Dead End Job

Honestly, I think Ant Workshop, makers of Dead End Job, should be in touch with the Guinness Book Of Records because if they’re not the frontrunners, they’re definitely in with a shake for the Most Puns In A Videogame world record. In all my years (which are many), I don’t think I’ve ever seen the likes. It’s practically obscene.

Luckily, some truly rotten puns are a fairly good way to crack a smile out of me! The more of a leap, the better. Which pretty much means I spent way, way more time laughing at Dead End Job than is probably healthy.

Such a relief too because as much as I adore videogames, what passes off as humour in videogames is fairly often lost on me. For every game that manages to sneak a memorable joke under the radar, there’s a thousand where the joke is “I just said that thing off the internet” and oh, oh dear. Please, no.

So yeah, Dead End Job got more than its fair quota of laughs out of me. It’s also a really grand looking and sounding game. Styling itself around the idea of what if Ghostbusters arrived freshly formed as a nineties MTV-era cartoon, it doesn’t exactly pick itself an easy look to pull off. It does pull it off though, incredibly well.

Everything bops and squidges nicely, characters land somewhere between cute and grotesque in that oh so very nineties fashion, it even has title cards for the start of each mission! And it’s a small touch but one I loved, Dead End Job does that sort of “meanwhile, back at the house…” interstitial scene cartoons lifted from a myriad of sitcoms over the years complete with guitar break. Oh, and it has a theme song too because of course it does. If you’re going to do this stuff then might as well go all in and then some, eh?

It’s a pleasingly tough but not too tough twin stick shooter. You’re tasked with clearing an area out to earn money, each area is (as is oh so in vogue at the moment) made up of a shuffled around selection of rooms. Clear all the rooms, rescue a couple of folk on the way, get out and cash up then head onto the next bunch of rooms.

It’s a fairly routine set up made more interesting by having to work around incredibly cluttered rooms where things often have a tendency to explode, managing some (thankfully far, far from obnoxious) weapon cooldown timers and having to catch the ghosts with your ghost vacuum in fairly short order after hitting them with your definitely not a proton pack (honest guv) laser beam.

Everything is so big and chunky that there isn’t quite as much room to muck around in as you need so making space (by blowing things up) becomes a priority very quickly. Ghosts also have a tendency to leave slime trails behind them which should you try and wade through them, slow you down. There’s always plenty to be taking into account in order to make the space less cramped and more amenable to a bit of busting.

There’s a reasonably sized bestiary of ghouls and ghosts to catch, certainly far more than many games would bother with, and best of all the game allows you to rename each and every one of them. Not since Fable 2 have so many things found themselves mysteriously called Bernard by my hand. Look, I know it’s a problem I have, I’m trying to be better but gnnnnng BERNARD.

I really, really enjoyed myself with Dead End Job and it’s one I can see myself coming back to for a good few years. Helped, in no small amount, by it making me smile so much with its awful, awful puns.

Dead End Job is on Windows, PS4, Switch, Xbox One and Apple Arcade. It’s (wait for it) dead good.

Assault Android Cactus

Look, I’m not sure how I managed to make it through to 2020 and have nothing on here about Assault Android Cactus before now but it’s clearly incredibly slack of me because Assault Android Cactus is wonderful.

It’s been pretty wonderful for the near five years it’s been out there now too. I’ve been enjoying it on and off for most of those five years as well.

I’m not kidding when I say I’ve been slacking here. Five bloody years! Molyneux save me. It’d be excusable if it wasn’t one of my favourite things.

To be honest, I kind of know why I’ve been putting it off. It’s an easy game to do a mammoth injustice to because when you write it all down it’s easy to go “so, err, what?”. It’s an intimately familiar looking, familiar feeling videogame. It’s born of purest Dreamcast, not the Sega Blue Skies of a thousand UK Resistance dreams but the final gasp of the arcade at home before digital downloads changed so much. It *looks* like a Dreamcast game too, though obviously more as my memory would like to convince me of what the games looked like than what they really did. It’s got a vibe. It’s good. It’s committed. It deserves the right words.

