Arcade shooters have come a long way since the coin-op days, and I can’t think of two recent games that exemplify that fact more than Just Add Water’s Gravity Crash and the latest work of creative genius from Dylan Cuthbert’s Q-Games, PixelJunk Shooter. Both games came out on the PSN Store for PS3 over the holidays, both games strike an amazing balance of old and new concepts, both games fall from limbs of the same family tree yet are completely different from one another, and both games are friggin’ awesome to play! What more could you ask for?
Of the two, Gravity Crash is the one that most flatteringly pays homage to the fathers of the genre. Within this unassuming $10 shooter you can find conceptual fragments of classic arcade games like Asteroids, Lunar Lander, and Defender fused with the newfangled visual flair of Geometry Wars with its vibrant, neon-soaked HD vector graphics, retro-modern synth music and bleepy-bloopy sound effects.
Gravity Crash has you exploring over 30 planetary maps to collect gems and hidden artifacts, blast enemy ships and turrets, destroy enemy ground installations, and rescue downed ally crewmen until you’ve gathered and/or destroyed the main objective targets and a black hole appears to take you to the next level. While completing these objectives, you must simultaneously fight against each planet’s gravitational pull, learning how to efficiently pulse your ship’s thrusters to navigate tight, rigid corridors without slamming into walls or running out of fuel.
Contending with this dual threat leads to many tense moments as you kick your thrusters into full blast just in the nick of time to avoid crashing or evade an incoming missile, and even though the game pretty much shows its hand within the first few levels, it never ceases to entertain.
Depending on your preference of buttons vs. analog stick for shooting, multiple control schemes are available to choose from. However, like any arcade shooter the twin-stick method of steering with the left stick and aiming/shooting with the right stick offers the best combination of precision and fluidity.
For a PSN game, Gravity Crash is also stuffed with content, including the aforementioned 30+ single-player campaign levels, split-screen multiplayer modes for up to four players (online play is not supported unfortunately, though there are leaderboards if you want to compare scores), an unlockable bonus mini-game, and a neat level creator tool – the same level creator Just Add Water used to make the campaign stages — enabling players to build and share their own maps with others. That’s a butt-load of modes to play with for a downloadable game!
PixelJunk Shooter, on the other hand, is really more of a physics- and environment-based puzzle game in the guise of a twin-stick shooter. A thinking man’s arcade shooter, if you will.
The human race has turned to colonizing the planet Apoxus Prime for resources, but in doing so have awakened a mysterious extraterrestrial civilization deep beneath the planet’s surface. Guiding your subterranean exploration vehicle through the planet’s 15 cavernous stages – by yourself or with a friend in offline-only co-op — it is your duty to rescue as many trapped miners and scientists as you can, and then escape before it is too late.
The controls are handled similarly to a twin-stick shooter – steer with the left stick and aim with the right stick – and you do come across various critters that need dispatching (including a few massive bosses). However, in PixelJunk Shooter the pacing is a little more methodical compared to what is typically expected of the genre, and your real enemies here are the environments and the elements they contain.
At the heart of PixelJunk Shooter is a dynamic fluid / physics system. As you explore the dark depths of Apoxus Prime on your rescue mission, you’ll come across loose dirt barriers, walls of ice, plumes of deadly gas, and pools of lava, water and a strange black, magnetic goo, and the trick to achieving success is figuring out how to manipulate these different elements to dig out survivors without getting them killed and make it through each map without getting yourself killed. Easier said than done!
PixelJunk Shooter’s greatest achievement is the sense of fear and discovery it manages to stir up inside you as you play. Opposed to far too many games these days that hold your hand through every single gameplay mechanic, this game purposefully avoids teaching you anything about how elements react with one another and what your ship is capable of – it’s up to you to cautiously experiment with each new substance and ship power-up suit you come across in order to ascertain how to best manipulate the surrounding environment to your advantage.
PixelJunk Shooter may be short in length, but in this game’s 15 brief levels I’ve experienced more of those special “Aha!” moments that used to define classic games than in many recent full-length, full-price productions. The level designs truly are that inventive, and the game’s flash-style, pastel graphics and dynamic, moody soundtrack only enhance this gameplay creativity with a healthy dose of quirky charm.
Simply put, Gravity Crash and PixelJunk Shooter are two of the brightest stars yet to be released on the PSN Store, and at only $9.99 apiece – Gravity Crash has actually been on sale for $4.99 over the past week and if you hurry you may still be able to grab it at that price before the sale ends today – they are must-haves for your PS3’s digital download library. PSP gamers also need to be on the lookout. Just Add Water is working on a full PSP port of Gravity Crash, and while a similar PixelJunk Shooter port has yet to be announced (make it happen Q-Games!), the game does support remote play, so if you own both systems you can enjoy it on the big screen at home or take it with you on the road.