Is it a bird? No. Is it a plane? No, not really. Is it a sort of pogoing, semi-submersible death machine? Yeah, pretty much. It’s also the new game from Vlambeer, and it’s out today. Here’s what I made of it.
There’s much to make Luftrausers recognisable as a Vlambeer game. It’s got the massively exaggerated unlocks of Super Crate Box, it’s got the plummeting chaos-physics of Ridiculous Fishing, it’s got the half-manic, half-strategic gunplay of Nuclear Throne. Most of all it’s got a sense of a humour, and it bumrushes your screen with a cheerful swagger and a glint in its eye that says “yeah, I’m a videogame and I make no bones about it. So what?”
It is a sort of shmup starring alt-universe World War II aircraft which fly more like a glider strapped to a rocket than a plane, and bear weapons which are part lo-fi R-Type and part fever dream. It is a high score attack game for a single player. It is a game about dying regularly and often, then jumping straight back in without hesitation or regret. It is fun, fun, fun. It feels wrong, at first, because the ‘plane’ plummets and bounces rather the cruises and jets. Then it feels right. Then other shmups start to feel wrong.
It’s completely throwaway. I’m sure it’s supposed to be. I’m sure it’s about the joy of making pixels go bang, and then doing it again and again. It’s about being (in my case) inept and clumsy but having the game make me feel like I’m Han Solo in a death machine.
It’s not quite the colour-burst of enthusiasm that Ridiculous Fishing and to a lesser extent Nuclear Throne is (and it certainly lacks the anachronistic sadness of the former’s in-game messages), which is partly because it’s sepia toned (initially, at least) and partly because it’s a smaller, briefer, one-note affair. If there’s something that rings hollow about it, it’s that the framing is a little too minimalistic – a big, pixel art Red Baronesque character stands silently on the menu screens, and occasionally there’s a brief cut scene showing something arriving or exploding, but it’s essentially wordless.
Christ, I don’t want exposition. I don’t want talking heads. I don’t want Metal Gear Luftrauser. I’d like just a little more though. I’d like one of those big, odd people to say something about what I’d just done, how I’d died, what I’d achieved. I’d like the main game screen to be not quite so barebones as it is, because it’s so retro as to feel it might just be posturing rather than pushing.
Blast it, I’m being an armchair flight-lieutenant. Not my place to say what extra things should be in someone’s game – all I mean is that there’s some dissonance when playing Luftrausers, because the only thing to connect me to its dogfighting is the dogfighting. This means it too quickly fades from my memory when I’m not playing it. It’s an arcade game from another, more knowing world, something to funnel psychic pennies into until it’s time to come home.
When I am playing it, it’s all I think about – lasting a little longer (stop sniggering), unlocking a new weapon or body (stop sniggering) or engine. Taking out a battleship without taking damage. Finding a blimp. Mastering the slow firing, ultra-damaging cannon. Winning a new colour scheme. More, more, forever and more, while the sound of synthesised marching (very much a callback to that other great alterna-WW2 jape, C&C Red Alert) and tinny MIDI explosions drives me on.
I also think about the brief goals it sets me for each Luftrauser build I try – kill 30 enemies without firing, perhaps, or kill 8 ships without breaking a score combo. These speak to the subtly different strategies at play, depending on how you outfit your Luftrauser and how you then use it. For instance, while any Luftrauser causes damage to whatever it collides with, usually it’ll take damage too. But fit a different body and you trade overall health for melee invulnerability – hence, you can kill 30 enemies without firing. Though you’ll probably die a couple of times first – death comes easily, enjoyably.
Killing eight boats without breaking a combo requires a little more skill, perhaps. Ingeniously, you can only recover from damage by ceasing fire for a time. As well as this meaning you’re giving enemies an opportunity to cluster around you safely, if you’re not killing things quickly enough your score combo (increasing from 1x to 20x for each kill) will expire. So to pull off that challenge you either need to be practised at ducking and diving the hail of bullets and planes and missiles, or you pick a weapon that kills things do damned fast that you’ve hit the target before your health goes to the dogs.
Each weapon/engine/body has a trade-off, however – the highest damage weapon fires incredibly slowly, for instance, and its discharge moves in kind. So there’s every chance your intended target is no longer in the place you aimed at, but if you can land the shot in a cluster of foes it’ll wipe ’em all out.
Or perhaps sir prefers the slow-ish engine which creates momentum by chucking bullets out your Luftrauser’s arse. Or perhaps the otherwise weak body which enables you to dive into the sea (great for boat-killing) without taking damage. Or perhaps you want the bloody great death ray, even though you turn incredibly slowly as its beam cuts a constant wound across the sky. Each ‘build’ gets its own name, and often a different silhoutte, and while realistically the pool of possible combos isn’t all that deep, there’s enough in it that each new one you try feels like it’s been custom-made for you.
Choices, choices – that’s what keeps me playing. What about this gun with this engine? Perhaps that’s the killer combo. Perhaps that’s what’ll keep me alive/deadly enough for long enough to meet a couple of those mini-objectives and unlock something new. Maybe a colour scheme! Ah, the colour schemes are wonderful/horrible – a new, garish palette to render the initially sepia as a sort of sky-borne Hotline Miami, or a faintly nightmarish blood-red BBC Micro look. The unlockable colours are actually difficult to play the game with, and yet the compulsion to do so anyway is overwhelming – that retina-bruising wash of ugliness was so hard-won, dammit.
Luftrauser’s a hoot. It’s lightweight, yes, to the point that it feels more like something from an earlier, rawer, lower-budget age of indie as opposed to the gloss and daintiness that’s so common, but it’s clearly very carefully so. Nothing feels junky or for the sake of it, and even the silliest-sounding equipment (helloooo gungine) winds up having a clear purpose, effect and balance. Even scenarios which feel or seem unfair are beatable with the right craft and the rich approach – it’s not the random mayhem it can appear to be. This is master craftsmanship, but it’s a two minute pop single, not OK Computer/ Dark Side Of The Moon/ Beardy Q Magazine Reader Favourite X,Y or Z. It’s YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH, not Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. It’s Luftrausers.
It’s such a little thing. I have to focus hard to remember it when it’s not right there in front of me. It probably doesn’t have much staying power. But when it’s there, when the sound of machine-marking throbs through my speakers, when I drop like a stone into the ocean then rebound heroically skywards, with smoke pouring out my engines, it’s everything that matters.
Luftrausers is out now.