Three minutes with Super Hydorah is enough to make you feel like you’ve stepped back into the 80’s – an era defined by classic shoot ’em ups like Gradius and R-Type. Super Hydorah takes you back to the golden age of pure arcade games. It looks like an 80’s arcade shoot ’em up. It sounds like an 80’s arcade shoot ’em up, but most importantly, it plays like one. This mechanical distillation makes it thrilling, but is it worth the current $20 asking price?
Hydorah began life as a freeware game in 2010. Super Hydorah is an enhanced and extended version featuring more levels, bosses, enemies, songs, co-op, and an additional two-player “robot chase” mode. Both co-op and the multiplayer robot chase mode are limited to local. If there’s a story here, it’s not worth discussing the particulars of. The few cutscenes that exist exhibit charming cheese-ball acting, though the inability to skip them slows down the game flow. Whereas most elements of its design work toward the idea of a natural progression curve, having to listen to the same 10-15 seconds of dialogue after restarting a level for the 30th time can be grating.
What is this aforementioned game flow? Super Hydorah is simple, but this simplicity is aided by effective progression that keeps the game interesting on a consistent basis. There are only two buttons: An attack button and a special attack button. As you’d expect from a game in this genre, power-ups and shields can be picked up. New weapons are awarded after beating major bosses with intermissions between missions allowing players to choose their primary, secondary, and special weapon load outs. The most interesting “twist” comes from its movement speed. The ship’s default movement speed is insultingly slow for a game that dares to call itself a shoot ’em up. A power-up is the only way to increase it. This presents one major problem. The speed boost is gated behind a power-up that scrolls between shield, speed boost, and special attack.
These power-ups are dropped by specific tougher enemies. Because all three are rolled into one, the designers don’t let RNG decide your fate nor do they deliberately decide what you get and when. It is up to the player whether that enhanced speed is worth giving up a shield (one hit kills apply without a shield) or special screen wiping attack. Speed and special attack slots can be stacked, though Super Hydorah only allows one active shield with no backups. The only other set of power-ups increase primary and secondary weapon strength. Every death before a game over removes one speed boost, one special attack, and decreases primary and secondary attack power.
This means that while you learn from your mistakes, you also have to fight a constant uphill battle, remaining spatially aware of not only enemy projectiles, but pick-up locations. It is not one of those hardcore shmup’s that bombards the screen with a hailstorm of bullets. The number of projectiles on screen at once is always manageable, but due to the game’s design and enemy placement, it strikes a delicately delicious balance when it wants to. I breezed through some levels on my first try within 3 minutes while others had my palms sweating for hours. However, for as difficult as Super Hydorah becomes, it never feels painfully unfair. If you die, it’s because you messed up and need to pay more attention. Enemies and bosses have easily recognizable patterns and bullet spreads. Even after dying on the same level dozens of times, I never felt cheated.
Where players might feel cheated, though, is the price tag. When Super Hydorah originally launched on Steam, it sold for $9.99. That price tag only stuck around for three months. The developers inflated the price to $19.99 around the same time the Xbox One, PlayStation Vita, and PlayStation 4 versions launched, which also sell for $19.99. The original price was touted as a “special launch promotion”, but it still seems a little shady.
Super Hydorah is an excellent distillation of old school shoot ’em ups marred by some uneven difficulty lulls and shady price gouging. It comes highly recommended only after a sale for all but the most ardent shmup fans.
A free Steam code was provided by Abylight Studios for the purposes of this review.