Developer: Studio Evil
You had me at Amiga, Studio Evil. Syder Arcade's mission statement is crystal clear: to deliver a scrolling shooter that emulates, and lives up to, the beloved SHMUPs of yesteryear, classics like Uridium 2 and Defender. Sallying forth against an implacable alien menace in a small yet menacing fighter, players will encounter a joyously nostalgic throwback to the days of overwhelming odds, enormous fleets and crushing difficulty, brought up to date with a glorious visual overhaul.
Like the best pint of Somerset Syder - or is it cider? - Syder Arcade is crisp and refreshing. But it will kick the legs out from under you when you try to stand up.
The first thing you'll notice about Syder Arcade is that it looks drop-dead gorgeous. While the first level's sparse starfield background doesn't really do the graphics justice, you'll soon be introduced to a vibrant, sharp and colourful visual treat. The Unity Engine continues to prove its worth as one of the industry's best platforms for smaller indie developers looking for 3D graphics on a budget, showcasing some detailed texture work, blistering framerates and some attractively deep 2.5D backgrounds. In an impressive twist, Studio Evil has provided multiple visual modes that make the action resemble an Apple II, Amiga, C64 and other retro platforms, helping create a fun (if ultimately useless) sense of nostalgia. A few resolutions and graphics options should allow you to find a stutter-free setting regardless of your rig.
Syder Arcade isn't just a pretty face. Behind the shiny facade beats the clinical heart of a precision-designed SHMUP, with tight controls, intuitive hitboxes and native gamepad support. Gain points. Deploy power laser. Dodge, press, press, press. Pew pew pew. You know the drill, and it's masterfully executed here. Rather than a traditional side-scroller, though, the action takes its cues from Defender and Uridium 2, allowing players to flip their ship with a simple button press, reverse direction and use the spacious levels to the full. Some stages do keep you pushing forward, but it's a blast to be able to leave the beaten track or rush back for previously-discarded powerups.
Enemy designs, bosses and attack patterns are delightfully varied, allowing you to engage in a hectic dance of death as you switch from evasion, retreat and attack with graceful ease. Boss battles are by far the highlight of the proceedings, featuring enormous capital ships bristling with individual weapon hardpoints that can be destroyed to cripple their offensive loadout. All in all, the action feels extremely authentic, yet fresh enough to stack up with the current generation.
Randomisation helps to set Syder Arcade apart from the pack. Apart from the opening level, enemy waves and powerups are randomly spawned to some extent, which proves to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, unpredictability makes for an eminently replayable affair, and one that will constantly keep you on your toes. On the other, however, enemies will sometimes spawn right on top of you, and the right powerup for the job might not appear when you need it. My kingdom for a repair module! Worse, it lacks the finely-honed design of, say, a CAVE or SNK shooter, sometimes becoming slightly messy or poorly-paced in parts. Thankfully the randomisation succeeds much more often than it fails, and the experience is richer for it.
So far so good, but here's where Syder Arcade takes a turn for the divisive. It's rock hard; properly, seriously retro-hard. Even the most patronising difficulty setting is a monstrous challenge for all but dedicated SHMUP veterans whose thumbs are blistered and calloused by years of 1CC runs and arcade experience. Enemy numbers are enormous, bullet waves are intense and the randomisation element means that memory counts for nothing. Raw reflexes are the key, pure and simple.
And there's an escort mission. It may be artfully implemented, and proves to be much less aggravating than most of its ilk (since your fragile carrier has extremely small hit zones and withering firepower of its very own), but the frustration factor is amplified tenfold when you factor yet another failure condition into the outrageously punishing formula.
But hard can be good, especially when you're attempting to emulate classic SHMUPS. I'm not willing to mark Syder Arcade down for baring its teeth from the get-go, after all, some of the best games of this generation thrive on challenge (including Super Meat Boy for one). There's nothing quite as sweet as a hard-earned victory, and you'll find that joyous feeling of satisfaction and relief in spades. It's a pro, not a con. Sadly, though, Syder Arcade makes a couple of missteps that sometimes push the difficulty level from harsh but fair into sociopathically deranged.
Syder Arcade's first major problem is that of power. In most shooters, Uridium 2 included, your ship is a glass bazooka; capable of dishing out extraordinary amounts of punishment yet falling apart in the face of a light breeze. In this case, however, even the most powerful of the three ships will struggle to quickly take down even the rank and file enemies with its standard cannon. Powerups are the key, then, but because they're randomised, you'll often be too weak to contend. Shockingly, even the basic primary weapon and base speed are upgraded via random powerups, which should either be preset at the beginning of the game (and potent enough to be useful throughout the campaign), upgraded at point thresholds or at predictable, regular intervals. Hell, base speed (opposed to temporary speed boosts) shouldn't be a powerup at all, not when you'll absolutely need it to weave through the insane amount of incoming neon muder.
The second major issue stems from the lives system. You've got a small health bar and three 'lives,' but you'll are no checkpoints or continues - if you die, you die, and lose your score as well as level progress. This wouldn't have been a problem if there were level checkpoints or short stages, but they're easily ten minutes long, and losing this progress makes Syder Arcade artificially difficult instead of finely balanced. This system is also at odds with Syder Arcade's name, since arcades are designed to entice players to continue as often as they want by plopping in another coin. I'm not entirely sure that the suffix does it any favours, and a larger number of smaller levels would have helped to bring it in line with the golden oldies.
In fact, I can't help but feel that Syder Arcade would have been well-served by an extra mode that replaces online leaderboards with persistent rewards and upgrades. Perhaps the ship upgrade system from Tyrian? Or Ikaruga's nifty method of balancing fearsome challenge with bonus continues doled out after certain game over screens? Not only would this have opened the game up to the middle ground and more casual players, but it would have provided Syder Arcade with a nifty addictive draw; something to keep us hooked besides the high score tables. Not to mention that its six levels and single survival arena are a little sparse for the £5.99 price, especially when stacked up with similar games on the download marketplaces. Be aware that the current exchange rate - at the time of writing - means that you can get a slight discount by ordering from Indievania.
Of course, the notion that games have to play fair is relatively new in the grand scheme of things, and Syder Arcade looks to the past for inspiration. Studio Evil have thoroughly succeeded on that count, and manage to evoke a feeling of true nostalgia on top of razor-edged thrills. But while there's no shame in making a game rampantly difficult, there's also no shame in attempting to at least give a passing nod to the last two decades as well.
- Hectic, nostalgic and satisfying retro action
- Refreshing randomisation and impressive boss encounters
- Sensational Unity-powered visuals
- Randomised powerups lead to massive balance problems
- Lack of checkpoints and draconian lives system smacks of artificially lengthening a short game
- Questionable value for all but devout SHMUP fans
The Short Version: Syder Arcade is a brutal, gorgeous and randomised throwback to classic Amiga shooters, mixing old-school difficulty and new-school thrills. The Manta has a new pilot, and he's seriously capable. Sadly, some balance problems and a difficulty vs value conundrum make the purchasing decision harder than it should have been.
Be sure to try the demo - at the very least - if you lust after a stiff challenge and a heady dose of nostalgia.