Targeting Made Easy
Wide Pixel Games, a Swedish indie development team currently consisting of just two guys who have been popping up around the indie scene for the last few years, have made a name for themselves as creators of some truly old-school indie titles. In 2009, they released the arcade adventure, Knight ‘n’ Grail, for a platform none other than Commodore 64! The guys subsequently went on to win the 2011 C64 16KB Cartridge Game Development Competition with Fairy Well.
Now, Wide Pixel Games has set its sights on hardware just a tad bit more modern: The team has just released the effectively satisfying and cleverly addictive shoot-em-up Xbox Live Indie title, Birth Order. The object of the game is to, of course, dodge the hell of bullets, projectiles, and lasers flying at you while progressing through the horizontally scrolling levels. But Wide Pixel has made a few tweaks to the familiar formula which change up the traditional gameplay in a number of ways.
First off, there is no aiming required in Birth Order. Enemies are all marked with a colored sphere, matching the four face buttons of the 360’s controller. Simply pushing the button corresponding to the enemies on screen will cause your fighter’s lasers to home in on any visible targets matching that button. Even from the top corner of the screen, you’ll be able to light up bogeys in the middle and at the bottom of the frame. The result is quite a satisfying feeling, as your laser beams snap onto an enemy and obliterate him, often moving in languid arcs of bright light.
The second change-up to the shmup formula is that Birth Order is actually a hybrid game, of sorts; the guys have married the side-scrolling shooting action with a hex-based board-game overworld, complete with power-up cards. In between levels, players are presented with a starting point for their adventure, and their final destination at the other end of the playing field. The remainder of the board is blacked out, and can only be uncovered one step at a time, as players clear stages and advance one step forward. The board is procedurally generated, ensuring a unique experience each playthrough, and gives players some control over where to go. Spaces on the board includes extra lives, boss battles, and unique stages, but usually just lead to one of twelve different stage designs that must be conquered to proceed. Cards found during the shooting stages provide bonuses, such as experience boosts, “Evolve” upgrades, drone sidekicks, even a card that nukes each adjacent square, letting you pass through unmolested.
The game plays smoothly, and the graphics and sound are pleasant and vibrant, but never meant to overshadow the frantic gameplay. By the time I’d made my halfway across the game board, stages were becoming progressively more difficult. One wouldn’t think it, but being required to switch between four or even three face buttons to target enemies in quick succession requires a high level of dexterity, and with all the chaos on-screen, it’s a good thing aiming has been taken out of the equation – simply navigating the hail of bullets becomes tricky enough! Shooting enemies turns them into stars which grant experience when collected, and destroying foes turns most of their bullets into stars as well; however, not all bullets turn into power-ups, and it’s all too easy for a stray shot to snake its way through the tumult and anarchy on display.
With bite-sized action (most stages only took between 1-2 minutes to fly through), simple mechanics, and challenging twitch gameplay, all underlined by pleasantly simple yet colorful graphics and a pretty score, Birth Order scratches an impulse indie itch, and for only 80 MS Points ($1 dollar), there’s very little excuse for shmup fans not to check this one out!