Grasshopper Manufature and Digital Reality, two companies that you might not normally expect to form a partnership of champions, but together nonetheless. The former, a Japanese studio famed for originality headed up by development auteur Goichi Suda, the latter a longstanding Hungarian outfit perhaps most famous for the cracking 4X strategy title Imperium Galactica back at the end of the Nineties. You'd think they'd be like chalk and cheese. But it works. And it works well.
Aside from showering yours truly with an inordinate amount of swag (firm frontrunners along with SEGA for most hospitable booth), between them they delivered previews of three cracking arcade titles, the first of which, Sine Mora, is looking to reinvigorate a classic genre: the humble shoot 'em up.
The SHMUP is a genre already filled with bright stars from Ikaruga to R-Type, and the arcade marketplaces are littered with pretenders and homages to the coin-op greats of the past, so it might seem somewhat imprudent to release another scrolling shooter into the mix. But Grasshopper are nothing if not ambitious and its they who've created the artistic side - the concept art and the soundtrack - to this extremely competent game, with Digital Reality absolutely nailing the mechanics, having developed it in-house.
The first thing to note are the two difficulty levels: Story Mode, which boasts both Easy and Normal modes, and Arcade, which is literally described as 'Insane'. The SHMUP has more often than not been the territory of the hardcore, but this game should allow curious parties the chance to compete as well. The Story mode will feature a fully fledged narrative, complete with characters, alternative perspectives, rendered cutscenes and more.
So what can you expect? Well, first of all, it's clear from the start that simple evasion is not enough to succeed in this game. you are constantly reminded of the timer hovering in the upper centre of the screen, ticking down incessantly. If it hits zero, you die. If you take enough damage, you die, and each time you get hit, your plane vomits forth all of the powerups you've picked up and knocks precious seconds off of the timer, even as you scramble around desperately trying to build up to that five shot blaster you'd enjoyed mere split-seconds before.
This is a game that requires players to go on the offensive, dishing out damage with impunity. Indeed, it is the only way to survive, each downed foe bolstering the clock, which gets reset at each checkpoint. Enemies will drop power ups that increase your rate of fire, the damage you deal and the spread of your cannons. You get an alternate attack, which for the level we saw was a bright blue beam of obliteration, but it had limited charges. It was useful, however, for clearing out the bigger weapons on some of the larger enemies. Sine Mora will throw bosses at you, most of whom have multiple armaments to destroy, occasionally with more than one point of weakness too. Taking on a gigantic armoured platform, we had the choice between clearing out its main cannons and rocket launchers first or, to save time, trying to blow up the weakpoint at its base with the laser beam before it could do us harm.
If you do get into trouble, and you will, the game has a nice way of helping you extricate yourself from sticky situations. Holding the right trigger will slow down time, causing the lasers and bullets and rockets and other punitive assailants surrounding you to come to a near standstill as you weave your way to safety. It's also an excellent mechanism for quickly retrieving lost power-ups and getting the jump on bosses.
Sine Mora is utterly gorgeous. The game might be a 2D side-scroller, but it's rendered in full 3D. The dieselpunk setting adds a level of character to the whole thing, allowing for tentacular robots, smog-spewing tankers, spluttering subs and rampant planes. The colours are vibrant, the neon-flecked laser action just the right side of sensory supernova. You'll be forgiven for dying the first few times simply as a result of admiring the scenery around you.
Not that Arcade mode will suffer such laxity. This is the home of the online leaderboards, the haven of the hardcore. Paul Toderas, game desginer at Digital Reality, warned me that the presentation of this mode wouldn't last very long and, indeed, explosive death came knocking within the very first minute.
Sine Mora is shaping up to be a unique thing indeed: a modern SHMUP that could well find itself beloved by a discerning hardcore crowd and previously apprehensive casual gamers as well. Those expecting a barrage of boomsticks and boobs, as one might (understandably) expect from a game with Grasshopper's name on it, could be disappointed. But for those eager for a slice of retro action with a bunch of modern trappings, this will be yet another addictive arcade experience.