Publisher: Nyu Media
You might expect a game with a name like "Ether Vapor" to be a psychotropic voyage of whacked-out insanity or an instant anaesthetic. Or, correctly, inexplicably Japanese. Edelweiss' scrolling shooter has been prettied up, sharpened up and localised for Europe and the US, headed to a number of digital distribution platforms.
Ether Vapor takes a classic attitude to shooting them all up. Players control a fragile yet unbelievably powerful 'glass cannon' of a space fighter, shredding entire fleets of enemy war machines while desperately evading their incoming fire on a 2.5D plane. A few lines of hilariously overblown and irrelevant text in a bundled PDF file and some abrupt mid-mission banter provide what little story there is, which is absolutely fine by us. As far as we're concerned, most SHMUPs can be summed up by: 'you have a space ship, shoot things with the space ship and don't break the space ship.'
Excitingly, though, Ether Vapor Remaster does some surprising and sexy things to both weapon selection and the concept of scrolling itself, while ensuring that the experience is incredibly solid in terms of mechanics.
Ether Vapor's first major success comes in the form of an incredibly versatile trifecta of weapons, dished out by some hovering combat drones called 'Bits.' You won't acquire new ones or power them up throughout the campaign, but they've been balanced to remain consistently powerful in different situations. The Gatling laser is a powerful linear weapon and can be charged into a penetrating blast, while a spread shot dishes out diffuse damage or deploys an unbelievably useful shield. Halfway between them lies the lock-on laser, which tempers low damage with unerring accuracy and the ability to hit enemies in the 2.5D background. Players can access all of them at any time since they're mapped to different buttons, providing multiple ways of dealing with each wave, boss or situation.
Ether Vapor also plays around with the concept of scrolling, or more accurately, the direction. The 2.5D perspective frequently flips from horizontal to vertical, or into rail shooting sections that play out like AfterBurner or Lylat Wars. This constant change of pace punches up the traditional experience, keeping players on their toes.
All of this impressive innovation and iteration would be useless if Ether Vapor didn't handle well, and I'm delighted to report that it's mechanically brilliant. The controls are responsive and slick regardless of whether you use a keyboard or gamepad, hitting a sweet spot between fast and overly twitchy. Some cleverly-designed bosses and varied enemy formations make for a stern yet acceptable difficulty curve, an increasingly rare thing in this genre. With the basics locked down, the free-scrolling philosophy provides a fresh new experience that SHMUP fans will lap up.
Sadly, Ether Vapor Remaster does make a couple of missteps. The first major problem is that a particular type of enemy projectile - an indistinct thin streak - quickly becomes lost in the increasingly busy action. Coupled with the lack of easily identifiable hitboxes (the area of a sprite that registers a hit on contact), I was good and ready to have a moan.
And then I realised that you could optionally activate a 'hitbox mode' from deep within the options menu, which displays useful but ugly wireframe damage zones for every onscreen sprite. Though the best SHMUP developers tend to work hitboxes into their sprite designs (such as CAVE, who always ensure that it's plainly visible), and many of the later stages are still too fussy when it comes to obscuring bullets with unnecessary smoke/particle effects, this a nice feature to have nonetheless. If it doesn't give you a migraine within minutes, that is.
While we're on the subject, however, I have to point out that Ether Vapor is oppressively dull and derivative from a art design standpoint, especially in the early stages. The first two (of five) stages take place over a bland blue ocean and gradient, throwing you into combat against such strikingly memorable adversaries as featureless grey discs and hovering grey cylinders. Most of the Mecha designs feel incredibly reminiscent of Raystorm and the like, and the majority of their models could do with some sharpening up, not to mention some extra polygons. Later levels give you much more to look at (typically through an mind-numbing amount of visual stimulation and massive explosions), but a depressingly small amount of real imagination and flair has gone into the humdrum artwork and drab backgrounds, robbing the experience of any real personality or memorable moments.
It's a shame, because Ether Vapor's sweet gameplay and slick graphics arguably deserved better.
I did occasionally notice some slowdown during particularly intense moments, but since this made me nostalgic for PCB arcade games, I didn't mind it much. Should you encounter this problem, be aware that you can run Ether Vapor in a number of graphics settings.
And then there's the value equation, which is always difficult to calculate for a SHMUP. Genre fans will derive huge pleasure and value out of replaying the five tough levels (and beating them in the first place!) while appreciating Ether Vapor's subtle intricacies, but less dedicated players may soon tire of its rigid structure and short length.
- Solid and responsive SHMUP mechanics
- Versatile trio of weapons
- Refreshing changes of pace and perspective
- Dull and derivative art style, bland backgrounds
- Projectiles can be obscured by smoke and particle effects.
- Little in the way of personality and lasting appeal
The Short Version: Ether Vapor Remaster is an incredibly solid and versatile scrolling SHMUP that packs a surprising amount of variety. Uninspiring visuals aside, this is a quality package for genre fans.