For as popular as side-scrolling shooters are, it’s tough to pull them off well. Not so much the basics, but the finer points — the feel, the difficulty curve, the action itself. It’s easy to make one that has strong fundamentals, but doesn’t quite nail the fine tuning. Graceful Explosion Machine, from developer Vertex Pop, is one of those games that hits all the right points flawlessly.
Released earlier this year on the Switch (now released for PlayStation 4 and PC), Graceful Explosion Machine is a side-scrolling shooter where the levels wrap around on themselves. You fight through four planets worth of stages trying to survive increasingly menacing waves of foes on a mission to collect warp crystals to take you back home to Earth, vying for the highest score possible all the while.
Your ship is equipped with four different weapons, each mapped to one of the controller’s face buttons. This is immensely useful, as you constantly need to switch between them. Your basic blaster handles the majority of the work, as it’s the only weapon that doesn’t require energy to use, but it quickly overheats. It cools off instantly when not in use, but you seldom have the luxury to hold off on shooting. I often ended up using the blade whenever the blaster needed to cool off. It spins around the ship a couple times each time it’s deployed, making quick work of anything within its grasp. The long-range laser is especially effective against armored adversaries while not eating up ship energy too quickly, while the missiles destroy just about anything immediately at the cost of using a ton of energy. Whereas your basic blaster naturally cools off, however, you need to collect gems from fallen foes to regenerate energy, thus forcing you to push through the never ending tide of aliens.
As the levels grow tighter and introduce obstacles (lasers that block certain paths, for example), it becomes more imperative to push forward. It’s nigh impossible to have energy to spare, your arsenal being pushed to its limits. Late-game waves eventually become so chaotic that you have to deploy a ton of missile barrages to get by. Retreating is rarely an option. You have to cut path through the enemies to survive, lest you get surrounded have no means of recourse.
It conditions you to play aggressively. Where so many other shooters like this could easily allow you to fall back on very safe play-styles, whether intentionally or not, Graceful Explosion Machine pushes you to take the offensive without even trying. In most other shooters, your arsenal is such that you have to play it safe due to how easily you’re overpowered. Graceful Explosion Machine then feels like you’re being put on even ground. Though the enemy may have greater numbers, your arsenal is up to the task.
Nowhere is this demonstrated better than during the game’s most intense moments. Swarms of enemies converging from all angles, blasting and dashing through and around them to gather gems to power your weapons, navigating the ensuing chaos just barely avoiding contact with bullets or aliens; it’s a thrilling experience. The action only escalates with each new level, introducing new enemy types and making level geometry shift with each new wave of adversaries, which emphasizes the need to meet the challenge head on.
It also highlights the elegance of the action. Graceful Explosion Machine, what with all the fancy visual effects and the speed of the gameplay, could easily become too overwhelming to keep up with. But even during its most intense moments, the game feels manageable and remains comprehensible. No matter how chaotic the events on screen were, I always knew where I was and what I was doing. It’s a tough game, but it never feels impossible. No matter the situation, I always felt like I had some way to get through it. And when I didn’t, it was because I was too reckless and overextended. Never did it feel like a result of the action becoming too difficult to follow.
It strikes a perfect balance where the challenge can reach the highs of the best shooters, but never to the point where it becomes impossible to follow. That’s a tough line to walk, but Graceful Explosion Machine does so marvelously.