Ace Armstrong vs. The Alien Scumbags Review – Only the Hardcore Need Apply
I grew up during the dawn of the video game era, so much of my youth was spent in video arcades playing video games. Among my favorite sort were the side scrolling shooters of the day: Scramble, Super Cobra, Vanguard, Moon Patrol, Looping, and Cosmic Avenger.
Most of these games were fairly difficult, but some were difficult with a purpose – to keep you plugging in quarters to continue your game where you left off once you ran out of lives. The average player (like me) would sink a couple of dollars into the game before getting tired. But some players were actually good enough not to die constantly, so games evolved and became harder and harder, thus giving birth to the “SHMUP” (or “shoot ‘em up”) where normal people don’t have a chance in bullet hell.
Ace Armstrong vs the Alien Scumbags, the latest Mini from Laughing Jackal, seemingly aims for a classic feel with retro themed graphics (though really, more Mars Attacks! inspired), but is very much a “SHMUP” where casual players need not apply. I must confess, I haven’t always finished every game I’ve reviewed here (though I do play them for several hours), but this is the first time I couldn’t finish even the first level. Heck, I couldn’t even make it to the boss battle at the end of the first level.
From the moment you start playing, you are beset by dangers on all sides. On the bottom, you can crash into objects on the terrain and have to deal with enemies shooting upward. On the top you have large fixed UFOs that are usually present. So you are severely constricted as to where you can go.
This isn’t helped by your ship being rather on the large side (or at least tall) and being somewhat sluggish. Though this mostly seems to be with the analog nub, the d-pad is somewhat more responsive. Some of the deaths seem a bit cheap, too. When you die, your new ship is given a limited amount of invulnerability, but this doesn’t help when you’re set amongst a mob of enemies.
The innovation in the game is the “Recyclotron”. This actually isn’t explained very well in the game, at first I thought you used it to suck up the stuff enemies shot at you, but instead you suck up (by holding down the O button) colored clouds that are created by destroying enemies. When it’s full you can tap O to shoot the enemies with that instead of your regular cannon. In practice, it’s not so innovative, it’s just a variation on picking up a powerup. Just the mechanics are different and honestly, not in a good way. It takes a long time to do and adds a distraction.
Apparently, you can use the Recyclotron and shoot your normal cannon at the same time (note in either case, there is no autofire), but trying to press both the X and O buttons at the same time is uncomfortable. Mapping the Recyclotron to the shoulder buttons would have made this much more manageable. Giving the player the ability to change the controls would have been nicer.
Still, effective use of this really seems to be essential to the game. In particular, the violet colored cloud gives you the ability to shoot three bullets at angles. This lets you take care of the nasty stuff shooting up at you from below (and seems to be your only attack against such enemies).
The graphics are cartoonish, but nice. There are several layers of scrolling, but they (at least the level I played) are static. The music is very atmospheric and fitting to the game, but the sound effects are rather basic.
Overall though the presentation values are quite sparse and don’t really live up to the elaborate name (or price) of the game. There’s no opening cinematic or anything, not even a voice over. Just a title screen. When you start the game you get a little two-panel comic when you load the first level (maybe every level, I can’t say). Given the fantastic art style, I was more than a little disappointed by this. Especially since similarly priced Minis like Young Thor or Freekscape or even Monsters (Probably) Stole My Princess do have pretty decent cinematics to set the mood.
While this isn’t really a comparison review, it’s hard not to compare it with The Flying Hamster which came out at the same time, albeit in different regions. That game, while being somewhat higher priced, manages to appeal to both casual and hardcore fans. The normal mode in that is more akin to the old arcade games, where you die a lot but can keep on continuing (not to mention, start at any stage you’ve beaten). But the hard mode is well, harder, though still easier than this. I can actually finish the first level in that. And they went to the trouble of at least recoloring the graphics for hard mode, so it’s a somewhat different experience.
Similarly, I am reminded of one of the old arcade games brought to Minis by G1M2, Express Raider. That was a very hard game. So what did G1M2? Give you the option to play with infinite credits as well as save a game in progress.
This game does have different difficulty levels, but this apparently just changes how many shots it takes to kill the enemies and the number of lives you start with as well as separating the high score tables. That seems like an overly simple way of adjusting difficulty.
While I do think there is a solid game in here, as it is now, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you are really into hardcore “SHMUP”s or perhaps are a masochist. If you are one of those, well then, bump up the score a couple of points.
But even then, the game is lacking when it comes to options (like setting the controls to something less awkward), and production values (given the high-ish price, even when the price drop is factored in). It also has surprisingly long loading times – almost 15 seconds from the menu to the first level and then about eight or nine to go back to the menu once it’s over. Which gets old after playing for only a minute or two.