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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Redshift

Wait, don’t run away! This isn’t a Virtual Boy game, however much it looks like one! Admittedly it is very red, and it has a similar minimalist style that looks almost old-fashioned, but it won’t cause your brain to catch fire after ten minutes.

With that conspicuous element covered, let’s get down to business. Redshift is a vertically scrolling shooter leaning towards bullet hell, and though it mainly doesn’t do anything too astonishing, it has a couple of nice touches that set it apart.

You control a small space fighter that flies up the screen into waves of enemy fighters that shoot at you in completely illogical patterns. I’ve never understood what enemies in bullet hell shooters are thinking. Is their job so boring that they have to construct an elaborate labyrinth of projectiles in the shape of a camel just to get one guy?

After a few of these waves, you come up against a boss enemy that fires in complex and overlapping patterns requiring patience and precision flying. This is where Redshift’s first feature comes into its own.

The regenerating ‘redshift’ gauge in the corner of the screen gives you access to two powers. One is a slow-motion effect that gradually depletes the bar as you use it. The other is a bomb that clears away all enemy shots in its blast radius but expends the entire redshift bar, leaving you without access to either power for a little while. I find the slow-mo power by far the more useful of the two. It gives you time to see where you should go to dodge incoming shots, and enables you to weave through tiny gaps that you would never attempt at full speed.

The most striking design choice other than the love of red is offering the player a choice of 300 levels. Yes, 300 – a huge selection for any game, and certainly for an indie. They ascend in difficulty from pretty straightforward (though not too easy, at least for a bullet hell Forrest Gump like me) to punishingly tough, and you can start at whichever point you like. If the low levels are too easy for you, feel free to start yourself at level 10, or 50, or anywhere up to and including the final level. Don’t worry that you’ll be missing out on chunks of the game. You won’t – which is Redshift’s biggest problem.

Redshift isn’t really a game with 300 levels. It’s a game with one short level and 300 difficulty settings. I still like it as an idea, but it does mean that you’ll never play the game for long, and you probably won’t revisit it very often. Replaying the same level over and over with slight increases in difficulty gets old after a while. You can still play Redshift like a normal game – any lives you lose on a level remain lost for as long as you continue that particular play session – but would you ever want to play one level 300 times? Even with seemingly randomised waves of enemies, the lack of variety holds the game back.

Having said that, I found that Redshift’s design choices give it quite a unique role: it’s a bullet hell training course. Thanks to my use of the time-slowing power here, I’ve found I’m getting better at seeing how to thread my fighter through narrow spaces, and this has carried over to other games. After spending some time with Redshift, my performance was better when I went back to other bullet hell games like the insanely challenging Vorpal.

Redshift College’s ‘Dodge Your Way to Success’ programme refines your bullet hell skills through gradual development. Slow-motion combat teaches you precision manoeuvres, and our graded level of challenge that can start and end wherever you like, from beginner up to professional, means there’s always something for you to learn.

You get the picture.

Redshift is a great starting point for people who don’t have the reflexes of a caffeinated cheetah to gradually get into bullet hell games and difficult 2D shooters. Veterans won’t find much to satisfy them here, though, and even novices will want to play a different level sooner or later.