If you find yourself trying to explain gaming purity, it would be difficult to summon evidence as enduring as the shoot ’em up genre. From Spacewar! to Asteroids, Salamander to Hyper Duel, and Radiant Silvergun to Ikaruga, the idea of moving an object through space and avoiding hostile projectiles has survived every hardware cycle in the history of the medium. Five years ago, Sine Mora tempered solemnity and determination into a rugged model. Without a hint of pretension, it became quiet proxy to a revered company.
It was easy to feel taken by Sine Mora’s premise. On top of the basic layout of a horizontal shooter, it eliminated traditional ideas of health and safety. Incoming fire and outright collisions with opponents did nothing to a health bar because a health bar didn’t exist. Instead, Sine Mora rationed time for and against the player. Every level has a timer, a constant countdown that can be boosted by blasting enemy ships and reduced by either the natural flow of time or taking hits. Checkpoints provided a coveted timer reset, but performance was directly related to survival.
Sine Mora’s fascination with time did not end there. In the story mode, the player has a limited ability to slow down time around their ship while maintaining their present speed. Given the infinite supply of bullets constantly engulfing the screen, the option to take a breather and weave in-and-out of danger was welcome. In the arcade mode, another option, the ability to roll back time and cheat death, was also available.
Joining Sine Mora’s time mechanic was a clever upgrade system. Weapon power-ups, along with sub-weapon refills, additional time, and points occasionally spilled out of downed foes. Once gathered, these capsules could be increased to a power of nine and used gently upgrade your pea shooter into a doom canon. Taking damage sends most, if not all, of those same red weapon upgrades flying out of your ship and across the screen. The scramble to quickly recover them and dodge existing fire presented an intense gamble, and one that I usually lost more than I won.
While tiny and medium-sized ships are menacing fodder for the almighty timer, Sine Mora seems to have more of a focus on gigantic boss fights. Subtly divided into segments, specific but highlighted weak points of towering bosses must be systematically destroyed. Matouschka is an entire train that must be defeated, car by car. Papa Carlo and Steropes are mobile goliaths, demanding the player focus on removing appendages before striking at the heart. Simplicity is occasionally conceded, too, as Leonard is merely a huge five-barreled canon.
Boss fights (and sweeping level introductions) are where Sine Mora feels more comfortable in putting on a show. Briefly, the 2D veneer is dropped in favor of 360-degree rotation and cinematic-as-hell framing. It’s a convenient excuse to move the player around to different sections of towering bosses and structures, sure, but it’s an equal chance to bathe in the detail of a fully rendered world. No space feels wasted when every angle seems this clever and deliberate.
It’s so easy to get lost in Sine Mora’s splendor. Cardinal Canyon’s lush valley and mecha fauna run a smooth contrast to its rustic factory and looming assembly line. Mirage Mountain and Tira’s sun-bleached cities are gorgeous displays of diesel-punk done right. Tiny details, like a white flag spilling out of the side of Leonard or a dance club in the middle of Tira, will not be lost on wandering eyes.
Occasionally, Sine Mora’s grandiosity transforms into delusion. Lost in the color isn’t an especially great contrast between background and enemy fire. Worse, simple direction can, on a first run, melt away continues. Pushing the ship through tight corridors, especially when you’re demanded to keep up with trash for camouflage or speed past an oncoming train in a tunnel, are recipes for frustration. Still, the price paid on a maiden voyage guarantees safe passage later, when you’re going for higher scores.
Sandwiched between levels is Sine Mora’s somber rendition of a narrative. If I were to tell you Sine Mora could draw a measured response from elements such as time travel, genocidal revenge, slavery, and sexual assault, all spread across anthropomorphic animals, would you believe me? I wouldn’t. Sine Mora lays it on thick and doesn’t pull any punches, and while its story isn’t immediately coherent, its bleak world and Akira Yamaoka’s melancholy (and sporadically up-tempo) soundtrack help drag raw emotion from its thoughtful canvass.
In its story mode, Sine Mora casts different pilots in divergent ships. Each are the same relative size but, as arcade mode well show you, they all have slightly different hit-boxes inside of their ship. Each character also has a different sub-weapon and limited-use super move that (typically) is best used either in a panic or against a boss. In arcade mode these rails are lifted, allowing the player to select any ship with any sub-weapon in any level. What Sine Mora loses in basic weapon variety it gains in hit box location and sub-weapon preference.
Sine Mora’s shoot ’em up membership card would be revoked if it wasn’t also hard as nails. The easiest difficulty is listed as Normal and two more are available. It was through Panzer Dragoon Orta and Einhänder that I Iearned shoot ’em ups demanded a temporary realignment of brain priorities, a full-sync between hand and eye achievable only by trial and error. It’s a simple concept, but it requires a significantly different approach. In any case, once I raised the difficulty in arcade mode, Sine Mora gave me all I could handle.
The Ex update helps ease Sine Mora into modern hardware. Expected presentation upgrades—native 4K 60fps support on PlayStation 4 Pro and PC, and a proper 16×9 aspect ratio—are included and joined by an English voice track. Story mode also boasts local cooperative play, albeit in the form of a spherical second ship with right analog-based fire. Ex also brings local competitive options in the form of dodgeball, racing, and tanks (and I would have loved to have tried these, however, I destroyed my second DualShock 4 in an unfortunate liquid incident last month).
The legends of the shoot ’em up genre all seem to have Japanese origins. Treasure, Cave, G.rev, Konami, Seibu Kaihatsu, and many others put their work on a pedestal and most, if not all, continue to stand proudly. Western games rarely get that kind of respect. While Grasshopper Manufacture handled Sine Mora’s art direction and sound, the game was designed and executed by Hungarian developer Digital Reality. You’re scratching your head because Digital Reality is primarily responsible for niche PC real-time strategy games in the 90’s and mid-aughts.
It calls to mind a time when developers were more comfortable to step outside of imposed boundaries and follow a particular passion. In the late 90’s, at the height of their RPG prowess, Square made Einhander, Racing Lagoon, and had a hand in five fighting games. All of them except Ehrgeiz were actually good. A burning passion for shoot ’em ups is common across both designers and programmers, and with Digital Reality citing Battle Garegga and Under Defeat as influences, it was clear they were doing their homework. Sine Mora, if nothing else, is an earnest and impassioned submission to an admired club.
Sine Mora’s doctrine of sincerity, authority, and respect aligns neatly with shoot ’em up’s interest in unconscious obliteration and strategic composure. EX brings welcomed extensions to Sine Mora, but a clean transfer to modern hardware is a prudent enough motive to justify a re-release. The oldest genre in gaming always has something new to learn.