Blast Em! – PC
Developer: Xiotex Studios
Release Date (NA): January 22, 2014
Nerd Rating: 6.5 out of 10
Reviewed by Malefico
Blast Em! Is a step back in time, when games were simpler but still diverting. Largely the result of the programming skills of one man (everything but the music), Blast Em! is a good old-fashioned side-scrolling shooter that could have come straight out of the 8-bit graphics age… Well, maybe 16-bit.
Blast Em!’s concept and controls couldn’t be simpler. The mouse moves your ship, which fires automatically. Your goal is simply to survive the alien onslaught for as long as you can, picking up the gold coins they leave behind to increase your score. Coins are the only way to score in this game. Blast Em! owners can post their best scores online; a leaderboard tracks the ten best just like on the old arcade games.
With your ship superimposed on an undulating spacescape, you are quickly confronted by hostile aliens that look quite a bit like Dr. Who Daleks, or possibly Umgah drones from the old Star Control console games. At first, they merely fly by but quickly start launching energy balls at your ship. Then they start to get perkier, moving in programmed routes at varying paces to liven things up for the player. After that, asteroids start floating by. Shooting them leaves behind a silver coin, which scores five points rather than the one you get from ship coins. More mayhem is in store for the player as different enemy ships start to augment the front runners, each with their own style of movement and other variables to add to the action.
Scoring is equally simple. You get one point for each coin you pick up, with scoring multipliers that seem to be based on the interval between pickups. Points are deducted when you choose to run over power-ups that float along at intervals throughout the game. Blast Em! Uses a series of Steam achievements that are unlocked as the player reaches survival time and accumulated point goals.
Weapon power-ups are introduced rapidly, which is good since your screen is quickly filled with wandering enemy ships, their weapon blasts, and tumbling space rocks. Rapid fire, three-way fire, and others are available, again in classic arcade shooter style. The availability of power-ups seems to be linked to your current coin stockpile. The more coins you have to buy with, the more choices you have in power-ups that appear on the screen.
The player dies if he hits an enemy ship, energy ball or asteroid during a turn. Since you have only one life, the game restarts – although I noticed the longer you last, the more rapidly you’re thrown back into the crap conflagration.
Blast Em! is a small, uncomplicated program that will allow pretty much anyone to play without any graphics or gameplay hitches. The POS maintained high 50’s in FPS throughout, no matter how much traffic was on the screen. I expect even folks limited to integrated graphics, yes, even Intel could load and play without an issue.
The Bottom Line
Blast Em!, rated purely on the basis of mechanics, is an excellent piece of work. The controls are responsive, the scrolling smooth, and other details like object collision are spot-on, if inherently frustrating. In-game physics are equally well-done. The game does a good job of changing up enemy speed and flight patterns to keep the player guessing.
The graphics are actually appealing to me, again suggesting that I’m at the arcade as a young boy. Although the background is sharply defined and smooth, the ship models and space debris are both reminiscent of classic shooters. The juxtaposition of the two is almost jarring and I think the game would have looked better with a more primitive environment enveloping the action.
Animations are simple and repetitive. In the case of enemy weapons, the glowing balls themselves are not animated at all. The effects for picking up coins and enemy explosions are the same with the exception of color; the only more substantial explosion you’ll see is when you inevitably die.
The sound effects are more entertaining and again, entirely retro. From the initial “Game On!” to the final “Wipeout!”, and every power-up announcement in-between, Blast Em! incorporates full-boogie arcade-style sound effects. Enemy ship and asteroid explosions sound meaty, as does the more substantial sound when you go boom.
The music is also retro-style and fits the game’s rhythm and tone nicely. It changes up often enough to keep you from shutting it off and complements the experience well.
The game is challenging in that old-school shooter sort of way, you find yourself dodging hordes of enemies and their energy blasts while trying to stay out of the way of asteroids, etc. In short, your game screen quickly becomes a crowded death trap of enemy ships, attacks, and approaching obstacles.
