Back in the olden days – and I'm talking about the really olden days of the late 80's and early 90's – I remember having to review several vertically scrolling shoot 'em ups a month, such was their abundance. That was when the genre was at its peak popularity, with classics like Gunhed (aka Blazing Lazers), Seirei Senshi Spriggan, Crisis Force, Axelay, and Soldier Blade – along with many, many other lesser-known and forgotten shooters – continually hitting the consoles of the period.
Since then, the appeal of the vertically scrolling shooter has cooled off significantly, and they're a fairly rare beast these days. I think part of the reason for that is because they've evolved little in terms of their fundamentals. Enemy and player weapons have become increasingly more sophisticated and powerful, and we've seen the rise of bullet hell shooters – but other than that, they're pretty much the same kind of game that they were back in the day. Such is the case with Teslapunk.
Created by klutzGames, and launched via the ID@Xbox indie program, it's a classic bullet hell shooter that has a really unusual graphical style. Apparently, the developer created all the backgrounds and enemies by scanning in vintage photos and schematics from old technical books from the early 20th century. He then turned these pieces into a collage to create the graphical elements of the game. The end result delivers a quite unique style that, while occasionally is a little dreary in terms of its colors, does look pretty cool. There are giant turbines, transformers, and other hulking great pieces of electronics flying around the screen, spewing bullets everywhere.
There is a simple story to this game, a tongue-in-cheek affair that explains that you, Nikola Tesla, are on a mission to defend earth against an attack from a Martian Emperor called Zangórax. What this boils down to is a simple shooter where you fly through six levels of action, blasting all and sundry – and avoiding anything that's impervious to your weapons. Bet you've never played a game like this before!
Unusually, for a game like this, there are no power-ups. Instead you have two modes of fire. Rapidly pressing the fire button sprays an impressive amount of bullets up the screen in an arc. This is ideal for dealing with the myriad of little enemies that fly in from the sides and top of the screen and attempt to swarm your ship. Keep the fire button depressed, however, and you'll focus those bullets into a laser beam that fires straight up the screen. Perfect for laying into bigger enemy ships, and the inevitable mid- and end-of-level bosses that you regularly encounter.
The other mechanic that this system incorporates is that you move much more slowly when you're focus-firing. This makes it easier to finesse your movement when you need to pick your way through the dense fields of bullets that are fired your way. Otherwise, the default movement of the ship is fairly fast.
Although the weapons aren't upgradable, there are still power-ups to collect. These slowly fill a meter which, when full, automatically destroys every bullet on screen when you hit one – it's essentially like having a shield, and is very handy in a pinch when you're really up against it.
While you're playing Arcade mode, there are "Missions" to complete. These are essentially goals that you can achieve as a bonus – killing a specific number of enemies, or destroying a certain amount of enemy bullets, for example. Apparently, if you complete them all, you'll unleash a death ray. What it does, I have no idea, as I'm nowhere near to completing all of them yet. But at least it gives you something to aim for.
As well as the main Arcade mode, there's also a Survival mode that puts you up against a non-stop barrage of enemies that scroll down the screen towards you. They drop coins and other items when they're destroyed, which you can use to upgrade your ship, boosting its weaponry and making its collision box smaller. Games of Survival are generally quite quick, and I ended up sinking quite a lot of time into this side of the game. It has that one-more-go appeal that keeps you playing – where you seem to get just little further each time, and if you don't, you retry anyway because you know you're only going to be at the game for a minute or two before you get destroyed again.
While Teslapunk scores low in terms of originality, it certainly provided a good few evenings' entertainment for me. I haven't played a decent vertically scrolling shooter in a while, and this certainly ticks the right boxes in terms of what it offers. It's challenging – especially on higher difficulty settings – and is well designed enough to keep you on your toes. The game packs few surprises, but the bosses in particular are enjoyable to fight and give your reflexes a great workout, which is what a game like this should be all about.
Graphically it's an odd one. It looks a little drab on the surface, but upon closer inspection, you'll see some really interesting detailing, and the old blueprints and tech drawings really give it its own unique appeal. The music also works well with the game – a weird mix of various techno genres which pound along to the gameplay in a quite apt fashion.
A nice bonus is that you can download a demo of Teslapunk for free to see if it floats your boat: if it does, the full game will set you back a penny short of $10. For that, you get a nicely designed, seriously oldschool bullet hell shooter that, while it lacks much in the way of new features, is a great way of scratching that shoot 'em up itch, should you have one. And who occasionally doesn't?
Teslapunk is challenging, but the lack of anything new means its novelty wears off fairly quickly.
A mixed bag of various electronica genres accompanies the action.
A little monochromatic at times, but the detailing of the background and spaceships is nevertheless interesting.
While it packs few original features, this vertically scrolling shooter still manages to be enjoyable. It's challenging, audio-visually interesting, and the bosses and level layouts are nicely designed to give your reflexes a decent workout. Just don't expect it to keep you occupied for long.