I kind of ignored Luftrausers for quite a while. It wasn’t even frustration with it not coming out that prompted this, I just didn’t really know much about Vlambeer. Yeah they made some silly little phone games, got cloned. Harsh stuff. Once again it’s proven that you have to be either a noble fool or someone without a soul to want to make games for a living.
I didn’t really care until I picked up Nuclear Throne. If the appeal of Early Access is in seeing exactly where a developer’s priorities lie, spawning in a desert to the sound of an airhorn and going nuts on some nearby fools with a beefy revolver to some sick tunes gave me a pretty good insight into these boys’ priorities. And in a world full of grey capsule colliders inertly rubbing against each other against that signature Unity blue backdrop, that counts for a hell of a lot.
Ridiculous Fishing came next. A lot of people seem to think that a good phone game is made by distilling a good game’s most basic traits into a form consumable on the device. Like blending a steak. What the simple little fishing game and ZiGGURAT (best phone game all years) have in common is their embrace of the platform and a willingness to build up from that.
Press [Up] To Raus
Luftrausers got me pretty psyched pretty quickly. Fundamentally, it’s just Asteroids with gravity (maybe?), but execution elevates. Big bullets, bassy tunes, buttery movement. Soaring through a cloud of bullets to pluckily slam into a battleship, the game is angry, righteous and capricious.
I quickly settled on a favourite loadout. Cannon, bomb, superboost. All the burst damage you could ever hope for, and when that fails - the ability to turn one’s tail and flee in an efficient manner. The hover booster was a good bit of fun to toy around with too. Man, the gungine sucked. After trying all the other weapons, the basic machinegun has a reliable, rustic appeal to it. No-one who plays shmups will ever let the phrase “I’ll use the homing missiles” even enter their head. But, in the midst of all this experimentation, I decided to do what one should never try to do with a Vlambeer game - complete it. (Get all challenges - including a 25k score on the hyper difficulty SFMT mode)
The second you start to try to do a little more than dick around with Luftrausers is the second you start to begrudgingly loathe it. Most of the challenges and scoring opportunities are created at the behest of a rather unpredictable spawning system - your combo will frequently drop because you simply have no enemies to shoot, will drop a split-second before that battleship erupts into 1/20th of the score it should be worth. Even after learning how to game it - destroying fighters spawns boats, destroying boats spawns fighters, and eventually a blimp happens - I was still dropping combo for no fault I was willing to accept. Any challenge to destroy a submarine or one of the dreaded laser aces will result in those enemies just not appearing. No matter how fast you fly, no matter how well you shoot, you’re at the cold, ungiven mercy of a call to random().
Perhaps this is all a huge commentary on the overreliance on fossil fuels in the bizarro-WW2 setting of the game, but Luftrausers’ scoring system is unsustainable. As enemies are destroyed, they are sometimes replaced with big ones. Doing damage to big enemies does not preserve combo, and the only way you’re getting any points is to destroy stuff at the maximum 20x multiplier. So, you ride that multiplier as long as possible until you’re not given any more cannon fodder to keep it going. Once your multiplier drops - if you played well, you are now surrounded by battleships and blimps, and the game has reached its hardest point with no scoring potential to show for it. A commentary on the futility of war, obviously. But inevitably frustrating, and even with all this in mind - a good play requires far too much luck for this game to really have legs.
Vlambeer’s undeniable ability, their biggest strength - lies in taking a core set of mechanics and polishing, roughening, shaking and stirring until they end up with something with all the feel, all the chaotic punch of the old masters of the arcades. Their biggest and most tragic shortcoming is that they don’t seem to know what to do after that.
This is currently their limitation. This is what burdens their games with the term “throwaway” in some circles, what causes the smiling dismissals of their games as something to waste a few blissful hours with - and the implied conclusion that there’s no way they could be more. (Transcendental games are either done in Twine or a bone thrown by the AAA - nothing else.) Unlock systems and achievements take the place of something meatier, doing a by-the-numbers rendition of your dime-a-dozen “retention game”.
The stuntman shmup
There is a subcategory of the shmup genre that most have forgotten. The stuntman shmup. Raiden Fighters Jet fits the bill most accurately, though echoes of the design ring through most Raizing works too.
In a stuntman shmup, you do tricks for your points. Singular moments of technical competence. A traditional combo system is about an odd intersection between flow and strategy - picking your line through a stage, adhering to it as much as is required to keep that multiplier going just a few moments longer. Restraint and aggression in equal measure.
A stuntman system is a little more stop-and-go, a little more esoteric. Cripple a tank to near-destruction and let it go to make a fairy appear. Destroy a bunch of enemies with no more than a few frames seperating their end. Take apart a boss in the least convenient way possible. Juggle medals. Make some medals hit others on their way towards your ship, turning them into bigger medals. 100 more silly tricks. Do as many of these throughout a stage while staying alive and you’ll get a good score. To really crank that number, figure out ways to combine the tricks.
A system like this would be a better fit for Luftrausers, in my opinion. Less about relying on enemies you can’t see to keep a combo going, less about making consistency work in a game governed by inconsistency, more about the rare moment of glory, more about the "hamburger moments". A more predictable spawn system is required, so required that I almost didn’t mention it. A lot of those tricks are based merely around making certain lucrative enemies appear, about frustrating a boss so much that he gives up and starts spewing out drones you can shoot down for 10k a pop.
My perfect mental game of Luftrausers includes a nuclear “luftbuster” smart bomb. Do tricks to charge it up (snipe all the guns off a battleship, drop a bomb on an ace, divebomb a submarine, etc, etc), build up tension, tension that is then released with a simple press of Z. Z drops the hammer, creates a signature screen-shaky explosion, and turns all surrounding enemies into a huge score bonus. Exhale, repeat. I thought about maybe having a try at implementing this, but felt cloning a game crafted out of anger about cloning would be… disrespectful at best. Oh well. Some other time.
I have confidence in Vlambeer. It took a long while for those espoused, forgotten kings of the arcades to hone their craft and learn these lessons, and if a few Dutch fellas are going to “bring back the arcade” - it’s going to be one step, one lesson, one bullet at a time. Nuclear Throne is a hard one to gauge - the genre stands well on its own without any core loops or scoring systems, but their somewhat frustrating reliance on unlocks and randomness is still present. The day they put YV behind an unlock gate is likely the day I stop playing and start drinking heavily.
But, for now… *airhorn*