There’s so much game there too. It’s positively abundant. Ridiculously so! Full on call the cops and arrest these people for making the rest of us look like we don’t put enough game in a videogame stuff. I’m not sure I’ve played a twin stick shooter that crams quite so much in and where so little of it feels superfluous.

Some of it is unsurprising – multiple characters with different weaponry, ridiculous cosmetic tweaks (normal head mode! JJ mode for when you need so much lens flare you can’t see the screen! More!) – it’s a lot but it’s kinda an expected lot.

What isn’t quite so expected is the amount of videogame scenes the game runs through. At times it feels like an A-Z of arcade videogame levels. Never pastiche, never a nod and a wink, videogame levels because there’s something the game can do with them. It reminds me of Mutant Storm Empire in that regard though much, much, much more focused.

Early on you find yourself riding a very videogame lift, you know the kind – it’s in a hundred or so FPS, a multitude of top down shooters, it’s in Valve’s Alien Swarm, even Destiny couldn’t resist the lure of riding a lift whilst aliens hem you in from all sides. Then before you know it, it’s a stage where robots are pouring out of the floor, there’s lasers everywhere, flames, bullets, pick ups and there’s a stage where the room is built around you and then and then and then.

It’s like the team responsible wanted to cram every idea they had for games into one game. It’s astounding. More so when you realise how normal this sort of thing used to be, how arcade games at home would let themselves spiral outwards rather than just retain a really narrow focus, done well. I didn’t even realise how much I missed that but I do. I really do. It makes me feel spoilt, ruined, like you can’t possibly be giving me all this? Seriously, you are? Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Oh, there’s local co-op too because of course there is. Why leave any stone unturned?

It’d all be for nothing if it didn’t play so well, obviously. Which it does! It plays wonderfully, always pushing you into the swarms of killer drones rather than running backwards, rather than the circling of Geometry Wars. Wade in, knee deep in roboguts, needing to grab batteries to make it to the end of a stage alive. It takes no time to find the rhythm the game wants you to fall into, alternating between primary and secondary weapons, rushing for power ups, aiming for that ever enticing higher score.

Gosh. I love Assault Android Cactus so much, you know? There’s few games I’d use the term masterpiece for but in this case, Team Witch Beam have worked for it and earned it. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s the right and proper good stuff. It’s an arcade game, a not Dreamcast really but totally Dreamcast videogame that the best part of five years on still excites me.

Which, let’s face it that’s what you want from an arcade game. Okay, okay, it’s what I want anyway. I genuinely couldn’t ask for more. Well, except maybe for some fish but that’s just me. Maybe the next one, eh?

Vextor

Vextor (iOS/Android) is, easily, the best mobile arena shooter I’ve had the pleasure of playing.

I realise that many folk will read this and think “well, that’s quite a low bar” and you know, I think that’s fair. It’s not a genre that’s immediately well suited to touch controls.

Yak’s iOS take, Minotron, was as good as things got prior to Vextor. Minotron was very good indeed, there’s just the small problem of it no longer being available. There’s other nearly there games, the wonderfully titled Pewpew 2 got close, Geometry Wars 3 was rather let down by being a mobile port of the not-great Geometry Wars 3 but at least controlled okay. And there’s probably a couple more out there that I can’t recall right now. It’s been a while. Oh yeah, the Radian Games stuff – that was, is, pretty good.

Vextor though? Vextor is fantastic. It looks great and it plays great. I kinda wish it had existed sooner but I’m a patient person. Sometimes. Ok. Not often. But I’m sure I could be if I wanted to be.

Visually it owes a clear debt to Geometry Wars with its neon shapes and deformable grid, also to the absolutely wonderful Bezier (which nowhere near enough people have played – please fix that). It’s a lovely combination of two of my favourite arena shooters and, bonus, it has space fish. This is important. Please put a fish in your game.

