Super Killer Hornet

Super Killer Hornet is shooting by the numbers. That’s a joke. You’ll get it later.

The game feel like it should be controlled with one of those chunky old analogue joysticks, sticky from the sugar-saturated hands of a thousand fumbling twelve year olds. That’s my arty writer way of saying it feels like a 1990 arcade game.

The graphics are pretty straightforward, with adequately (but not extravagantly) detailed sprites and some very SNES-ish explosions that would have made Jaz Rignall gasp “ooh, pretty” back in the day. Not much in the way of backgrounds though, so it ends up looking a bit spartan (in the sense of minimalist, not the sense wearing only underpants). The music is better, and can be selected at the start of each level – a small but welcome touch.

The core gameplay is similarly…er…’streamlined’. Tap A to rapidly fire a spread shot; hold A to let rip with a sustained laser barrage that is more powerful but slows your movement in a classic power/survivability trade-off. That’s the idea, anyway. In practice you can spare your thumbs the dreaded RSI risk of constant tapping by just holding X instead, for the same effect. Nor does the power/speed trade work; the beam is quite wide so enemies mostly won’t get close to you, and the slower movement speed actually makes it easier to dodge incoming shots. This has been consciously built into some other games (Redshift) but it seems accidental here.

Yep, that will definitely kill a hornet

So far, so routine as retro vertical shooters go. Fortunately, Super Killer Hornet throws in something of its own to liven up the bare bones shooting. Remember that ghastly term that hung around the early-mid ‘90s like the inexplicable smell of cabbage in a pensioner’s living room? You know, the one that clutched test tubes full of wretched creations like Mario is Missing. That’s right, Super Killer Hornet flirts – in the most chaste and evasive way – with the lingering dread spectre of ‘edutainment’. This game, this retro arcade shooter, incorporates mathematics. Weirdly, that’s actually the best thing about it.

While blasting your way through the descending swarms of alien spacecraft, you will occasionally spot a mathematical function – a ‘3 X’ or a ‘7 +’, that sort of thing. If you collect that, a number will appear a few moments later. Collect that too and you’ll have almost a whole simple equation, maybe ‘3 X 9’ or similar. Plough on through the mayhem without being killed and soon three numbers will appear, one of which is the right answer to the mathematical problem. Grab that answer and…well, what happens next depends on the game mode.

Should have grabbed that 1. Easy money.

The two modes on offer use the maths element differently. Arcade mode is the one that leaves me yawning. You have a limited number of lives and the maths function just acts as a score multiplier. If you’re someone who is motivated by beating your previous scores this mode might hook you like a lecherous fisherman. Personally I find high score chasing only fractionally less appealing than filling in a tax return, so I lost interest in Arcade mode after five minutes.

The second mode, Black Label, is the one I choose to spend time with. It gives the maths element a purpose beyond making a meaningless series of digits at the top the screen change more quickly. I have no idea what the title Black Label refers to, but it’s an enticingly decadent name for a timed challenge. The Arcade mode’s meagre allotment of lives is traded for infinity, but don’t get drunk on the dizzying possibilities just yet. In place of finite lives, the game slaps a huge timer across the screen, unrelentingly ticking away every second until your ignominious demise. Your salvation comes in the form of mathematics; each complete equation extends the timer and buys you a little more life.

Get off! On arithmetic dogfight night, your embrace means nothing to me.

I quite enjoy this mode, and although it’s not interesting enough to sit and play for protracted sessions, it works quite well in short bursts. The use of contrasting brainwork – the observation and reflex of combat stapled onto the logical process of arithmetic – is surprisingly refreshing. I’m not accustomed to using my brain very much in this sort of game, and certainly not in this way. There’s also a nice side effect, in that when you die any incomplete equation is wiped clean, so even though you have infinite lives you can’t afford to be reckless. Death does have a cost, it’s just not as tangible and immediate as in Arcade.

I can’t in good conscience give Super Killer Hornet a recommendation, nor can I bug spray it into oblivion. With the Arcade mode alone I’d say this was too slender a package to be worth your time (shame on anyone who sniggered at ‘slender package’). With the addition of the Black Label mode there’s enough here to give both score chasers and score avoiders their 80 MSP worth of fun. Even with its unusual mathematical additions to gameplay, the Super Killer Hornet experience is just too bare and minimal to get the full seal of approval. It’s fine, but whether just ‘fine’ is enough for you will depend on your taste.

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We Are Cubes

We Are Cubes was a huge surprise, mainly because it feels professional from the outset. In Xbox Live Indie Games, where sometimes even seeming amateurish would be an achievement, 1BK’s debut release shows all the signs of careful craftsmanship.

You control a cube travelling along a straight path – maybe it’s a highway, or maybe the game is set in a future where people have finally tired of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, and the scrolling path of coloured shapes has been abandoned, giving way to battles between…er…coloured shapes. Actually, that fits better than I expected when I started the sentence. Well done, Alan.

Your cube shoots at other geometric shapes (slightly misnamed ‘spheres’) which weave back and forth across the path. Sometimes they drop power ups when destroyed, all of which are useful to some extent. Some are passive, with effects like allowing to fire two shots in rapid succession; others are bonus weapons activated by pressing B. The passive ones can be a bit of a mystery, because it’s not always clear what they do. The ‘how to play’ menu gives a quick rundown on them, but it’s easy to miss. I didn’t notice it until 1BK pointed it out post-review. Still, it’s not a big deal. These are upgrades; they’re never going to be a bad thing.

