise free game, which also instantly deactivates the title screen ads and the admittedly short waiting times inbetween waves. Space Miner Blast is well worth a shot for basically being free of charge. On another note: The ship regains health automatically by not getting hit for a certain amount of time, just like in what Halo might have made popular nowadays, but UN Squadron already had long before. Any shooter taking a note from UN Squadron couldn't possibly be half bad.

Space Miner Blast

Space Miner Blast

Space Miner Blast


Space Junk - iOS (2011)

The App Store is home to many clones of the classic Asteroids, with the vast majority being eitehr terribly bad or just about bearable. Space Junk is the commendable exception to this rule, providing slick and polished gameplay and design, while never trying anything particularly original. Still, the care that went into its development (as well as it sticking to many conventions) already becomes apparent as soon as the short intro flickers across the screen, showing a Space Junk cartridge as it magically inserts itself into a console obviously inspired by the Vectrex, standing on top of a bed in some child's room.

The Vectrex isn't confined to a small cameo, however, as the in-game visuals are modeled after the classic console's unique style, building all objects of brightly lit vector lines, omitting standard sprites and fully colored surfaces. The cute little jetpack-wearing astronaut serving as your player avatar and all destructible objects thus have an uncommon 3D-ish look to them, thanks to not only their front being visible, but all of their layers as well at all times, similar to this well-known drawing of a cube:

Unlike the original Vectrex, Space Junk shines in various colors and it features lots of distinctive backdrops, making it a thoroughly beautiful game. Music meanwhile is non-existant and the sound effects are mostly used to accentuate the action and to set a chilling “alone in space" atmosphere. A particular treat comes in the form of the various objects you are asked to destroy. Sure, you'll also get to blast the good old asteroids, but flying saucers, hubble telescopes (plural!), space stations, space shuttles, dogs (!) and more also await, each looking sharper than the last.

One aspect where many Asteroids-clones on the iPhone fail is the controls. It would appear that the control scheme using a stick for turning around and two buttons for shooting and thrusting, respectively, is particularly difficult to realize on the device, but Space Junk pulls it off effortlessly. All control elements are big enough and responsive enough for the player to always stay in control (Haha. Ha.) as big objects shatter into smaller ones upon being shot, eventually cluttering the playing field quite a bit. Combine this with score-increasing items and temporary weapon upgrades, currently 26 stages, three types of bonus stages (grab a myriad of items, dodge asteroids, or shoot down rockets as you stay immobile) and three difficulty settings, and you've got a wonderful little shooter, that carefully evolves a classic concept without truly taking it to another level, which you may like or not.

Space Junk

Space Junk


XPilot - Unix, IBM PC, Mac OS, iOS (1991 / 2009)

The iPhone has seen ports from a lot of different platforms. We've got Atari VCS games, laserdisc ports, 3DO games, but how many ports of games originating on university workstations can you name? I probably couldn't even name five games created on such computers, at all, but that's beside the point. XPilot was originally developed by just two students at the northernmost university of the world, located in Tromso, Norway, and has since been distributed as freeware on PCs and Macs and in 2009 it even received a port to i-devices.

XPilot has ever since its initial creation been a keen experiment and it has remained an original game unlike anything else out there till this day and age. Shoot 'em ups have undergone a great development during the 90's and said decade also saw many a tinkering with the idea of multiplayer games that bring together more than the standard two or four people together. Multiplayer in shooters, however, has mostly been treated like the evil twin you'd hide in the basement, so XPilot's massively multiplayer approach to two-dimensional space ship action comes highly appreciated, especially given how well it works and how much liberties it grants to players. Servers are set up by fans and just about anything from map design to rulesets (bored of deathmatch? Try Capture the Flag) can be modified.

After choosing from one of the many available servers - empty player slots can be automatically filled up with bots - you are not immediately thrown into the action in most stages, as your craft starts out in a small alcove, serving as safe spawn zones. Once you've left this alcove through a narrow gap, you are all alone in a large world, searching for opponents to shoot, using the ever-present radar, which displays a red dot on the screen for every enemy. Scattered throughout the world you will also face environmental hazards such as wall-mounted turrets or proximity mines hovering in mid-air. Carefully using the physics (inertia and such play an important part) to safely navigate corridors and fly around corners is also essential to the game, although hitting walls will only bump you off like a pinball.

A single hit from the standard gun is enough to finish off anyone, and given how high a shot-frequency it has, any wrong move can prove fatal, making for fast and tense battles. Additional items can be picked up, floating around throughout the world as indiscernible blue triangles. Some offer immediate aid, powering up your main weapon to a spread shot, while others need to be activated from a menu and come in highly limited quantities. Offensive gadgets include a lock-on function, heat-seeking missiles, remote mines and more. More defensive items include a rarely needed refill for the fuel tank, different shields, a cloaking device, and such.

Visually, XPilot hasn't aged very gracefully, there is no music playing, and the sound effects are rather simple, but you shouldn't let that detract you from enjoying it. The technical shortcomings should rather be seen in their historical context and as such, other elements like the different map designs and servers for dozens of players playing simultaneously are an amazing feat. XPilot also was the first online game to allow for in-game chatting and this function is still intact. Despite all technological advancements, communication amongst iPhone players is available in very few games, so in a way, XPilot is still ahead of its competition. And it's only 1.8 MB in size and entirely free, so what more could you ask for?

Maybe for better controls. Accessing the item menus isn't too bad once you get used to it. Swiping up on the shot button towards the one o'clock position opens up the weapons menu and swiping to the two o'clock position does the same for the defensive item menu. Steering, though, is done in much the same way as in a bunch of sub-par Asteroids clones on the iPhone: Touching the screen anywhere makes a steering circle appear below your finger. Swiping now turns around your ship and the further away from the circle's center you move your finger, the stronger your thrusters. Properly aiming your gun and keeping your ship under control, rather than send it flailing about, requires a considerable amount of practice, but unlike the aforementioned Asteroids clones, it's well worth it, because of how nicely all features come together and simply because you know that you're not the only one struggling.

XPilot

XPilot


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iOS Shooter Index

All the shmups, all the time

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