Interestingly, Vextor plays differently depending on whether you play it in portrait or landscape mode. In landscape, it’s a traditional and familiar twin stick shooter. In portrait, it’s a mobile Neon Wars. (Although both Vextor and Neon Wars arrived at a similar junction independently, I’m glad it gives me a chance to mention a great and forgotten game).

I know most people have never even heard of Neon Wars, let alone played it. It was an attempt at making Geometry Wars work for a wider audience. Mainly, this meant that instead of having to manage with controlling two sticks, the player would only have to occupy themselves with the movement. Instead of the second stick to control shooting, the game settled on a system where you just had to be in the right place and the game would handle firing for you. It worked way better than it sounds on paper and coincidentally, provides the perfect controls for a one handed touch screen game.

So that’s Vextor, then.

It only took ten years or something but it’s really nice to see the Neon Wars control scheme made to work for a second time and more to the point, to finally be able to have a mobile arena shooter that Just Works(TM).

Vextor is fabulous stuff and I’m so glad it exists. Please do consider giving it a try.

R-Coil

I’m the first to admit that I tend to gravitate towards the flashier end of the arena shooters spectrum. I am, if nothing else, forever in awe of games that flash lights at you.

I know, I know, I’m an easy sell. A few neon glow effects and I’m suckered. In my defence though, I’m still a big fan of games that aren’t all that, even if (in my not so humble opinion) they could be. Like, erm, R-Coil for example.

It’s not that R-Coil doesn’t have it’s fair share of glowiness, it absolutely does, it’s just most definitely more restrained than most. It’s more Vectrex than Geometry Wars. And this is fine. Absolutely totally fine. I happen to like the Vectrex a fair bit. More than a fair bit, even.

Which is lucky because R-Coil eschews a lot of the more modern conceits we’ve come to associate with the arena shooters genre and not only looks like a Vectrex game but plays a great deal like one too. Albeit, a Vectrex game written by an absolute monster.

You see, whilst looking and feeling like an early eighties vector game, R-Coil is also an incredibly mean game. That’s a compliment, by the way. I happen to like my videogames mean sometimes.

The trick R-Coil is based around is one where your firing and your momentum are tied to the same buttons. There’s some stuff about your ship being broken blah blah blah but the essence of the game is that if you want to move, you’re going to have to be firing your guns to do so. But also, firing your guns is going to have some serious recoil. Hence, umm, R-Coil. Luckily, holding down the fire button will shunt you forward at speed giving you some control over your forwards momentum. Some.

As a result of this slightly brutal movement mechanism, R-Coil is a much more sedate game than most recent arena shooters aspire to be. Where the Geometry Wars formula is one where the screen is often filled with enemies, if not racing towards you then spawning around you, R-Coil plops just a handful on screen at a time. It’s a game that deliberately derives its difficulty from its controls and needs to give you more space than most else you’d be done for in seconds.

It’s masterable. Honest, it is. I’m not going to pretend it won’t take a fair few goes just to last more than however many seconds but it’s perfectly possible to hit a rhythm with it, to settle in to knowing how firing will effect your whereabouts on the screen, to know when it’ll push you away or towards danger. To know when to tap the fire button and when to hold to propel yourself forwards.

Once I’d found that rhythm myself, I began to really enjoy my time with the game. Sure, I would still die often (often at the hands of the same enemy, at that) but I didn’t care because *grits teeth* I was going to score higher very soon no matter what and there was nothing the game could do to stop me.

Well, except kill me again, of course. Which it did do. Frequently. But aside from that.

R-Coil is the sort of small, simple, game that I can pump a silly amount of time into. It’s a few quid on Steam and well worth a look. Oh, and it also has a nice accessibility mode where it removes lives and just lets you play, you know, in case you find the steep difficulty a bit much.