Review by Lindsay M.
There’s a good chance I’ve mentioned this about a hundred times in my time with DDnet, but here it is again: space terrifies me. The idea that the universe is so vast and I’m so tiny gives me some serious anxiety, ranging from the heebie-jeebies to feeling like I don’t actually exist. So why, you may ask, would I even bother playing a game so very clearly set in space? The answer is easy: nostalgia on overdrive!
I’m only a little ashamed to say that I have memories of arcades. Granted, I was born just after their peak so arcades were being phased out by the time I was old enough to see the screen — but I maintain that was the sweet spot where I could appreciate both original arcade games and their console counterparts. Despite being phased out, arcade machines could still be found with relative ease through my first decade of life. Sometimes there would be an all-out arcade, but those were rare jewels disappearing as the number of home consoles climbed.
There are very specific games that I can recall many a happy time with. Pac-Man was a favourite and I could spend hours munch-munch-muching. Atari classics such as Asteroids, Centipede, and Battlefield were so engrossing that when they later came to PC I spent even more time playing them, but even at a young age I knew it still wasn’t the same without the actual arcade machine. Then there was Galaga. I hated that game with a passion. Galaga was hard and I was terrible at it, so my quarters disappeared quickly if I stuck to the game for too long. I swear I still have nightmares about the bee-things… so many bees...
I am a good bit older now, but I still tend to shy away from difficult games and lean towards games with more story than enemies. Solar Shifter EX wildly bucked that trend for me and I dove head-first into the pilot position. Humans have left our current solar system in search of new worlds (and the hope of colonisation). What they didn’t foresee, apparently, is that an alien race wouldn’t be too happy to see us. There was a war, but that has past. The humans lost the war as well as a devastating amount of their people. The aliens now threaten to destroy the sun in our current solar system, which would wipe out the last few strands of human life remaining.
Of course, with war comes those who seek to profit from it. Raiders began scavenging the remaining human colonies. I am one of them. All I want is enough resources to leave the solar system before it becomes extinct without the sun. Darn if those aliens will let the last of us leave in peace though, and I’m left to try and navigate my spaceship through them to get to the precious resources.
Related reading: Tired of shooting in space? Try shooting some adorable bunnies instead!
It becomes immediately clear that Solar Shifter EX is essentially just a hyped-up Galaga. The formations, the patterns, and the repetition of enemies instantly made me think of the classic arcade title. This time, though, there are no quarters. I can die and restart infinite times without having to slide coins into the slot. Maybe this is the Galaga I always craved when I was younger. All I have to deal with is my ship's health (represented as a green bar at the bottom left of the screen) and how many credits I can collect (a blue bar at the bottom right).
The game mechanics are instantly familiar. Move with the right joystick, shoot with A or the right trigger. I learn to navigate my way through the hoards in the first level; every time I die I can get just a little bit farther and remember just a little bit more. With games like Galaga, playing was as much about muscle memory as the actual experience — and that idea is very much present in Solar Shifter EX.
The problem is, Solar Shifter EX’s amazingness ends there. As with arcade games of the later 70s and early 80s, there is zero story past that which I’ve already told. Which is acceptable — for a vintage arcade game. For a contemporary game released on a current console, even one that guns for arcade accessibility, I would hope for at least an attempt at context. Not only that, but there are some elements that really bug me in showing how little effort went into the port; the main one being when the game directs me to “Press any key.” I’m on a console. There is no freaking key. I have joysticks, buttons, triggers, and bumpers… yet any “key” or the “any key” remain elusive. I have included a video that describes my reaction when I see a console game direct me to press “any key:”
Perhaps I’m being unfair. The graphics are quite smooth and pretty, but it is also nothing spectacular that I want to rave about. The only reason I’m reminded of it is due to my comparison to Galaga and of course the graphics are better than they were in 1981. Developer Elder Games added a couple little twists to the tried-and-true space-themed shoot-em-up formula: a phase shifter and the ability to upgrade your ship. The ability to upgrade your ship is negligible as it is a simple linear upgrade system. The ability to shift or “jump” is the game changer though, as it allows for your ship to penetrate areas that were unreachable before to steer clear of oncoming enemies. When shifting gets really fun is in boss fights where it is integral to win: you can’t cross their dual lasers to shoot them head-on, but you can shift there!
So let’s look at the Galaga to Solar Shifter EX comparisons. Wildly difficult? Check. Set in space? Check. The goal of shooting the other things in space? Check. Solar Shifter EX doesn’t add anything special to its genre, but it is certainly a solid entry worth a play or two if you dare.