Ride upon the shoulders of arcade Titans — for better and for worse
Kickstarter is a place where dreams are born, and although we hold them as spectacles it’s an unfortunate reality that a lot of the projects one might find on there simply never get off the ground. The fast-paced, retro-styled first-person shooter known as STRAFE has managed to buck that trend; having been funded, delayed and eventually released back in May, developer Pixel Titans has finally brought “the fastest, bloodiest, deadliest, most adjective-abusing, action-packed first-person shooter of 1996” onto Steam, where it joins a host of other games from the same wacky wheelhouse in trying to — in the (paraphrased) words of id Software co-founder John Romero — make players its bitch.
STRAFE has one singular purpose in this complex, expansive and unknown universe: to bring gamers back to the halcyon days of old arcade shooters like DOOM and Quake; to the days of pixelated chainsaws passionately French-kissing the faces of our enemies, where players sat starry-eyed at the projected idea of their hero being a sadistic Fabio look-alike with an inane distaste for Hellspawn… Or perhaps that’s just me.
Unfortunately, while STRAFE does preach the books, it appears as though someone failed to inform the choir to show up: it was surprising and unfortunate to see a game that aimed to capture the DOOM and Quake aesthetic — you know, the blood, the guts, the mindless violence — sorely lacking in the realm of melee weapons.. If the player happens to run out of ammo, they become about as useful as a flashlight with curtains; even despite the presence of a wrench, which is really only intended as a gun substitute for greater playing difficulty. Additionally, players are forced to choose one gun out of a possible three before embarking on their journey , making it all too important to choose carefully.
STRAFE’s three main guns fire as though you were coating your enemies in gross spittle fired from a swirly straw, which is about as unpleasant as it sounds. While it is the most effective choice out of the three, the assault rifle feels about as accurate as trying to play darts with your toes, and its secondary missile launcher is barely powerful enough to light a small, fleeting campfire for all of the game’s nasty, unnamed enemies. Also available for selection is a shotgun that’s brutally effective at close range but utterly useless when aimed only slightly incorrectly, and a railgun that operates quite like a musket, which makes killing aliens all the more challenging, especially given the game’s addictively fast-paced combat.
Although the guns appear a bit flaccid at first, they can be upgraded at random robots spread across some levels; although the majority of these upgrades will greatly improve the weapon’s accuracy, damage output and fire rate, it was annoying to find that they are completely randomised, robbing the player of any freedom of choice beyond selecting their weapon.
Players may also collect weapons from the corpses of the starship ICARUS’ crew, each of which have one magazine inside them (an oversight that may or may not be what got these foresightless tits killed in the first place). Just as in plenty of arcade indies, players can purchase ammo and items from certain shops and vendors, opening up new ways to send alien blood flying.
STRAFE doesn’t shy away from embracing indie clichés, such as featuring a level in which each member of the Pixel Titans team has their name engraved on a tombstone. The aforementioned vendors are also an interesting inclusion: from a player’s perspective, they’re far too handy to live without, but upon further thought… Who in their right mind would just decide to start a small business when their ship has been taken apart and crash-landed on a hostile alien planet? Perhaps they’re just that dedicated.
The game is also full of fun Easter eggs. Players can find the King Skeletor Machine Gun from Shadow Warrior, or jump into a randomised level where the walls are melting and the player character is clearly tripping out. The idea of coming across unorthodox and simply crazy Easter Eggs kept me playing this game for a few hours longer, mostly because they’re just so wacky. More importantly, the game does hold up its promise of difficulty and fun, for a while.
A lot of the fun to be found within STRAFE stems from its fast pace, quick manoeuvring and hectic firefights. The game does a great job of breaking down the integral mechanics of a lot of AAA shooters, and gives them to us in a little package. The game features retro “block” graphics that the game facetiously refers to as “cutting edge”, because STRAFE has been created to look and feel like it was released in 1996, which made for some really funny trailers. The gimmick also works in Pixel Titans’ favour, given the difficulty involved with rendering amazing, modern graphics with a small team. It’s quite clear that the developer didn’t spend too much time worrying about the graphics — aside from when it’s time to poke fun at them — and that’s what gives STRAFE some of its indie charm. Pixel Titans’ passion was on display, and it was a joy to experience.
Unfortunately, STRAFE suffers from the Minecraft effect — it looks like shit, and it runs like shit. When there are ten or fewer enemies on screen, players can evade blows and shoot them silly all they like, but as soon as that number grows, the game buckles under the pressure, and its frame rate drops faster than a stork mistaking a wrecking ball for a child.
While the player’s mobility suffers at times, the level design itself is really well executed. It varies from place to place, and each iteration of every level is randomly generated. With that in mind, this feature didn’t necessarily add any greater value to the playing experience; rather, it only changes the way that players can approach the same concept. A tree with branches that appear in random spots is still the same tree in essence.
Aside from odd-feeling guns and a few bad design choices here and there, there is one gigantic flaw that STRAFE carries. In difficult games where you’re supposed to die a lot, you’re going to die because you fucked up. Whether it means that you failed to check for enemies, or rushed into combat without taking cover, it’s usually your own fault that you end up dying. Unfortunately, STRAFE takes a different approach. 80% of my (extremely frequent) deaths were either because:
- It was incredibly difficult to tell when an enemy was behind you until they were rummaging around between my buttocks;
- An enemy that took five whole magazines to kill would drop right in front of me; or
- The room I was in would glitch out, leaving me trapped inside it forever.
Nothing is more infuriating than dying when the game is solely to blame, and it happens a whole hell of a lot in STRAFE. On top of that, the game also takes an unusual stance on difficulty, with the earliest two stages posing more problems and causing more deaths than any other. By the time players reach the third stage and beyond, the difficulty changes rapidly, going from too simple to eye-gougingly difficult with no real rhyme or reason.
Still, despite these annoying bugs and seemingly-random spikes in difficulty, STRAFE does exactly what it sets out to do. It is a fun, faithful replica of the sort of balls-to-the-wall alien shooter that overran homes and internet cafes in the mid-90s, capturing the good and not-so-good aspects of these titles in a way that modern titles simply can’t.
STRAFE fulfils its arcade-recreation purpose and perfectly captures the old-school arcade shooter aesthetic, but also revives some of the grievances of these old titles. It’s a very niche title for people who hate new, casual shooters, and should appeal to those seeking a hard, glitch-sprinkled, retro shooter with a strange charm about it.