Developers: Bare Knuckle Dev
Players: 1-2 local co-op and competitive play
Platforms: PS4, Steam, Switch (Switch edition reviewed)
Note: This product was received for free for the purpose of review
A Modern Day Pew-Pew-Pew
Super Mega Space Blaster: Special Turbo (SMSB: ST) from small two-person developer Bare Knuckle Dev may sound like a fictional title you’d see on something like Regular Show, but it is very much a real game. Drawing inspiration from familiar arcade shoot ’em classics like Asteroids and Defender, SMSB: ST is a twin-stick shooter that has a surprising amount of content for a rather small chunk of change. Is this content worth the price of admission, or is it set on a collision course with boredom?
A Kick in the Asteroids
SMSB: ST contains five different game modes, all of which can be enjoyed solo or with a buddy in either co-op or versus format, as well as fifteen different un-lockable ships to add a little feeling of progression. Oddly, the first few ships that are available don’t feature the rotating turret functionality, meaning for the first few sessions you’ll only be using one stick in this twin-stick shooter. Not a huge problem as you’ll be gaining access to the ships that do in a hurry but did feel like an odd choice and I never had the urge to use those ships once I started unlocking new ones.
The overall look of Space Blaster winds up being a bit of a mixed bag. The various ships you unlock all look vastly different from one another (on top of performing and handling completely differently,) enemies and asteroids explode into a satisfying array of tiny red pixels, and the small astronauts you’ll save in certain modes are absolutely adorable, but the overall aesthetic has the feel of a game you might see in the app store. It’s a very workmanlike design choice; it gets the job done but is far from eye-catching, and I think many will pass it over without a second glance. A more stylistic art style may have served the game better to garner some eyeballs to in when it hit’s the storefront.
Whatever mode you play, the music track highlighting the action is pretty great. Starting out slow before ramping up in a nice synth-style musical score, perfectly matching the frantic action on the screen. The explosion effects sound combined with the HD rumble of the Switch Joy-Cons felt really great, making shooting down enemies just a tad more satisfying. Strangely the sound of gunfire coming from your ship is so quiet it never stopped striking me as odd. It was so quiet in fact the first time booting the game up I wasn’t even sure your canons had any kind of sound effect at all. While a small issue it makes your starfighter feel much weaker than it really should.
Controlling your starship is very tight and responsive, though it may take a couple of rounds to get used to. Many ships are constantly moving and have a turning radius that you’ll have to become accustomed to in a hurry if you want to nab a high score on the leader boards. Hitting the Left and Right bumpers slow and speeds your ship up respectively but are booth tied to a meter that when filled goes into a cool down and will lock out your speed controls for a short time. Mastering your ship’s speed is essential as the most likely cause of death in SMSB: ST is usually crashing into other objects, something we’ll discuss in a later section.
As stated earlier the game contains five different game modes and your mileage will vary wildly from one to another.
• “Protect Mother” tasks players with protecting a giant mother ship that sits static at the bottom of the screen by shooting down space rocks and other enemies that intend to harm it.
• “Survival” throws players into a single screen with a malfunctioning weapons system that is constantly firing away, draining the player’s precious ammo reserves. In order to survive, you must shoot down enemies and collect ammo drops, lest your ammo fully depletes leaving you helpless against the onslaught.
• “Save the Colony” finds you among the remains of a destroyed space station. Your job is to rescue the survivors by collecting them in your ship Defender style and depositing them into a warp gate at the bottom of the screen. Rescue enough and you’ll eventually take on a giant boss who isn’t too happy with your efforts.
• The last two modes, “One Shot” and “To the Death” are the game’s competitive affairs. One-Shot plays were similar to the Atari 2600 classic Combat where each player tried to shoot down the other with a single bullet. To the Death, on the other hand, plays like a shoot ’em up version of Tetris Attack! The screen is split down the middle, and each player protects their own mother ship on their side of the screen. By racking up bigger and bigger combos they can unleash a barrage of enemies on their opponent, hopefully destroying their opponent’s mother ship, if it doesn’t destroy the opponent yourself first.
Of these I found myself returning to Save the Colony most often. Having an overall objective, to face the boss at the end, gave me a tangible goal to work towards other than just grabbing a spot on the leader board. I found myself drawn to play this mode, again and again, trying to save more of the cute little astronauts, and get closer to the final showdown with the big bad. Most importantly it was the only single-player mode that did away with maybe my biggest gripe in the game, the deadly edge of your own TV screen.
Unlike many shoot ’em ups that simply warp the player from one side of the screen to the other, both the Protect Mother and Survival modes confine the player to the middle of the screen. If you ever touch the invisible boundary just outside the TV or Switch screen the players immediately die and have to start all over again. It gives these modes a very claustrophobic feeling to the action at hand. A knife fight in a phone booth might be an apt statement. I found myself constantly being forced to perform figure-eights in the middle of the screen, not wanting to come anywhere near the invisible goblins that surely lay just outside the bounds of my monitor, waiting to pounce and cause me more aggravation than I can fit in the body of a single review.
Another odd design choice is the limited ammo system. Outside Survival and One Shot mode, this system didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. You’ll almost never find yourself wanting for ammo outside of these modes, and it leads to another frustration, this one in the form of screen clutter. Every enemy you destroy unleashes a flood of ammo drops that quickly cover the screen which can very easily mask incoming enemy fire or small space rocks that like to camouflage themselves in with the small casings. This combined with the deadly screen boundary makes for an experience that can feel downright unfair at the worst of times. Playing co-op helps alleviate this somewhat, as the dead player has a chance to re-spawn if their partner survives long enough, but that’s little consolation to any solo players out there.
The competitive modes have their own issues entirely, and we found ourselves dropping them rather quickly. One-Shot often ends with one opponent simply crashing into one of any number of obstacles that dot its various maps, or even with both combatants simply smashing into each other, resulting in kissing your cousin style draw. With a bit of practice, I believe there could be some fun to be had here, but I’m not sure how many will stick around to find it. To the Death, on the other hand, acts as a competitive form of Protect Mother, but gives you just half the screen to operate in, taking the claustrophobia levels from phone booth sized to a cramped coffin level.
Whatever mode you find to your liking SMSB: ST contains a good variety of power-ups such as shields that can help reduce some of the frustration mentioned earlier, a mirror shot that allows you to start firing hot lead from your tailpipe, and a laser power-up that acts as essentially a lightsaber for your ship, decimating anything in its path. These combined with the wide variety of ships means players will certainly find a set up that works best for them, and it can be quite fun experimenting around. For a budget title, there’s quite a lot to tinker around within your attempts to find a set up that works best for you.
The “Not Bad” Starfighter
While Super Mega Space Blaster: Special Turbo has it’s own fair share of frustrations, for five dollars it’s not that big of a gamble. Even if you only end up liking one of the five gameplay modes, it can be a satisfying pick up and play experience for short bursts, making it perfectly suited for the Switch and its portability. The game hums much better in co-op, as opposed to the “start and stop” feeling that accompanies the solo play.
Some questionable design decisions are what holds it back the most. From the instadeath screen boundary to the screen clutter it can be a little testing on one’s patience at times. If you’re a fan of shmups and have five dollars burning a hole in your pocket you could do much worse than Space Blaster, just be prepared to travel through some asteroid fields along the way.
Final Score: 6/10
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AKA “The Board Game Mole”
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