There’s something very alien about Backfire – an atmosphere permeates the game that’s in roughly equal measure tension, excitement, and abject terror. In stills, this won’t come across in what appears to be a typical neon-clad shooter. But when you fire it up, Backfire feels deeply weird, challenging the player in all kinds of ways.
If you had to shove the game into a box, it’s fundamentally an arena shooter, in as much as you’re in an enclosed space, surrounded by hostile enemies that come at you in waves. But this is an otherworldly affair, due to the nature of the beasts you confront, and the manner in which you attack them.
Arena shooter basics were laid down in 1982, in seminal classic Robotron: 2084. Its twin-stick approach has been much-imitated, and has you spray wanton destruction around your person. Backfire has no truck with that – instead, you get a gun that stubbornly only fires out of your ship’s posterior.
At once, every iota of muscle memory starts fighting. Your existing death-dealing tactics go out of the window as you learn how to kill enemies while you flee, using a gun with frustratingly limited range, forcing you into all manner of finger-tapping choreography.
In fact, ‘run’ isn’t the right word: ‘dart’ is more accurate. Backfire seems to exist in a demonic underwater universe, its denizens moving like vicious, deadly fish.
Ball and chain
Said critters are another Backfire standout. They emerge with a squelch from the arena’s walls (that nonetheless prove all too solid should you – with a bloody splat – collide with them). Sometimes, spiked balls on chains will whirl around as well, to further complicate matters.
Your enemies will then go for you in their own unique ways, while making hideous guttural noises – like a demon zombie dog coughing up phlegm. Should one grab hold, you must tap the screen like a maniac to break free, while your ship screams out in pain.
Cheery stuff. But stress levels ramp up even more when you encounter the first boss: a terrifying cycloptic snake that gets angrier and more ferocious the more you shoot at it, lunging, swiping with its tail, and belching bloody venom.
Let’s go shopping
Assuming you make it that far, you will die. In fact, you’ll die alarmingly often before you have any hope of beating Backfire. Fortunately, when you maim an enemy, it drops tiny blue shards. It turns out these are souls (again: cheery), which you can, between games, use to arm your ship with new weapons and powers.
Enhance your health, weapons, and escape stats, and that snake will eventually be toast (hurrah!), at which point you’ll instead face skittering demonic spiders (hurroo), which will in all likelihood tear you to shreds within seconds.
Rather than feeling dispiriting, though, Backfire has a relentless moreish quality as you unravel its secrets. It may feel different from the arcade classics that inspired it, but Backfire retains their purity, addictive qualities, demanding nature, and that tangible reward that comes from gradually mastering a hard-as-nails game.