Ever since the twin-stick shooter genre saw a resurgence with the success of Geometry Wars in 2005, few games have strayed from its formula. Pick any one to come out in the past decade and you’ll be hard pressed to find anything that departs even slightly from standard genre conventions. Games like Waves make subtle tweaks by encourages you to hold off on attacking incoming foes until they’re in close proximity to double your score, but at the end of the day, the formula remains the same.
Assault Android Cactus isn’t all that different either, really. It’s a stage-based twin-stick shooter that has more in common with something like Smash TV than its modern contemporaries. But it does have one key difference. Instead of just facing off against increasingly difficult waves of encroaching foes, you’re also dodging bullets, rockets, bombs, and all other manner of artillery while holding out against the advancing hordes. It gives the game a sort of bullet hell element as you’re not only cutting through incredible numbers of foes, but also navigating increasingly tight bullet-filled spaces. It’s a small addition that makes a world of a difference.
You choose one of nine androids, each with their own play-style, and fight your way through a couple dozen of levels across five sectors. The differences between characters manifest solely in their choice of firearms. Cactus has an assault rifle and flamethrower, for instance, while Starch uses a laser and cluster missiles. They don’t play terribly dissimilar to one another, but they certainly feel different. That’s mainly due to how their secondary weapons handle. Cactus’ flamethrower makes quick work of foes directly in front of you, making it the most straightforward of the bunch, whereas Aubergine uses singularity bombs to draw enemies together so her bladed drone can cut through them with greater ease.
Played solo, which android you choose comes down to your preference of firearms. But played cooperatively, those sub-weapons open up all kinds of possibilities. The game is clearly designed around co-op as each character’s abilities complement one another well and make quick work of whatever’s thrown at you when used in tandem. And if you don’t have anyone around to play with, you can sub-in AI partners, though they’re not the most effective allies as they don’t make much effort to avoid enemy fire.
Each level drops you into an arena to fight off several waves of robots. The early levels throw easy cannon fodder your way, but it’s not long before it starts upping the ante. Bullets fly from all directions as your adversaries start to arm themselves with firearms of their own. Rockets and bombs reduce the amount of room you have to safely maneuver, requiring you to split your attention between the advancing hordes and the target reticles spread across the ground. Eventually, even the levels themselves start to complicate matters by throwing obstacles in your way or outright transforming the lay of the land.
Most dual-stick shooters don’t pursue this level of chaos. They rely solely on cornering you through overwhelming odds. It’s a simple matter of cutting a path through them, as they traditionally don’t add bullets of their own to the mix. But those games also only give you a single hit-point and a handful of lives, thus forbidding them from straying from the traditional formula. Assault Android Cactus doesn’t do that. Instead, a battery serves as your lifeline. It slowly drains over time and must be refilled by picking up additional batteries dropped from fallen foes. This renders death mostly harmless since you can get right back up instantly, a few seconds and a small point deduction from your score the only penalty for death. The use of the battery in place of a standard lives system allows the game to easily accommodate the additional mayhem.
The boss battles, however, are where the game stumbles. The constant drain of the battery works in the standard arena levels because you can always count on a refill dropping just when you need one, whereas with bosses, they only drop one per health segment. And given how resilient each boss is and how difficult it is to consistently deal damage on them while avoiding the myriad of bullets and projectiles they throw your way, it becomes an awful race against the clock. Playing cooperatively doesn’t help, either. If anything, it only makes things worse. Damage from each player is halved in a bid to force cooperation. Both players have to be shooting the boss in tandem to produce similar damage output as you would have playing solo, which only makes the race to whittle its health down before your battery runs out even more infuriating.
My annoyance with the boss fight mechanics stems primarily from the last one. The four bosses before it aren’t too bad, as the mechanics of those fights give you ample time to take out each health bar without much worry. But the final battle doesn’t. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but something about it just feels… off. Like, no matter how much I play it, no matter how well I consistently perform, it feels like a matter of luck whether I’ll actually be able to make it to the final phase. Sometimes I’ll fail simply due to poor play, but often it’s because I somehow lost most of my battery power alarmingly fast, such that I’d never be able to catch up. I still haven’t been able to finish it, as of this writing. Frustrating, because I was really enjoying the game up until that point.
Still, one bad boss isn’t enough to ruin what is otherwise a fine game. On the whole, Assault Android Cactus is good fun. Its fast and frenetic action is thrilling but never overwhelming. The stage-based progression provides a nice alternative the usual endless modes that make up the majority of the genre’s offerings, making it perfect to play in short bursts. If you’re in the market for a new twin-stick shooter, you can’t do much better than Assault Android Cactus.