The power-ups make things easier (of course), but possibly the most useful one is the Magnet, not mentioned before. It serves to draw all the coins on-screen to your ship. This not only rapidly builds your coin count for future upgrades and the all-important High Score, but cleans up the game screen so you can concentrate on enemy ships and the death balls they’re shooting at you.
Blast Em! is a simplistic game that’s not so simple. Although by modern standards the graphics and animations are poor, they fit well with the retro tone for which the developer seems to have been shooting.
I like the casual aspects of Blast Em!– ultra-simple controls and concept; like any well-made game it’s easy to learn but difficult to master. You can launch it and retire at will, without dealing with the level/achievement remorse in more complex games.
I’m also enamored of the game’s retro graphics, sound, and music. Xiotex truly did a good job of capturing the spirit of classic arcade and shooters. I’m less in love with the “endless runner” aspect of the game.
As noted before, the controls are responsive and accurate, maybe too fast with respect to your ship. It’ll pretty much move as fast and as far as you move the mouse, which sounds great but often had me over-maneuvering. I would have preferred a constant movement speed. In many classic horizontal scrollers, your ship (plane, whatever) didn’t always have the wherewithal to get out of its own way, but at least you could calculate your movements once you learned how your vehicle moved. The relatively free movement in Blast Em! is a double-edged sword; your craft can easily dodge enemies and fire, but just as easily impact another deadly hazard as a result of over-correction.
For me, one of Blast Em!’s big weaknesses is the relentlessly homogeneous background that seems out of place with the other graphical elements of the game. Not only does it not match up well with the ships and rocks on-screen, it robs the game of an aspect I enjoyed most about shooters: trying to last so you can reach the next big change in environment. Such shifts are not only useful for anticipating different enemies but reward the player with a sense of satisfaction at having “arrived” at the next stage of game progression.
Another annoying element is the complete lack of animation for objects representing the player, enemy ships, and weapons and floating obstacles (asteroids, which take several shots to destroy do lose their cohesion, but even that seems more a matter of simply subtracting pixels). Even the now archaic arcade shooter games incorporated a measure of complexity in animating enemy movements and weapons, explosions and other crucial constituents of the shooter genre. These are almost entirely lacking in Blast Em!.
The game relies on basically the same color palette to represent enemy ships, though they differ in shape/size. As a result, it’s harder for the brain to register the presence of new challenges, especially as the screen fills with death and coins. Utilizing colors that allow the player to easily register the presence of enemy types without robbing him/her of concentration is a well-used tool in many genres and helps keep the focus where it should be – on the action itself. I didn’t take note of any bosses, mini or otherwise. Maybe I just didn’t last long enough.
The scoring system is another oddity. I’ve never played a shooter that penalizes you for hitting power-ups. This is most likely because accumulating weapon power is another trademark feature of the genre. I can think of other, more mundane scoring systems that would have served the game better, including the old reliable timing device to measure success. Or possibly a super weapon charged with the coins and costing a specific amount to use ( more than they could easily collect in a short period of time).. That would put the brakes on players who like to spam special attacks Instead, on a field crowded with objects you have to dodge enemies, weapons fire, obstacles and yes, power-ups for the most part. Weird, especially since the power-ups only last for a limited time- you don’t get to keep the one you have until you hit another one.
Perhaps Blast Em!’s greatest failure lies with its price point. Don’t get me wrong. At under $10, buying a license is not going to force you to quit feeding the family, or huddle in shivering misery when it gets cold. But with so many excellent indie games on the market for the same price or lower, many with far more time and effort invested in graphics, sound and music, story and depth of complexity, I think Blast Em! is going to have very limited appeal. If you take the game for what it is, a technically proficient implementation of an old concept, with charming retro elements and don’t expect it to much from it, you’ll be fine. It won’t stand up so well to comparisons with other contemporary offerings in this genre.
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