…and lasers! And explosions! And bright green ships!
Hmmm. The Black isn't looking as Black as it's used to, in Azul Baronis, a retro space shoot-em-up from Andrew Martin and James Pags. In fact, it's downright colourful! Why, space would be pretty cheerful, if it weren't for the hundreds of people who want to send you out in a blaze of glory. It may be an older game, but I ask you; does blowing up gigantic death ships with your tiny space fighter ever go out of style?
While the tutorial informs you that you are some sort of unsavory warlord who thinks a regime of terror and slavery is awfully keen, it never crops up again throughout the game. So if you'd rather close your eyes and pretend you're liberating defenseless bunnies from space fur-traders, you can do that too. Personally, the promise of becoming the most violently neon fleet in the galaxy was all the motivation I needed. Nobody shall be more extravagantly hued than I!
The game goes out of its way to make the experience comfortable for you. The tutorial does everything but stroke your hand reassuringly and offer you toffees before it sends you out to get vaporised — and you will be. Use the [WASD] keys to fly around the screen, pressing [Space] for a quick boost of speed when the yellow bar at the bottom right of the screen is full. Keep track of the battle on your radar, where you can see your allies and enemies represented by coloured dots. And what do you do when lasers start firing your way? Why, you click the mouse and send some hot lasery death right back! If you need to take a breather, pressing [P] will pause the game for you, where you can access the other options as well, such as turning off the game's oh-so-arcade soundtrack.
You can expect to do a fair amount of exploding of your own. Each small ship can take eight shots before it gets destroyed, which sounds like a lot before you're swarmed by two dozen enemies who don't like the cut of your jib. As long as you still have ships flying on your side, you'll be able to click through the surviving CPU-controlled allies and press the [Space] bar to instantly control one of them, dropping you right back into the action. Which is nice, since this also nets you the chance to control some of the bigger, badder ships, too.
Analysis: Gameplay consists of flying after folks really fast to shoot at them, and flying really fast away from folks who want to shoot you. This lack of fancy trickery may be a let down for some, but for me it meant that I could really just enjoy the game without worrying about pulling off the Super-Ultra-Hadoken combo. All I had to worry about was flying in curliques like a crazed bumblebee so nobody could get behind me long enough to blow up my tender engines before I blew up theirs.
You can wind up doing a lot of fumbling when you first start out, so the radar will come in handy figuring out where the fun is happening. Because the map repeats on itself — ie, go left far enough and you'll pop out on the right side — you can never really get lost, but it's still very easy to get seperated from the action. At its best it's an annoyance, as you have to zip back towards the battle where all your companions are busy dying fiery, painful deaths. At its worst, it can be an instant death sentence as the fifteen enemies who followed you suddenly have you as their only visible target.
Every battle is randomised, down to the number of troops you and your enemies have, and here the game engine shows its sadistic side. You're rarely ever given more than a dozen ships in the beginning, and your enemies' numbers dramatically increase with every battle. If you're facing two different factions, they'll happily shoot at each other as much as yourself, but that's still double the number of opponents you're facing. Add to that a lack of a save feature, and it's easy to get blasted into space dust in later levels because you just didn't have the luck of the draw when it came to determining your firepower that round.
But despite its balance issues, there's something incredibly addicting about Azul Baronis. The gameplay is fast, furious, and challenging, and there's something intensely satisfying about managing to pull off a victory despite overwhelming odds. It's old-school Star Fox complete with radio chatter, without the annoying formation minigames, or that stupid Frog.