So when the Steam store-front dutifully recommended Super Galaxy Squadron who was I to refuse? First impressions were promising. The chunky, plasticky pixel art enemies call to mind the 90s output of genre master-developers Cave, as well as childhood memories of playing with Transformers (or cheap knock-offs…). Vast, cosmic scenery scrolls by with aching slowness reminiscent of the venerable Star Soldier series and the trick of framing frantic action against such tranquil backdrops remains effective all these years on. Then there’s the explosions – great, lurid bursts of orange and yellow accompanied by deliciously crunchy sound effects that border on white noise and punctuate a suitably catchy soundtrack of chip tunes and power metal guitar solos. Clearly Psyche Studios have done their shmup homework.
Controls are tight and the 14 selectable craft, each with their own firing patterns and unique special attacks, add a welcome dash of variety. Showers of bonus items jettisoned from destroyed enemies that require deft manoeuvring to hoover up and a rudimentary combo system bring a simplistic tactical layer to the chaos. It’s testament to the developers’ art chops that even at it’s most chaotic the swathes of firepower, enemy ships and bonus items never blur into each other. Most importantly it just feels good to blow stuff up.
There’s considerable talent on display here which makes what I have to say next all the more frustrating and baffling. Super Galaxy Squadron suffers from game breaking balance issues at the most basic level. I’m no shmup ninja but armed with little more than a healthy appreciation of the genre I cleared normal mode without dying on my first play through. An overly generous damage gauge and plentiful health pickups completely rob the game of challenge. Switching to hardcore mode lurches to the opposite extreme, a single hit sending you back to the start of the level. It’s admittedly thrilling at first knowing the tiniest mistake will cost you everything but this soon wears off. The end result is painfully exacting rather than challenging, especially as enemy formations and bullet patterns remain identical to normal mode.
There is some consolation in the form of an “endless” mode, playable on both normal and hardcore difficulties, which throws wave after wave of ships at you with increasing frequency until the entire screen is permanently awash with enemy firepower. It’s ridiculous, broken and hugely entertaining.
[Edit: Updated after feedback showing author made mistake with regards to leaderboards]
Balance issues aside there’s also a general lack of polish – online leader boards hidden away in the Steam overlay, clunky menus and the fact that you can activate your special attack even after your ship has been destroyed all show a general lack of care. Again, confusing in a game that does so much right with such panache and I hope Psyche Studios make good on the promise shown here in future games.
As a snack between more refined shooters or an easy way into the genre for newcomers and rusty veterans, Super Galaxy Squadron is a lightweight, flawed but still enjoyable game. Players looking for something deeper should look elsewhere.