By Alec Meer on March 10th, 2009 at 3:39 pm.
While I may devour them in vast quantities, I am not, I fear, an especially skilled player of games. If a game requires reflex, or quick-thinking, or high manual dexterity, you will almost certainly be better at it than I am. See how I run should someone challenge me to Streetfighter IV, see how I cower if they ask me what my best score in Geometry Wars is.
Shmups especially are bittersweet for me. I want to play them because I want to shoot things in a spaceship, not because I want to be tapping buttons quicker than I can think, not because I want to watch a number on the top-left of the screen slowly increase, not because I want to feel the stinging challenge to self-betterment when I’m killed and thrown back to the start. Because I am a lazy coward who wants to watch things blow up. I enjoy the mechanics of something like Geometry Wars, but when I play it I sometime feel like I’m being punished and mocked. Oh boo-hoo. So! Lovely free webgame Death vs Monstars is pretty much ideal for me.
It’s the same arena-based shmup formula as Geo Wars, but essentially it replaces punishment with reward. Killed? No worries, you get to keep all the credits you earned (to be spent on gloriously effective upgrades) and then to jump straight to whichever level you last played. Shot a few times? Yeah, you can handle it – and your health gradually recharges. Can’t afford a given upgrade? Just repeat any level as many times as you like to raise more cash. The new weapons carry descriptions like “don’t really have to aim with this one” and “It just simply tears EVERYTHING apart. That is guaranteed.”
And yet it’s far, far from being a skill-free game. All this stuff just serves to make you enjoy the explodey, exaggerated experience that much more – you still have to react and think pretty quickly. The amount and toughness of the Monstars increases dramatically across the half-dozen levels, and the end-boss (which is a tribute to a certain rope-burning meme) is ridiculously difficult. At the same time, you’re spraying mega-bullets, feeling increasingly powerful and generally having a grand old time. Failure is an opportunity to go cheerily blow up more stuff, not to grimly attempt to beat your own record. Though that option is unlocked if you complete the game. It’s a shmup for people who don’t care about high scores, and don’t care that they’re playing it a little hamfistedly.
The controls are superb too – the WASD + mouse, Robotron-derived system is rethought as a one handed, click-free mechanic. Just move your guy around with the mouse, and the gun will fire in the opposite direction to your travel. Inertia and arcing means you can nail a whole load of stuff almost indirectly, but for more precision you can hold down the left button to lock the targeting reticule in whatever direction it’s currently pointing. Your other hand, meanwhile, is left free to pick fluff out of your belly-button, stroke a cat, throw shadow-puppets or display the bird to imaginary persecutors. Throw in bullet time and a mega-bomb and conquering Death vs Monstars becomes something of an art after all – just one in which you can mess up a few times without winding up ultra-dead.
Plus, it’s cute as a button and oddly spectacular with it – you’re a cartoon Death blowing up dozens of space monsters at a time. If I were to put a gentle boot in, it’s to say that you end up unlocking everything a little too soon, leaving cash-collection in the later levels pretty much purposeless, and that it could really do with somehow auto-pausing on those moments where you accidentally lurch the cursor outside of the little Flash window. Other than that, this was as fine a waste of my morning as I could wish for.