Developer: Exis Interactive
Run from left to right. Shoot things. Power up. Dodge. Weave. Jump. Spread shot! Win.
Majestic-12 is that most satisfying of beasts, a good old-fashioned scrolling shooter in the vein of Contra or Metal Slug. Controlling an adorable-yet-deadly cel shaded shock trooper, you'll barrel headlong through some meaty stages, bring neon death to an entire legion of enemy combatants and fight a grizzly bear mecha tank.
Yes, that's right. The great thing about scrolling shooters is that they prioritise fun and challenging gameplay over grinding exposition and the looming spectre of 'authenticity.' Given the choice, I'll take a Bear Tank over door breaching sections any day. However, despite its old-school pretensions, Majestic 12 builds upon its traditional roots to deliver some interesting new gameplay ideas as well as insane bosses.
There's some story in here, mainly involving an alien invasion of Earth and the deployment of the shadowy Majestic-12 task force, but it's just a breezy excuse for carnage at home and abroad. Aliens are here. It's killing time. And now they're on the moon, because why the heck not? After choosing your operative from a selection of colourful reprobates, you'll charge from left to right and shoot anything that gets in your way using instantly-accessible dual stick controls (note that Xbox 360 controllers are natively supported). Enemies range from turncoat human troops to turrets, alien shocktroopers and mad scientists, all of whom are brought to life by sharp and vibrant cel-shaded visual flair. And all of whom are quickly dispatched with a range of upgradeable weapons such as lasers, shotguns, flamethrowers and rocket launchers, all of which can be switched between on the fly.
It's accessible arcade fare, pure and simple; a conveyor belt of increasingly tough foes to beat and punishing firepower to avoid.
Unlike Contra, however, Majestic-12 isn't two-dimensional. Taking a leaf out of Castle Crashers' book, the action takes place on a 2.5D plane, allowing you to move in and out of the screen to engage enemies, take cover or evade incoming fire. Projectiles and most barriers can also be jumped over rather than manoeuvred around, granting players three dimensions of freedom.
More advanced features quickly make their presence known, providing a lifeline for skilled players. Each character can deploy a powerful shield for a limited time, capable of mitigating standard projectile damage and reflecting it back at their source. Knowing when to burn it and when to conserve it in favour of well-timed jumps or dodge rolls becomes a key concern, and grants what could have been overly simplistic gameplay a satisfying strategic edge. The ability to switch between stored weapons is another welcome addition to the formula, and intelligently mapped to the number keys/D-Pad.
Of course, there's also a smart bomb. There's always a smart bomb.
A selection of boss battles - usually two per stage thanks to the welcome inclusion of mid-bosses - handily provide the highlight of the package. Alongside helicopters and enormous fortresses, you'll square off against the aforementioned bear-in-a-bulldozer and a shark piloting a mech. With several different attack patterns to recognise and avoid, these encounters are as fun and frantic to play as they are breathtakingly refreshing to behold.
Two of the eight levels ditch the ground-pounding action in favour of traditional Gradius or R-Type scrolling shooter fare, and despite my deep love of the genre, I can't help but wish that they hadn't. Much of Majestic 12's personality deserts it in these rather hackneyed sections, reducing the protagonists down to tiny dots piloting generic fighters against small hordes of equally unimaginative ships (again, apart from the boss battles - you'll never look at the Starship Enterprise in the same way again). At best, they're purely functional, and at worst these stages feel out of place, overlong and unnecessary. It's a shame that this time wasn't spent making some ridiculous extra set pieces or even vehicular sections in the main campaign.
Impressively, Majestic-12 supports drop-in multiplayer both locally and online, which is no mean feat for a relatively small download game. The arcane netcode necessary to facilitate true drop-in cooperative play can elude even the biggest developers with the most obscene budgets, so its appearance here is cause for celebration. Especially since it works brilliantly. Though enemy numbers and health don't scale depending on the number of players involved [ERRATA: Boss health does scale - Jonathan], Majestic 12 is infinitely more fun when played with friends (or failing that, complete randomers in open matches). Finding a few trusted allies will pay dividends in the survival and deathmatch modes, which add some surprisingly solid extra value to the already-lengthy campaign.
Majestic-12 does more than enough to be worth a purchase for fellow fans of scrolly shooty bang bang, then, but not quite enough to be considered a truly great example of the genre. Notably, the action can become homogeneous outside of the boss battles; often bombarding you with the same selection of slow-moving enemies who attack in broadly similar ways. Palette swaps of regular grunts and turrets abound, as do empty swathes of level containing nothing save huge amounts of incoming fire from off-screen. Stages can start to run together between the climactic fights, indeed, Majestic 12 lacks the creative spark of Hard Corps: Uprising or Gatling Gears. Though the backgrounds and bosses change, and it's always fun, the stages often feel very similar.
The sound design is also unremarkable to a fault. In jarring contrast to the colourful over-the-top cartoony vibe, the music tends to be quiet, po-faced, serious and frequently tedious, never embracing the raw sillyness of what's occurring on-screen. Simplistic character voices and sound effects do little to add extra personality, disappointing for such a visually distinct game.
Thankfully, the vibrant visuals shine strongly enough to make up for the audio and the eight long levels provide excellent value for the meagre asking price. If you're hankering for some properly barmy, uncomplicated fun with a few friends along for the ride, Majestic-12 does the business.
- Fun old-school arcade gameplay with a couple of neat twists
- Lengthy missions, satisfying bosses and solid drop-in multiplayer
- Colourful and crisp visuals
- Grizzly bear mech tanks!
- Enemies and core gameplay becomes increasingly repetitive and homogenous
- Unambitious and overlong 2D SHMUP sections
- Weak sound design
The Short Version: Majestic-12 is an intense and colourful arcade romp. Not exactly a revolution or a new genre standard, but great value and fun factor make it well worth a purchase to brighten up your cold winter nights.