There's still some blood pumping through the Dreamcast's heart. VG247's Dave Cook plays through this brand new, "bastard-hard shooter."
So there's a new Dreamcast game out.
Sit back down; this has been happening for years since Sega's hardware took a bolt-gun to the head. In fact, homebrew releases have gone hand-in-hand with the console since players figured out how easy it was to burn copies of their favourite games, whack a boot disc in the system's drive and play any title they wanted to illegally and for free.
I'm probably not allowed to condone the Dreamcast homebrew scene on these pages, but whatever. Say what you will about the pirates; they've kept the format - if not alive - but on some kind of life-support for years now. As a keen retro enthusiast myself I really like to see that level of support coming from the community, especially with a console I hold close to my heart.
So anyway, a new Dreamcast game happened. It's called Redux: Dark Matters and it's a bastard-hard shooter that makes me want an eye-test after each session, just to convince myself that my retinas are still fully attached. It's a colourful shooter you see; one of those bullet-hell games that rewards dexterity and memory-mapping attack patterns. Not blinking helps too.
The game was successfully funded on Kickstarter in 2012, to the tune of $53,121. Developed by Hucast, only 1000 Dreamcast copies will ever be made, and it also features an utterly superb soundtrack from Andre Neuman, with input from Turrican and R-Type composer Chris Huelsbeck (demo sampler below).
It's a slick title that isn't without its short-comings, but overall I'm glad it exists. For one, it's made me dig out the Dreamcast and my library of games again. Bonus points for that.
As I started playing Redux and navigated my little space ship between pink phallic nodes of blue plasma death, I began to wonder what I was actually looking at. There's no backstory in the instruction pamphlet or tutorial to speak of; just a ship, a fuck-ton of lasers and screen-after-screen of alien sods to shoot dead. It's a simple format, but one that still has the ability to get right under your skin. This is a classic schmup with a no-bollocks approach.
This lack of premise also means you have to work out Redux's core mechanics on your own. I was a little stumped at first as to the ship's functions but the idea is that over time your vessel's 'Bullet Soaking' ability will charge. Once activated; an aura around the craft absorbs all enemy rounds - with the exception of bigger shots or lasers - and hurls them back at enemies as lock-on rockets with a tap of the right trigger.
You also have a standard auto-fire cannon, a charged wave shot for screen-clearing and a host of collectible upgrade drops that change your load-out further. From firing vertical missiles and deploying floating shields that protect the ship, to bouncing laser rounds and missile waves, there's a lot of power-ups in here. It's just a shame the drops are so hard to identify. I just picked them all up and counted my blessings because basically, you'll want to be as upgraded as possible.
Signposting is a problem though; as I didn't know what I was picking up half of the time. It's hard to know - initially - if your shots are damaging some enemies. Some of them change colour when hit, which can be hard to identify in some of the more garish worlds, while others emit a sound, which can be hard to pick out from the explosive noise bursting from your screen. You'll get a feel for it in time though.
Also, I wasn't sure at first how to charge that central Bullet Soaking mechanic up, but once you realise that you can chain the effect in certain parts of the stage, you'll find ways of keeping the ability going for ages. An example in Stage Four - called Meteora - sees your ship navigating a perilous asteroid belt dotted with enemy ships, laser beams and more. It's a nightmare of coordination and pattern memorisation.
Some stretches of the stage feature bullet-spewing panels. If you have Bullet Soaking engaged, the absorbed rounds will keep your rocket meter full as long as you stay in their path. It's a bit like absorbing shots in Ikaruga, except here any bullet colour is fair game. Similarly, the stage two boss occasionally launches a wave of small enemy ships at you, each leaving a trail of bullets. Simply hit Bullet Soaking as they pass overhead for a quick recharge, then chuck rockets back at the boss.
It's hard to forget that Bullet Soaking isn't a shield, as it creates a pink bubble around your ship which looks deceptively protective. I actually forgot that I was still vulnerable and died many times amid the blitz of enemy fire hailing down on my vessel. What a chump, eh? But still, you have to keep one eye on soaking up enemy rounds, while watching out for 'un-absorbable' shots and other threats, such as kamikaze ships and moving walls.
You'll likely coast the first mission with ease, but then Hucast pulls the rug out from underneath your feet, stamps on your sprained ankle and pisses in your face. The difficulty curve is silly, and while it's no Mars Matrix, it's still bloody hard. Level two gets really claustrophobic as you glide through narrow pink caverns, dodging killer plant-life and patrolling ships. Stage three is more painful still, with robotic walkers stomping overhead, screen-filling lasers and an end-boss that made me want to shit my innards. Four is just... well, I can't beat it. I'm a disgrace.
You start with three lives and get three continues before you go back to stage one. I did this many times, and it was painful, but much like my year-long Dark Souls obsession, I relished getting that little bit further each time. It's all about practice, and over time you'll get a feel for when to protect yourself with Bullet Soaking, when bosses are about to do certain attacks and more. Over time I managed to get to stage three without losing a continue. It's rewarding, and the split-second of pure elation that comes with seeing a boss erupt in flames is simply joyous.
I died a lot and it got frustrating, but who cares? I was playing a new Dreamcast game, and it truly did feel like it had been crafted during the console's life-span. The music sounds like it was ripped from the era, and its chunky, colourful visuals and wonderfully animated sprites are a fitting tribute to the cream of Sega's schmup stock.
Had Redux: Dark Matters released during the Dreamcast's active tenure, I don't think it would have received the same notoriety as Ikaruga, but that's largely down to Treasure's Mega Drive pedigree. I also found it really hard, and constantly restarting from the first stage grew thin after the first hour, but then again I'm not a hardcore schmup guy. I reckon those die-hard fans will absolutely love it, no questions ask.
But what am I talking about; Bullet Soaking, lasers and pink penis-shaped alien life forms? All you really want is Shenmue 3 right?
I'll get my coat.
Disclosure: To assist with this article, Hucast sent Dave a copy of Redux: Dark Matters on Dreamcast.