The Shoot'em up, aka shmup, genre has always been of interest to me but it's not one that I spend a lot of time on. I find games in said genre easy to pick up and play, but usually there comes a point where the amount of effort I have to put in simply doesn't reap the fun and reward that I feel necessary to keep playing. That's eventually the wall I ran into with a new dual-stick shoot'em up from developer Naked Sky and publisher EA. It's known as Microbot and it's available now for XBLA and PSN.
Clearing Out the Disease
In Microbot, players take the role of a tiny nanoship inside a living organism that is being over taken by all sorts of bacteria and viruses. It's up to you to get in there and blast away the disease as you move through bloodstreams and bone over the course of about twenty stages across five main levels, or sectors. Besides the cool environment, Microbot utilizes an upgrade and customization system that gives you increased abilities and options for handling the ever increasing amounts of disease.
Each level is composed of four stages, at the end of which you face a boss fight. The gameplay is pretty straight-forward and doesn't change a great deal throughout, but that's to be expected. The goal is to simply survive and rack up as many points by destroying the enemy as possible. When killed, enemies may drop red orbs that give you points to spend on upgrades or they may drop data fragments that you have to collect x amount of to unlock special, more powerful upgrades. The upgrade/customization in Microbot is a major part of the gameplay, and for the most part it's executed pretty well. Upgrade centers are obvious and located at the start of stages and usually once or twice during the course of a stage. While inside the large circle of an upgrade space, you simply press X to open up the upgrade menu.
From the upgrade screen, you're given the option to spend points on Defense, Propulsion, Weapon, and Auxiliary categories. Of course, many of the options are locked until you advance far enough in the game or find enough data fragments to unlock them. You'll discover four defense, six auxiliary, eight weapon, and four propulsion upgrades. Some items, for instance most if not all of the weapons, can be upgraded multiple times, too. Weapon types include everything from your default low damage, fast shooting cannon to splash damage weapons to lancets. Propulsion systems allow faster movement, reverse motion with melee damage, and auxiliary attachments include a harpoon to help you zip short distances quicker.
These gadgets are pretty neat and do make gameplay more interesting, but I would have liked the option to be able to switch between my unlocked items at will. If you switch to a loadout that ends up not working out, you might find yourself in a bind until you can get to the next upgrade center. Like any average game in the genre, dying can happen quickly and often in Microbot after the first few stages. That frustration can begin to mount. Fortunately, Microbot does drop in a nice amount of checkpoints and respawn time is literally just three seconds, so you never have to wait long to take another crack at it. That said, after a certain point the difficulty versus reward factor for me began to tip in the wrong direction and I found myself less and less motivated to continue playing. Suffice it to say, I have yet to finish the game.
My only shot at completing Microbot is with the offline co-op mode which is rather nice. There is a Challenge mode with Leaderboards, too. Personally, I don't mind that the co-op mode is offline only. Granted, having the option to go online for co-op play would have been welcomed, but if I had to choose between offline and online only, I'd take offline. Anyway, with two players, you can bet Microbot gets a lot easier and more fun, so if at all possible, I strongly suggest you at least try that route.
While a second player does make the experience more enjoyable, it can't hide some of the other so-so or mediocre aspects of Microbot. On the one hand, I really like the level design from an art direction perspective -- seeing white blood cells step in to help me and red blood cells floating by is cool. I think Naked Sky did a good job of capturing that organic, fluid nature of the internals. I also feel that the level design can get a bit repetitive, too. It's pretty understandable that stages are going to look mostly similar from one to the next, but there's very little to differentiate them so I felt like I was in the same place maybe a little too long.
The presentation is a mixed offering too. I found the effects and soundtrack to be a little too flat and quiet. Making Microbot a moody and darker toned game may have been what Naked Sky intended, but I didn't see it as that. I was thinking more upbeat sci-fi, like a Shatter or Super Stardust. Visually, things are better, but still shy of greatness.
Overall, Microbot is a cool little (just 150MB) game -- I wouldn't call it great, but I'd still recommend it for fans of the genre.