As my recent list of Top 10 Commodore 64 games showed (part one and part two), I love old school shoot ‘em ups. Following that post, someone suggested I try Phoenix HD on iOS – a retro-inspired take on the old bullet hell style shooter. All I can say to that person is “thank you!”
Phoenix HD is a love letter to old style arcade games. From the retro graphics and sound, through to the frantic, addictive gameplay, it could easily have been made in the late 8/early 16 bit era.
The graphics are simple, but in their own way gorgeous to look at. There are several different designs of enemy ships, each with their own particular characteristics and distinct look and feel. Whilst none of the designs are particularly revolutionary, they look great on screen and really capture the style of the old style shmup.
Sound too is fairly minimal, although atmospheric. There are the usual sounds of bullets firing, explosions erm, exploding and the general mayhem of noise you associate with this type of game. A perfectly adequate in-game tune accompanies the action although I find it tends to grate on the ears after a while and tend to switch it off and use the sound effects only.
What the game has in bucket loads is addictiveness and the “just one more go” element is strong in this one. The basic gameplay is instantly appealing and initially appears to be relatively straightforward – just shoot anything that moves. It’s an unashamed score chase game and it makes no apologies for that. However, the more you play, the more you start to appreciate the game’s hidden depths and learning how to use this is crucial to maximising your score.
There are the usual temporary power-ups to collect to give your ship a bit more firepower and careful use of these can really help you progress. Kills can be chained to get higher scores and this really alters your approach to the game. It’s not always in your interests to kill enemies one at a time, but it’s sometimes worth taking your time and trying to take out several enemies in quick succession. Similarly, when enemy ships explode, any bullets they have fired which are still on screen are converted into coins. These can be used in later games to purchase power-ups which last for a single game and can really help you get those high scores. This makes for a brilliantly balanced risk and reward strategy. In some ways, it’s in your interests to leave as many bullets on screen as possible – but this, of course, increases your chances of getting hit and dying.
Like most old school shoot em ups, the game is brutally hard. You only get one life, although taking a hit from a bullet depletes your energy bar, rather than killing you outright. It’s here that another facet of the game slowly becomes apparent. Many of the ships you encounter have weapons which can be targeted and destroyed individually. This releases a green mist which will top up your energy bar. Again, this adds to the risk-reward element: should you take out an enemy ship as quickly as possible or do you try and take out its weapons to secure that energy – but accept that the longer it is on screen, the more dangerous it is?
As you’ve probably gathered by now, Phoenix HD is a game that requires both fast reflexes and responsive controls. Whilst it can’t do much about the former, it gets the latter spot on (a rarity on iOS games which all too often fail on clunky controls). The developers have sensibly taken the decision to use touch screen controls for the ship’s movement, whilst firing is automatic. The controls might be minimal, but they are very responsive and enable you to zip through the tiniest of gaps or navigate tight paths that will deal the least damage to your craft. If you die, it’s rare that you can blame the game or the controls.
Whilst you might reach a point in Phoenix HD where you struggle to get further, the various challenges and trophies are enough to keep you going. Many are pretty standard (kill so many villains, avoid damage for a specific amount of time), but others are more unusual. For example, rather than having a straightforward league based on the best scores, you are ranked against other players in your current location and so some of the challenges are location based (e.g. get the highest score in a particular town or city/region or even country or continent). In iOS terms, the game is pretty old, so you’ll either have to be very good or very lucky to meet some of these challenges. For example, I managed to find a town where only 5 people had played the game previously and the highest score was very low. This meant I was able to get the Mayor trophy (number one score in a particular location), although I think the others will forever remain beyond my reach (not that it will stop me trying). This competitive element of measuring your skills against other players merely adds to the compulsion to keep on playing.
For a number of reasons, I’m even prepared to overlook the use of in-app purchases (which I usually detest) because they have been implemented fairly. It’s perfectly possible to progress in the game without every spending a single penny on it. Whilst power–ups can be bought with real money, they can also be bought using the in-game coins and for once, the rate at which you earn these coins is reasonable enough. If you play the game a lot (and you will!), you’ll amass enough coins to “buy” power-ups pretty frequently just through normal play.
Finally, there are two tiers of in-app purchases: single-user power-ups or the ability to unlock up to 7 additional spacecraft for 99p each. You can even take each one for a single test flight to decide which (if any) you want to purchase. Crucially, each of the craft has different capabilities and handles differently which adds to the title’s long term appeal. I’ve paid to unlock a few extra craft, partly to add a bit more variety and partly to give the developers some recognition (and income!) for the great game they have created. For once the developers have shown that you can incorporate in-app purchases without it being a cynical way of exploiting gamers.
Phoenix HD doesn’t do anything spectacular, and it certainly doesn’t do anything new. However, what it does do, it does well. If you want an additive shmup which is both a nod to the past and a great game in its own right, Phoenix HD is the game you’re looking for. And since the basic game is free to download and play, what have you got to lose?