In present times, the term shmup is usually associated with a very specific type of game. I’m talking about having scores in the billions and showers of bullets on screen. However, the shmup umbrella covers many styles of shooter games. A shmup with powerups, minor exploration and a cohesive storyline with superb presentation is what Super Hydorah is all about.
In many ways, Super Hydorah is a reminder of the golden shmups of the past, wrapped in the luxurious presentation that only pixel art games can provide. Super Hydorah returns to the basics and does so with remarkable execution.
Developer: Locomalito, Gryzor87, Abylight
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release date: November 15, 2018
Tate: Sure, I guess
Super Hydorah is a horizontal shmup that puts a higher emphasis on level design and offers a unique approach to level selection. In terms of gameplay it feels like a modern Gradius, but also offers an expanded version of Darius’ level select.
The true art of the pixels
The first thing that stood out to me when playing Super Hydorah was the presentation. It is an absolutely beautiful game. From the interface to the transitions to the sprites, everything is hand made to perfection!
To further embellish the game, there is an option to toggle a CRT filter. I’m usually not a big fan of filters, but in here it definitely highlights the amount of effort put into the visuals of Super Hydorah. What really makes the CRT filter shine are the animations. Without the filter, the animation look quite smooth already, but the filter really bring out the best of them.
When you are not busy looking at your beautiful ship, you will definitely be watching the beautiful environments. One of the strengths of Super Hydorah is that it features an incredible variety in levels. Your mission will take you from the depths of space to icy caverns, barren wastelands, insect nests, underwater stages and even inside the bowels of a creature. Every stage and substage is rich in features and no two stages look the same.
The way the stage names are presented when entering a stage is also incredibly stylish. Super Hydorah has a lot going for it in the presentation department!
The level select system
One of the most distinctive aspects of Super Hydorah is its non-linear stage selection. The entire game is played on a sort of world map that has a clear beginning and an end. However, the in-between is full of branching paths, and you are free to pick which stage you want to tackle next.
What separates this system from other stage select systems like Darius is that you are allowed to go back. Apart from being able to choose a path from a fork, you are always allowed to travel back and pick an earlier stage that you didn’t complete.
But why would you go back to older stages, you might be wondering. The reason is that every stage in Super Hydorah offers a unique reward upon completion. The rewards can be a new main weapon, a sub weapon, a special weapon or even an extra life. You could also be going back just to increase your total score. This reward system plays a key role in making Super Hydorah a unique game where you can choose to get your favorite weapons, or choose easier missions. Maybe even try to go for full completion.
Stages and bosses
Speaking of stages, there’s quite a lot of fun fights to be had on Super Hydorah! Each stage is divided into several different segments marked by a complete screen transition. Depending on the level, you might face 1 or more bosses throughout the stage. Just as everything else, the boss designs are really stylish and their animations are extremely fluid.
Since this isn’t a bullet hell game, the bosses have attacks and patterns that more closely resemble 90’s shmup battles. The threat isn’t limited to colored bullets, so your senses have to be sharp to be able to tackle these fights.
But the fun doesn’t end there! Hidden inside each level is a collectible secret to find. The secrets will increase your score and reward you for exploring the stages, noticing little details or even flying through seemingly mundane areas of the map. A successful collection of a secret will be marked with a little star on the map.
Medal of Honor
In regards to score, Super Hydorah awards you certain ranks based on your total score at the end of a level. By clearing stages and doing well, you can increase your overall rank and get a shiny new medal.
I don’t think these ranks do anything other than provide bragging rights. At least I wasn’t able to notice anything different in my many playthroughs. I’ll admit that even if they were superficial rewards, I did felt an inclination to increase my score and go for the highest rank.
As nice as medals might be, they do not carry over between playthroughs. I thought they might reflect my skill as a pilot, but they just reflect your current standing in a given run. Starting a new game resets your rank. You also lose your rank when you run out of lives and decide to continue.
In terms of gameplay, the easiest comparison to draw is to Gradius. Super Hydorah is less about dancing through bullets and more about forming a cohesive plan to plow through the stages with the correct weapons. It does, however, share some of the powerup nuances of Gradius and even borrows some of the nice vertical scrolling effect on some of the taller levels.
For your weapons, you can carry a primary weapon, a sub weapon and a bomb. What’s different about Super Hydorah is that you can choose your loadout before each mission. As you clear more stages, you will be rewarded with more weapons to equip and expand your play style. Think of it in the same way as Mega Man X. Depending on your preferences and style, you will want to clear the stages with your favorite weapons first. You can also be smart about it and bring the most effective weapons to a particular stage.
There is one small caveat, and that’s that there is only a single attack button. When pressed, you will fire both your main and your sub weapon. While this is for the most part what you want, there are some stages with hazards that punish you for attacking them. In those scenarios the sub weapon ends up doing more harm than good and you can’t turn it off.
You can power up your weapons by collecting green and red orbs. These orbs are dropped from specific enemies, not unlike most shmups where particular fighters drop power-ups. The orbs swap color after some time, so you have the freedom of choosing which color benefits you the most.
However, power level is not shared between weapons. This means that if you have a weapon at max power and decide to switch it for a newly acquired weapon, then you have to level it up from scratch.
This is just me, but I could never wrap my head around green orbs powering your main weapon and red orbs powering up your sub weapon. Years and years of playing Darius have taught me that main is red and sub is green. This directly contradicts my beliefs, but I did find it quite funny that I struggled so much to undo my own programming.
