Cite all the benign puzzlers you like, or sweet-natured platformers where cute characters merely go ‘donk’ when someone jumps on their head; the reality is that gaming from day one has had at its core a vicious shooty streak.
Space Invaders kicked things off in the mainstream, as you blew up hordes of unimpressive and tactically inept ships with your rubbish tank. But solo heroes and aggressors ended up in a brutal arms race – and now we’ve got Steredenn.
There’s a retro-infusion in this dazzling, chaotic, brutal side-scrolling blaster. The basic gameplay recalls iconic titles all the way back to R-Type, and the visuals echo delicate pixel art of classic systems. But Steredenn is a smarter beast than its predecessors – a superbly conceived mash-up of bruisingly challenging shooty action, heart-pounding boss battles, and a dash of procedural generation and roguelike upgrades, to keep things constantly fresh.
It’s a blast
Steredenn also – wisely – drops any pretense of taking itself too seriously. In the old days, shoot ’em ups were purely about the thrills, but over time gained unnecessary backstories. You apparently needed reasoning behind all the death and destruction – for you to be a valiant hero, cut-scenes rewarding your courageous exploits against evil alien scumbags.
With Steredenn, it’s immediately obvious what you’re in for when the tutorial’s robot teacher deems that the most important first step is to turn on loud rock music. Before long, you’re hurled into a typically absurd one-sided battle, only you’re sometimes facing off against ships with massive chainsaws strapped to their noses.
As you play, capsules are dropped that can be attached to your two weapons slots, enabling you to unleash a range of death, from eye-popping bullet hell to the outright nutty. One option is a massive laser beam that burns through anything in its path, at the expense of slowing you down; another spews lasers about the place, like an angry high-tech garden hose.
Despite the silliness, there is strategy here. Certain weapons are more effective against specific foes, handy colour coding providing feedback. If impacts are orange, switch to a weapon that makes them red (normal) or purple (MWAHAHA!). You can also fend off enemies who get a bit too close with a melee weapon, because if there’s one thing we’ve learned from watching Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and the like, it’s that spaceships should be able to shiv someone, like a nasty crim in a gritty prison drama.
As noted earlier, there’s also randomness. Stages are procedurally generated, shaking up every game. But there are two commonalities: the first is that Steredenn starts tough, and gets progressively harder at a rate of knots. The second is that every stretch ends with a boss battle. These one-on-one fights are stern tests, but the rewards are great: your ship’s health is refilled, and you get to select a permanent power-up for the rest of the game.
You’ve got the touch
Perhaps counter-intuitively, shoot ’em ups had something of a resurgence on the touchscreen. Whereas twitchy platformers suffer without physical controls, shooters if anything benefit from subtle movements of a porky digit on a pane of glass. Steredenn, though, recognises there are issues, and so cunningly provides crosshairs that let you know where your ship is should it temporarily slip under a thumb.
Elsewhere, although originally released on other systems – and, indeed, the Binary Stars update reviewed here, has been on the likes of Switch for some time – it feels perfectly suited to mobile play. The randomly generated levels always provide something new to face; and although the sheer difficulty makes games short, that means you can squeeze another crack of Steredenn into a lunch break, knowing that each defeat will teach you a little more about how to eke out a few extra seconds of survival next time you play.