“The year is 20XX. Everything is neon, because it’s the future.” That’s according to NEON Ultra, a radiant twin-stick shooter by Amy Warden of PixelBark Games. The somewhat tongue-in-cheek tagline belies a hectic bullet-hell blast. I’m a twin-stick shooter magpie, and NEON Ultra is full of the shiny things I crave.
I guess we’re going to assume XX > 16 in this case.
Imagine you found the last known Asteroids arcade cabinet, in a wood behind a layby on the A66 east of Penrith. The casing is rotten, ivy has crept into the chips, and where the fire button used to be now grows a red and white spotted toadstool. You salvage what you can and bring it back to your lab. Painstaking analysis reveals that the only way to resurrect the original game is to host it within a customised instance of Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved. You patch it in, boot it up. It crackles and comes to an unholy mutant life.
Elements of Geometry Wars have permanently fused with the original Asteroids code and evolved into something new. Tumbling space rocks wrap around the arena, coming at you unexpectedly from all sides. Triangles and hexagons spawn into the gaps between them and immediately give chase. Larger circular entities, forms never before encountered, spew dense spiral patterns of deadly projectiles.
This is essentially how I imagine Amy created NEON Ultra.
Choose Or Perish
From the second you start your first run at NEON Ultra it’s clear that it’s a polished game. The glowing graphics are clean and simple, large bold shapes punctuated by sparkly particle effects. It’s all consistently ripped up by deliberate visual glitches and mandatory screen-shake, effects which push the envelope of readability at times but only rarely distract from the gameplay, crucial in a game where concentration is king.
Gameplay proceeds much as you’d expect from a twin-stick shooter. You begin with a puny weapon and face off against one or two asteroids which float serenely across the screen. Pumping enough firepower into a rock causes it to split into two faster-moving halves. Basic enemies begin to spawn, and some of them fire back. You dispatch them, with the help of the collectable weapon upgrades and shields that have started to appear. The pattern continues and escalates. Asteroids get larger, enemies more substantial, more aggressive, and greater in number. Your scoring accelerates as your multiplier increases, but so does the tension of one hit knocking you back to the pathetic 1x. And of course your firepower increases too, buffing your original pea-shooter into, eventually, an insanely potent five-beamed laser array with a right-angle of spread. Even that doesn’t feel like enough.
So it’s fair to say that NEON Ultra doesn’t break new ground in terms of gameplay. But what it does have is balance. This is not an easy game by any means, but it’s a game at which you can improve, a game which allows you to learn. Success comes from being able to prioritise threat combinations, and forming strategies to deal with them. At every stage of the game you’re presented with problems and choices, and resolving those choices elevates this game above many of its twitch-fest peers. Concentration is king, but tactics at least let you blink.
For example: one enemy type hovers around shooting constantly in random directions, another patrols quickly but only fires back when you destroy it, and a third sits there idly soaking up firepower for a few seconds only to then spam hundreds of bullets in all directions at once. They all spawn simultaneously into an arena that’s already dominated by one large asteroid, primed to crack into sixteen deadly shards at the first sign of stray gunfire. You have approximately ten heartbeats before the next wave spawns. Choose, quickly.
Duty Cycles, Threat Cycles
As it reaches peak intensity the player duty cycle is near perfect: you fight off one wave of enemies only for the next to appear, and you’re under constant pressure from the barrage of rocks from the edges of the screen which have to be dealt with before they clog up half the arena. It doesn’t necessarily feature the sheer number of enemies on screen as many other twin-sticks, but the variations in size and speed mean you rarely get a break.
This might not appeal to you I suppose, but I love it. The high duty cycle, the crisp glitchy graphics, the crunchy bang bang sounds and the subtle electronic pump of Ben Burnes’ background music driving it all forward – NEON Ultra puts me in the zone. I like it here in the zone. I don’t even see the screen-shake.
It does have a few issues though, little technical niggles which I hope will be addressed in a future patch. Pausing sometimes doesn’t actually pause the game, for example. It displays the pause menu, but the game keeps running in the background, and not under your control. And one enemy type in particular has a bug which occasionally causes it to spawn right on top of you and instantly do damage you can’t avoid. [Edit: in the most recent patch Amy had fixed a similar bug affecting a different enemy, and is looking into this case, so hopefully a fix will be coming soon…]
More damaging to the experience is a lack of variability at higher difficulties. Once you’ve fully upgraded your weapon and maxed out the intensity of the enemy threat, the game settles into a sort of cyclic state where the waves become predictable. The cycle will be different every time you play, and it will sometimes present more interesting and challenging threat combinations than others, but it nevertheless always exists. An additional sprinkling from the random number generator would alleviate the problem.
But don’t be put off by that even one little bit: NEON Ultra is a fantastic game, and a fine example of a simple concept done extremely well. For roughly the price of a pint you can’t go wrong. (Pint prices may vary…) You’ll certainly get your money’s worth before you’re able to play at such a consistently high level that the threat-cycle becomes boring for you. And maybe one day you’ll beat my high-score.
NEON Ultra is available now on Steam.
You can follow Amy Warden on Twitter.
Small Print: All opinions are my own. I bought this game with my own money and played for 22 hours before review.