The sunk cost fallacy
As fun as weapon switching and powering up can be, it’s also ultimately Super Hydorah’s downfall. Getting a new weapon is always an exciting experience, but the fact that it has to be powered up always ends up favoring your current weapon. It really hard to convince the player to try a new, and unknown, weapon if they know it puts them at a disadvantage. After all, why would you change your tried and true weapon in favor of one you’ve never used before and that the game didn’t even showcase much like Mega Man games do?
The other disadvantage is how rigid the loadouts can be. Simply put, you can’t change weapons during a stage. If you chose weapons that are heavily disadvantaged in a given stage, then you can either push through the level, get a game over or just quit to the title screen. There’s no correct ways of fixing your mistake.
Another consideration is that, traditionally, games get harder the more you progress. Would you rather take an unknown challenge that’s probably harder with your trusty loadout, or will you experiment with new and underpowered weapons. I really want to like the loadout system, but there’s every reason to avoid experimenting and instead stick to a single combination.
Your choices matter
Apart from green and red orbs, you can pick up extra upgrade from bigger power up capsules. These contain either a speed up, a shield or extra bomb stock. Just like the orbs, these will cycle after a given time so you can always strategize and get the right upgrade.
While shield and bomb are pretty self explanatory, I think the speed up is a very interesting case. There are 4 levels of speed ranging from when you have 0 speed ups to when you reach the cap of 3 speed ups. Speed has always been a hit or miss upgrade in Gradius games because you could either be too slow or be too quick.
Super Hydorah has a clever approach to excess speed. In Super Hydorah, your movement is fully analogue. This means that you can move in 360 degrees, but also that you can control your speed by gently tilting the stick. This means that you can be as quick as you want to, but also be able to execute precise movements without needing a speed down or an extra button to lock in place.
Death and consequences
Even with a solution to excess speed, there still a well known problem with the lower speeds. Super Hydorah, much like Gradius, requires you to be at a certain speed to be able to survive. Being without speed upgrades is a recipe for disaster, to the point that your first upgrade always needs to be speed or else you will inevitably die.
And the situation that forces this issue is death. When you die, you will lose some of your upgrades. This means that speed, main and sub weapon levels all go down. They don’t go to 0, but you lose a level for all of them. Even worse is that should you die again, your levels will further decrease.
The reason I don’t like this punishment is that it just snowballs failure. Super Hydorah doesn’t let you resurrect on the spot, it forces you back to the nearest checkpoint. This means that if there was a segment of a level or boss that proved difficult, well good luck because you will have to go through the entire situation again but with reduced power levels. It doesn’t feel fair, it’s needlessly punishing and just makes a bad situation worse.
Depending on where you died, you might be limited in your recovery. For example, dying during a boss fight will just give you a couple extra orbs and a single capsule. This means you will have to retry a boss with less firepower and either no shield or a slower speed. While I don’t think Super Hydorah is a particularly difficult game, I’m still not sold on the idea with the premise that it’s still very doable.
The true ending
While I don’t want to reveal too much, I have to let you know that there is a true ending to unlock in the game! The conditions for this ending are simple to discern if you were able to beat the game. All I have to say is to pay attention to where your journey takes you.
In case you are wondering about doing a 1 credit clear (1cc), Super Hydorah helps you keep track of this by tallying your total continues. A 1cc is achieved by simply not continuing, so at least there’s a nice way to remember if you are still on track or not.
As a side note, with the way the checkpoints work and how you are sent back there on death, it does mean anyone can 1cc the game provided they have beaten it at least once. Since you technically cleared every section without dying at some point, then it’s just a matter of doing it all at once. There’s also plenty of 1ups to collect, so good luck and have fun!
Overall I’ll say that I was very pleasantly surprised by Super Hydorah. Its presentation is top notch and the game is truly beautiful to look at. This isn’t your typical shmup with crazy scoring mechanics and bullet everywhere. Instead, it’s a hand crafted experience of beautifully designed levels and memorable fights. Hidden throughout the tutorial there’s a mention of how this is the developer’s dream game, I have to say that I agree as Super Hydorah is a game that was definitely showered with love.
I did have some issues with certain design decisions. While I understand where this decisions come from and the legacy they represent, I nevertheless think the game would have been much better without them. But in the end it all comes down to personal preferences and expectations.
Still, I definitely recommend Super Hydorah to anyone looking for a more traditional shmup that is incredibly fun and presents some very ambitious ideas!
THE RANKING SO FAR:
- Crimzon Clover – World EXplosion
- Psyvariar Delta
- Darius Cozmic Collection Arcade
- Rolling Gunner
- Blazing Star
- Raiden V: Director’s Cut
- Darius Cozmic Collection Console
- Super Hydorah
- Steredenn: Binary Stars
- Stardust Galaxy Warriors: Stellar Climax
- Sky Force: Reloaded
- Strikers 1945
- Black Paradox
- R-Type Dimensions EX
- Sine Mora EX
- Shikhondo – Soul Eater
- Freedom Finger
- Ghost Blade HD
- AngerForce: Reloaded
- Aero Fighters 2 (ACA Neogeo)
- Q-YO Blaster
- Lightening Force: Quest for the darkstar (Sega Ages)
- Red Death
- Task Force Kampas
- Switch ‘N’ Shoot
- Last Resort (ACA Neogeo)