If there's one sci-fi rank that has the highest level of awesome associated with it, it's "commander". Some of the coolest protagonists of all space-time have it appended to their name: Riker, Sisko, Adama... Keen. So it's only fitting that when puzzle-master Johnathan May (The Dark Room) chooses to surprise us with rocking an arcade vertical-scrolling space shooter, that he should dub it Cosmic Commander. And, yep, it has challenge more than worthy of its station.
Cosmic Commander is played entirely with the [mouse], using it to control your spacecraft around the screen. Your weapons fire forward at a constant rate, making this a game of steering more than anything. Naturally, crashing into enemies or their bullets drain your health while shooting them nets you points. Blasted enemies release power-ups such as upgraded weapons, a temporary shield, and extra health. They also release coins which are used between levels to purchase upgrades to your ship, as well as extra lives. Also on-screen is a three stage power-up gauge, filled by blasting and used by clicking the mouse: the first stage damages all enemies on the screen, the second stage adds more damage, and the third even more, as well as giving you a shield. Using the gauge drains it. Now go! Only you can save mankind!
Analysis: A word of warning: I may be a little skewed in my opinions, since I love me some bullet-hells. As a subgenre, it's often seen as particularly casual-unfriendly, filled with terms like "hit-box" and gameplay that looks like this. I've always found this a little strange since, at it's base, bullet hells are a combination of two quite casual-friendly game-types: avoidance games and shooters. It's just that instead of shooting baddies while avoiding bullets, you're avoiding bullets while shooting baddies. That's kind of what I want in a shooter: while I see and enjoy the appeal of mowing down hordes of relatively helpless aliens until I'm taken down by a lucky shot, I sometimes want to feel like the lone guardian taking on what looks to be an unstoppable empire. I want to be Skywalker locking my s-foils into attack position and flying solo against the Death Star.
Cosmic Commander is sort of a bullet-hell-lite... a bullet heck, if you will. Certainly, its difficulty starts off strong and never relents, but it does modify typical elements of the genre to make it a little friendlier: The game is generous with its health and power-ups, the bullets follow clear, logical patterns (and are easily spotted against the background), and only direct hits to the center of your ship take away life. Throw in the thumping techno soundtrack and the cool explosion effects and you've got yourself a winner.
Cosmic Commander does have a few demerits in its record. The utter lack of any documentation is definitely a negative, meaning that for a couple of levels it is going to feel more than a little trial-and-error. Be sure to load up on those weapon upgrades! Otherwise the later baddies will be nigh-well invincible. Also, that your ship follows a mouse-controlled dot, rather than speeding along with it, means that the lag in movement might annoyingly steer you into more than a couple bullets before you get the hang of it. Finally, and this is a personal opinion, I found some of the enemy ship designs to be a little uninspired. I don't know if it would have been worth the processing to apply the same 2.5D effects to the mooks as your ship and the bosses, but as it stands, the minor baddies look a little out of place by comparison.
That said, Cosmic Commander has nice combination of elements that should appeal to both hardcore shooter fans looking for a break, and casual shooter fans looking for a challenge. There's just something about swooping through waves of bullets, building your laser from a puny single shot to a devastating wave. It's a command performance that's truly cosmic.