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The Art of Indirection: S.H.M.U.P. [Review]

S.H.M.U.P. I’m not generally a big fan of the shoot-’em-up genre, but I played the demo of S.H.M.U.P. when it was released because it was an IGF China finalist, and I was hooked.

Part of is is that the game uses persistent upgrades, which remind me of a game I played a lot in my younger days called Raptor. But it’s also that there’s a Space Invaders vibe. You don’t just have to survive and avoid a blanket of projectiles; you have prevent the onslaught and protect something.

Gameplay

You control a group of circles that follow your mouse pointer around. The circles are defend the squares on the left side of the screen from the other assorted polygons coming from the right. If enough of those polygons run into the squares, it’s game over. You don’t have to worry about firing, your circular ships do that on their own. The only control you have beyond movement is the missiles, which fire from above and below and seek out targets.

There are 15 level in the original game mode, but you won’t make it through on one go. You’ll die on your first playthrough because you simply aren’t powerful enough to kill everything before the enemies break through to the other side. In your next game, you’ll start at the beginning, but you also have any upgrades you’ve earned. With the extra power you start with, you can try playing levels on a higher difficulty, which earns you more points to spend on upgrades. This keeps the early levels challenging and rewarding a second or third time.

S.H.M.U.P.

As the game progresses, the random shapes come together. Sometimes they come together to make a ship-like construct, complete with gun turrets and shield generators. Other times they’re in formation, with lines of heavily shielded squares protecting missile launching stars. So even though the enemies start off very basic, they grow into unique challenges later in the game.

Each level has a boss, which is a weak point that surrounds itself with the shapes from the level. Bosses aren’t out to get the squares on the left, they’re out to get the circles you control. You can either go straight for the weak point, or pick off all the extraneous pieces for extra points.

There are a few challenge levels and a marathon mode for those who find the original game mode a bit too easy after all the upgrades have been bought.

Style

Your ships feel alive. When they move, they flow and bounce like they’re connected to your mouse pointer by rubber bands. And when you hold them in one place, they squirm like they waited to long to get in line to pee. And though the enemy ships start out very basic, they build into interesting formations that become more than the sum of their parts.

The weapons are the only area of the game that I think could be easily improved without changing the visual style. Bullets and missiles are a lackluster gray, and their explosions aren’t very impressive. The music is ambient chiptunes composed by Bart Klepka and Multifaros, and it fits well with the simple look and laid back feel of the game.

Story

You’re a slave to the line of bocks. They die, it’s game over. The reason for this is never made clear, but I’m OK with that.

Everything Else

There are 23 achievements to check off for people who like that kind of thing. Most of them just track how long you’ve been playing: earn 10,000,000 points, fire 10,000 missiles, pick up 100 powerups. Play long enough and you’re bound to earn them. But some of them are a challenge to acquire and make you feel like you’ve accomplished something beyond the grind. It also integrates with twitter. I don’t see a use for that, but that just could be a lack of imagination on my part.

S.H.M.U.P. is a game that feels like a shoot-’em-up without feeling like a game I’ve played before, and I think that’s an impressive accomplishment. It’s $9.99 at Charcoal Styles and it’s worth a try.

[Charcoal Styles provided a review copy for DIYgamer.com. This, in no way, affected the outcome of the review]

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