A Moving Snapshot: Not-Quite-A-Review of Assault Android Cactus
There’s a rule about Kickstarter that people are only now starting to figure out: your money is not a pre-order or reservation, it’s an investment. You’re putting your cash towards the idea of something that hopefully will turn into the amazing product promised. It doesn’t always work out, but that’s the risk you take as an investor.
The other option is Steam’s Early Access program, which takes partially completed games and provides users a chance to invest in their continued progress. Rather than a promotional t-shirt that you’ll only wear to the gym or a statue that will hide behind a picture of your cat on your desk, you get a moving snapshot of the title you’re throwing your money at. Sometimes the game is nearly complete (Kerbel Space Program) while other times it doesn’t even have a real UI (Planetary Annihilation at Early Access launch) but there’s always something there to play, no matter the form.
It’s the perfect place for Witch Beams’ twin-stick shooter Assault Android Cactus, which currently rests somewhere in between feature complete and proof of concept. As of right now, the Boss Rush and Endless modes are greyed out, with around half of the levels present in the game. Local multiplayer is present, as are online Leaderboards, but that’s about as far as it goes. There’s enough there to get a solid grasp of the game’s arcade feel and punishing combo timer, but buying it won’t get you much more than the demo already presents.
In this way, Assault Android Cactus is an ideal Early Access game. For your $15 you’re getting a modular demo, a slice of the game that will hopefully grow into the one promised by trailers and feature lists. It’s an interesting–and potentially dangerous–take on the long-reviled idea of pre-ordering; a window into development opened thanks to the stunning popularity of Kickstarter and other crowd-funding services.
Would Assault Android Cactus have been successful on Kickstarter? It’s not a Metroidvania game, it doesn’t feature any beloved developers from the “golden age” of the mid-to-late 90s, and its true form isn’t obfuscated under piles of stretch goals and hyphenated genre descriptors. It’s a twin-stick shoot-em-up in the classic tradition, more about chaining combos and dodging bullets than swapping colors or solving rhythm puzzles. It’s a bass-thumping beacon of light for a dying genre, a throwback to the simpler days of small arenas and seemingly endless waves of baddies.
Viewed from afar, Assault Android Cactus is a shapeless blur of antiquated mechanics and modes, lacking the visual panache of something like Geometry Wars or the mechanical complexity of something like Ikaruga or genre favorite DoDonPachi. It’s not until you get close enough to see the contours of its shape, the subtle detail carved into its twitchy form, that you can even begin to appreciate it.
For example, instead of the usual one-hit lifebar of most SHUMPs, Assault Android Cactus instead features a battery bar that’s constantly ticking down. Getting hit takes a chunk of your juice, while enemies have a chance to drop a battery restoration powerup, but only when you’ve got a handful of seconds left before the big game over. Take a big hit and you’ll not only lose your battery power, but you’ll also be knocked to the ground and have your weapon downgraded, stunning you and forcing you to pound a button to get up.
The unique battery mechanic completely changes the tenor of the game, forcing players to walk a fine line between aggression and defensiveness, as spending too much time plinking away at enemies can be just as fatal as a face full of hot plasma. It’s a nice concession to the lack of screen-clearing bombs or other mechanics, which makes the game both more approachable and more devious.
In short, it’s a game that demands to be played in order to be understood. No trailer or backer update email can capture the sublime moment where both sticks become one and you find yourself effortlessly gliding from target to target, your combo counter soaring as you swap from your primary to limited use but supremely powerful secondary weapon just in time to take out a lumbering ape-like robot before it can crush you.
It’s why there’s no better place for Assault Android Cactus than Early Access. Without the demo, something that is often locked behind the backer wall of Kickstarter projects, it would be hard to explain the joy to be found in the game. Instead, fans of the SHUMP genre can just give it a whirl, investing in the project should their interest be piqued. Witch Beam’s product can live or die based on its potential, not on how well they are at expressing it.