LUFTRAUSERS excels by offering balance in its mechanics and majesty in its presentation.
Format: PC (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, Vita
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+
Release Date: 2014-03-18
"LUFTRAUSERS is very much the final product of the ‘Ridiculous Fishing’-era Vlambeer."
-- Rami Ismael, via the Vlambeer blog
There are thousands of games like LUFTRAUSERS, the overcapitalized brainchild of Ridiculous Fishing developer Vlambeer. If you'll recall, there are thousands of games like Ridiculous Fishing, too, but that didn't stop it from being one of the most imaginative (not to mention celebrated) games to release last year. Ridiculous Fishing’s basic formula is that of an endless runner, in which you dodge everything that could potentially stop you from dropping your lure further into the water. To this formula was added power-ups, a Pokedex-style way to keep track of the fish you caught, the bones of a surprisingly heartwarming story, and the satisfyingly juvenile thrill of shooting at airborne fish with bazookas.
The genre of LUFTRAUSERS is arguably even more overdone than that of Ridiculous Fishing and the bells and whistles less obvious. Essentially, it is an update of Asteroids, in which one tiny fighter plane is destroying thousands of other tiny (and, eventually, not-so-tiny) fighter planes. The actual movements of the player's plane even behaves much like the Asteroids ship, where the “left” and “right” directions rotate rather than move the ship, and “up” accelerates in whichever direction the ship is pointing. Of course, these are airplanes rather than spaceships and asteroids, so gravity gets involved as well, but for the most part, LUFTRAUSERS feels remarkably similar to that seminal arena shooter.
Where LUFTRAUSERS excels, then, is in offering balance in its mechanics and majesty in its presentation. Those two elements combine to create the sort of game in which one play lasts under five minutes, but which will have players coming back enough to log hours upon hours.
The majesty of LUFTRAUSERS is borne of its limitations. The first thing the player notices when LUFTRAUSERS starts is its limited color palette, a variety of tans that projects a military feel before you even hear the snares kick in. The second visual quirk the player sees in LUFTRAUSERS is its retro-style pixelation -- the game plays at a resolution that feels vaguely 16-bit. It looks like a Super Nintendo game on a black-and-white TV. While "majesty" might not be the first thing that comes to mind when I start describing a game that's not only nearly monochrome but also obviously pixelated, the first moments of action will make it obvious.
LUFTRAUSERS is a constant frenetic dogfight that plays out entirely in silhouette.
Details would be difficult to make out with the technical limitations of a heavily pixelated screen with only three bits worth of colors, making silhouette the perfect solution. The silhouettes make it perfectly clear when the player should be shooting at a fighter or jet and when the player should be dodging a bullet. Where the silhouettes are particularly effective is when larger enemies come into play -- battleships, submarines, and the tremendous blimps lend a brilliant sense of scale to the proceedings, and the fact that you can effectively judge the difficulty of an enemy by its size means that enemies that take up most of the screen -- still in striking silhouette, mind you -- can add large helpings of intimidation to the buckets of bullets in their arsenals.
It is the balance of LUFTRAUSERS that keeps the player from giving up against such insurmountable odds, balance that plays out in the form of customization of the player's plane. The avatar-plane feels fairly nimble at the start with a satisfying turn radius and an even more satisfying machinegun attached to its front, but it doesn't take many plays for new parts to start to be unlocked. The first thing most players will unlock is a laser. When you've been shooting a machinegun for a while, a laser feels AWESOME. That laser is the first hint that you might actually have a prayer against the giant battleships that inevitably start drifting in after 15 seconds or so of play. Finish more missions -- objectives presented to the player like "destroy 50 fighters" or "destroy three boats without getting hit" -- and more guns, bodies, and thrusters are unlocked. After a mere hour or so, LUFTRAUSERS is as much about the player's strategy in part selection as it is about dodging bullets and destroying baddies.
The brilliant part of all of this, the part that puts LUFTRAUSERS a step ahead of Ridiculous Fishing on a strategic level, is that the various customizations are not obvious upgrades from one another. The melee body might be able to absorb any collision damage, but it's ultra-susceptible to bullets. The spread gun might forgive some of your more poorly-aimed shots, but the kickback can be killer if you're trying to establish any consistency. Certain parts are suited for certain tasks, but there's no obvious configuration that will give you an advantage on the scoreboard.
The very Vlambeer touch of giving every different three-part configuration its own name, not to mention its own variation in background music, is the final step toward ensuring that the player will want to give every single part a fair shake.
Vlambeer's Rami Ismael speaks of LUFTRAUSERS as if it's a healing experience; in his mind, it seems that LUFTRAUSERS will always exist as the result of the very difficult time that resulted from the Ridiculous Fishing "clone war", Vlambeer's long and arduous fight against a competitor who lifted their idea wholesale for their own game. It’s easy to see a game like this being a similar sort of therapy for anyone who needs an outlet -- a stylized, frenzied, and extremely difficult outlet -- on which to take out their aggressions. For anyone else, it is merely a beautiful, simple, highly enjoyable action game, the sort of “one-more-try” experience that Vlambeer is threatening to turn into a science.