If the game doesn’t sound very interesting so far, that’s because I haven’t mentioned some key things yet. Although the ‘spheres’ you’re shooting at don’t shoot back, this is no simple shooting gallery. They can only be destroyed in their weakest form – small yellow diamonds. Larger green, blue or red targets have to be split up into smaller and smaller parts until they reach the yellow diamond stage and can be destroyed. But watch out for their movements – if targets of the same colour touch, they can merge back into a stronger form.

This movement isn’t easy to predict either. Spheres behave in erratic ways, sometimes standing still, sometimes moving straight at you or bouncing back and forth like a pinball. This behaviour is altered by your actions. The stronger targets reel when you shoot them, so the patterns are always changing. There’s no time to mull things over here; like the derelict Guitar Hero of my dreams, the path keeps moving you forward and the spheres will be upon you in moments. You have to adapt quickly to survive.

Yes, survive. Although they don’t shoot at you, the spheres are dangerous. They fight you Glasgow style, by ramming into you at unexpected moments as they bounce around. If you don’t take them out before they reach you, they won’t necessarily hit you – you can dodge round them. They’re not out of your hair once they pass you, though. All spheres must be destroyed, and you let one get past you it will bounce back into the fray and often hit you from behind if you’re not paying attention.

So just spam shots at the targets, right? Well…no. And this is where the beauty of the game lies. Manic though the pace can be, We Are Cubes always remains a thoughtful, careful experience. You see, unless you collect certain passive upgrades, you can’t shoot again until your last shot has disappeared – either by hitting a sphere or by reaching the far end of the screen. This means you have to aim your shots with painstaking care, because an inability to shoot again for five seconds can get you killed as you watch your bullet trundle all the way down to the end like an old lady shuffling to the Post Office. Despite its emphasis on firing at targets, We Are Cubes isn’t really a shooter; it’s a constantly shifting action puzzle game that involves some shooting. And it’s hard.

Maybe I lack precision shooting skills. Maybe the sun was glaring off the TV. Maybe I need to swallow my pride and finally get some glasses (oh, the indignity!). Whatever the cause, the hit detection when you shoot at an enemy is very precise. It’s reasonable and consistent (a refreshing change) but being off target by the tiniest margin will result in a miss. Between this, the limitation on how often you can shoot and the unpredictable movement of the spheres, We Are Cubes feels like a harder than average game, but never unfair or cheap. Once you realise that the hit boxes are quite small, you never feel like a particular miss should have counted as a hit. We Are Cubes adheres consistently to its own rules, which seems to be a rarity amongst indie games.

If I were to make one criticism, it would be the lack of alternative modes. There are two here: an arcade mode that pits you against 25 waves of spheres, and a survival mode that keeps them coming and mixes up the way they come at you. Instead of various normal spheres followed a boss each wave, survival mode throws in bosses and powerful spheres all over the place. I expected the two modes to be very similar, but actually they play quite differently. This does extend the game’s longevity, but We Are Cubes would still benefit from extra modes that vary the play style more or introduce new challenges. One of the nice things about multiple modes is that everyone has their favourite.

Don’t get me wrong, though. This isn’t a problem and it doesn’t let the game down or anything. I just can’t see anyone sitting for long play sessions with We Are Cubes and alternative modes might help. Having said that, I’ve been racking my brains for a while and I’m having trouble thinking of any that would be worth including. Maybe that’s why I’m not a developer. This is why I don’t think the game is too hard (aside from the possibility that it isn’t hard and I’m just not very good at it) – making the arcade mode 25 challenging waves long means the end never feels out of reach but needs practice and concentration to achieve. It’s a good balance, and encourages that old arcade ‘one more try’ feeling.

I can’t leave things there without mentioning the presentation. It was the first thing I noticed when I started playing the game. It has a surprisingly appealing neon wireframe look and an all-round retro aesthetic that’s very well done. The music is very good too, particularly the title screen theme – and as some of you know, music can make or break a game for me. If you don’t agree with me that the wireframe look works, change it. 1BK included a startling range of customisation options so you can tailor the look of the game to suit yourself. There are no bugs or glitches as far as I’ve noticed (except a few seconds of hanging on menus), control is smooth and responsive, and there’s even a clock positioned at the end of the scrolling road, counting down the time you have left to finish off the current wave. Small things can make a lot of difference, and We Are Cubes nails them with a professional standard of attention to detail.

This is certainly one of the better Xbox indie games I’ve played recently, and considering it’s 1BK’s first release I’m very impressed. You won’t still be playing We Are Cubes after twenty hours, but it’s fun in short bursts. Its combination of skilful gameplay and higher than average challenge make it worth returning to for occasional plays to try and beat your previous performance, plus it has a little of the ‘one more try’ compulsion that kept arcades in business in the ‘80s. Based on this performance, 1BK have a lot of potential. Check out We Are Cubes at 80 Microsoft points for a very polished game where it’s skill, not luck or exploiting the system, that counts.