[The following is a winning entry in the YouAreGames: Reviewers, Assemble! contest. Congratulations again, DanTheArcher, and thank you to everyone who sent in Upgrade Complete reviews! For more information about how the results were chosen, please visit the contest announcement page.]
Among the myriad puzzles facing game designers is the system by which a player can blossom from a lowly newcomer of humble origin to a full-fledged killing machine, doling out 9999s of damage left and right. RPGs seem to have boiled this down to the precise science of "level up," while action games have tackled this problem with various approaches. Some merely grant the character abilities on a need-to-use basis, while other games implement a sort of experience system not unlike their role-playing cousins. More and more frequently, however, we see games that make use of currency to purchase bite-size enhancements for distinct weapons or parameters. These improvements are more commonly referred to as "upgrades," and as it turns out, Tony of Shift fame has something to say about them.
Upgrade Complete, from a gameplay perspective, works like a shmup in reverse. (A shmodown, dare I say?) Instead of your intrepid craft trying to pilot its way through fleet after fleet of alien adversaries, your ship is tasked with protecting the bottom of the screen from the hostile invaders. The [left] and [right] arrow keys (or [A] and [D], if you prefer) steer the ship left and right, while the [space] bar activates any of the assorted weapons that you have equipped.
Obliterate as many of the enemies as you can while collecting the cash they leave behind, but remember that should a single foe make it past the bottom of the screen, the level is lost, and you'll have to play it over again from the start. Sounds unforgiving at first, but keep in mind, the game is expecting you to lose repeatedly. In fact, it's downright COUNTING on it. Which is where the titular upgrades come into play.
In between skirmishes, you can spend your not-so-hard-earned loot on new parts for your ship, or save up and augment the gadgets you've already got. The novelty of the game, however, lies in its unparalleled meta-upgradeability. If you'd like, upgrade the buttons on the main menu. Or maybe the title logo. Or if you're feeling ambitious, upgrade the game graphics themselves, propelling yourself through a chronology of graphical styles. By the end of your stay, you'll be surprised you can't upgrade the upgrade system itself.
Analysis: From the very first moment you start playing, when it requests that you purchase the necessary preloader upgrade to load the actual game, you know what's in store. In the great satirical tradition of Achievement Unlocked, the design team here saw a particularly obnoxious trend of current games, and decided to lampoon the hell out of it. (The team even cites Achievement Unlocked as an inspiration in the credits, as well as a certain renowned game-review site...) While there's an undeniable, cheeseball fun in the shooting, this offering is a parody first and a game second.
This game oozes with digital sarcasm from every upgradeable orifice. (Of which there are quite a few, mind you.) From tabs in the bottom of the screen that zoom in and out to report your manifold "achievements," to distinct purchases between a soundtrack and a mute button, you can tell the creators had a message. I preferred the UI-hijinks over the explicit condemnation of upgrade systems at the game's end, but hey, they weren't going for subtlety with this one.
There isn't a whole lot of skill involved in the combat; it's mostly about how many missile launchers you can afford and upgrading the daylights out of them. At its core, though, that's what this game is out to prove. If there's no loss penalty and only more upgrades to be had, then ultimate victory becomes this inevitable force, like a meteor, moving slowly but surely towards you. One could argue that virtually any game with an upgrade system is guilty of the same crime, which raises questions about whether or not any of them can be truly "hard."
My gripes are few, but one of the major ones involves enemy explosions at the final stage of upgradeable graphics. Every destroyed craft detonates in a flash of searing light, intense enough that you may consider turning the brightness down on your monitor. Other than that, any criticisms of the game's implementation are a bit like criticizing why it's a chicken crossing the road and not a black-capped chickadee. When it's all said and done, a joke's a joke, whether it involves starships or chickens.
Now if you'll excuse me, I believe my chicken needs some upgrades.