Los Geekos Studio
Mr. B’s, Blackpool, late 1980s. Ten years old and brownian between rows of machines, motioning to dad, more coins. A seaside summer affair with a video game. This was before we called them shmups, before bullet-hell. Ninety seconds of frantic action, over too soon, blame my nerves. It changed me. My love became lifelong. Sure, these days I occasionally get caught checking out the younger, prettier horizontally-scrolling shoot-em-ups. I’m only human. But what I feel for R-Type will never die.
Hawkwing is definitely one such younger shmup that’s caught my lusty gaze. It’s only a one-level demo of a possible game to be, one which deliberately harks back to the understated classiness of a bygone age. But does it wear it well, like Sophie Ellis Bextor doing the charleston like a born flapper? Or is it more like a tweed-addled hipster playing the ukulele and eating quinoa from a snuff box while browsing the second-hand Mini-Discs?
It’s a lovely thing in many ways. It certainly goes to great lengths to look the part, and in a sense that makes it hard to review on visual grounds. The enemy sprites, the environments, weapon effects and explosions would all fit right into an early 90s arcade, or maybe one of the better shmups I used to hammer on my Atari ST. And it’s all piped through a slightly fish-eyed CRT screen effect for character. In fact the whole game starts up with a RAM OK ROM OK message straight out of a
MAME emulator real arcade machine. Sound effects are authentically blippy, and the background music really evokes the synthetic prog-ish arpeggios of R-Type.
It’s all a clever bit of design, and it looks and sounds great to me because I know what it’s aiming for, but it also can’t help but look a little chunky and drab in places as a result. In the decades since the age we’re harking back to here, shmups have ascended the heights of garish bombast (or plumbed its depths, your mileage may vary) and I appreciate the fact that Hawkwing treads a different path. But then I can’t help but look at actual arcade shmups that it would have compared to – I’ve been playing Raiden (1990) a lot recently for instance – and some of the effects, explosions in particular, are in need of a bit more audio and visual crunch.
What about the gameplay though? Well, again I have my criticisms, but nothing that would stop me recommending Hawkwing. It’s all as traditional as the presentation, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, at least not for my tastes. Ship control is great, enemy waves are pretty varied though I have to say a little slow at times, and there are a handful of bosses. The stand-out boss is a pair of giant Chinese dragons, which aren’t a huge threat but are wonderful to look at as they snake around the screen and hem you in. The overall feel is a little bit cramped to me, with a large player ship, sequences where most enemies are large but few in number, and no vertical scrolling to expand the play area. Zooming the whole thing out a notch would give it more room to breathe.
Power-ups are via pickups that cycle through four states – weapon, shield, speed and option. (“Option” in the Gradius sense of a companion wingman that adds extra firepower.) You can delay collecting them until they change into the thing you need most, the obvious comparison again being to Raiden which nailed this mechanic beautifully. Unlike Raiden however the power-ups in Hawkwing drift off the screen immediately, so you can’t wait too long to collect.
It’s in the power-ups that I actually find my main criticism of Hawkwing, and it has to do with the weapon curve. Part of the joy of playing R-Type for the first time is seeing the gradual buildup of your arsenal. You face the first few waves with a puny pea shooter, then you first obtain the Force add-on. Another minute or so of gameplay goes by before your Force gets upgraded with blue bouncy lasers. Cool. Then you get an Orb, and then homing missiles and a speed-up. You face a mid-boss and numerous enemies that are deliberately authored to be awkward for your loadout. Then you fully upgrade the Force with red plasma beams, your orb starts firing off its own lasers, and you meet the first level boss feeling pretty damn punchy. In later stages, with your weapon maxed out, power-ups become a tactical choice, switching between fire modes to meet specific threats, and this is again authored into the game, sometimes encouraging you to make inappropriate choices.
This kind of slow burning arms race and ensuing metagame is basically absent from Hawkwing as it is now. The collectibles are thrown at you thick and fast in the early stages, and it’s too easy to ramp your weapon to maximum laser blast before you even meet a significant enemy. This is, in part, a consequence of the cycling pickup mechanic. If pickups were fixed type then the power curve could be controlled by design – give the player a weapon at authored, or semi-random but wider intervals, and otherwise it’s shields or even just bonus points. Alternatively, add many more stages to the weapon curve – maybe each major upgrade is interspersed by three smaller buffs. As it stands you just obviously go for weapons for your first four pickups. Firepower is king. And as a consequence you probably only shoot five baddies with weapon 2 before you get weapon 3, then likewise to max shooty.
I’ve been a bit more critical of Hawkwing than I’d originally intended. Hopefully constructively so, but nevertheless critical. But look, I like this game. I like the way it looks, I like the way it sounds, and I like the way it plays. It even packs a few easter eggs into its five minute length (and I’m sure there’s more that I missed). It could improve, sure, but this is after all only a one-level demo of a game that hopefully will soon exist in full form. I’ll certainly be asking my dad for a pocket full of change when it does.