Man, do I miss seeing sh’m’ups release frequently.
The sh’m’up arcade scene was always worth its weight in gold. Constant endless challenges of precision and brute force, with every bullet put into play having devastating consequences for you and your wallet. In the days of console gaming, they’ve slowly receded in popularity, but every once in a while, a title like Mars: Chaos Menace will show up.
This is the latest title from StarCruiser Studio, the developers known for bringing charming throwback title Demon’s Crystals to the general public in 2016. Together with oddball publisher BadLand Games– Responsible for bringing the underrated 8DAYS to my attention– Along with having Byte4Games handling the port for Xbox One, this is a trio equivalent to The Bee Gees… post Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. Without Peter Frampton.
The year is XXXX. Humanity has begun terraforming Mars; after we buggered up Earth so bad Trump became self-aware and cut his losses. With humanity seemingly acting in harmony so we can reach a new age, that harmony is threatened by monsters that err… lived underneath Mars? Anyway, it doesn’t matter, we play as one of two robots who have to stop the monsters, go do that.
Now, usually I keep up appearances and try to state everything this game does, before complaining and whining like the arrogant tosspot I am. Unfortunately, I can’t do that here, and must state with a weary breath that Mars: Chaos Menace is such a broken and dunder-headed experience of a title, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was something that two college students from Sunderland made in the spare time they had in a week.
First off, you’re given the choice of naming your character, which I of course named “XXXTentacion”. From there, you choose one of two robots that have different firing patterns, along with a difficulty. Pro-tip: don’t choose easy. It makes the game harder, in a move which I think StarCruiser were dared to do by Byte4Games with the promise of a Big Mac if they did so.
You start off in the well-known jungles of Mars, and from the first mere seconds of the game, you notice every single sin that bullet hell shooters shouldn’t commit in any space. A hit-box so wide and awkward, that simply being in the same post-code as a bullet results in you losing a life. It’s in 30FPS. A soundtrack that isn’t 300BPM Japanese Speed Metal. All of this and more makes this what I’d like to consider the Silver Surfer NES of this generation.
I’m serious, there is not a single note hit properly in this title, with every single innovation and addition seeking to only ruin your playthroughs, as opposed to merely existing and respecting rules set up by the Bullet Hell gaming gods, Konami. You don’t do 3-D environments unless you’re adding actual visual flair, or as long it doesn’t intrude upon the players experience. You don’t have enemies in wildly different perspectives attacking you, and you sure as shit don’t have bullets blending into the backgrounds.
To say that Mars: Chaos Menace starts off at 180 MPH would be an understatement. StarCruiser wants to see you be challenged immediately, with a lot of random enemies being thrown at you from the first 30 seconds, with no rhyme or reason. A lot of these monsters also don’t show when they’re being damaged either, leading you to believe that maybe you need to try a different weapon or something, but there’s only two.
You’re given the choice of your rapid-fire weapon, which shoots unlimited rounds of bipolar destruction towards the enemies, and a plasma beam, which annihilates everything in its path but can overheat after prolonged use. I personally don’t agree with this design, as it already slows your character down, and is the only weapon in your arsenal which can consistently destroy your foes. Just don’t make it overheat.
You’re also given a shield, but I’ll be fucked if you ask me how it’s supposed to work. You’re told to just hold the Left Trigger in order to activate it, but more often than not, it seems to me that bullets just go right through it. I’m not facing a boss, StarCruiser, don’t bullshit me like this.
Mars: Chaos Menace’s main gimmick is that you can shoot backwards, as well as forwards, since enemies will also constantly spawn behind you. This kinda betrays everything sh’m’ups and bullet hells have taught us in the past, and our now once safe haven is being overrun by enemies who don’t even have the common fucking courtesy to warn us that we’re about to be attacked from behind.
What this means is that you’re going to have to try and find a comfortable place to stay within the middle of the screen, since that’ll usually be the only place where enemies won’t try and sniff your asscheeks. The problem with that comes from the pacing of the game, which goes far too fast to actually react to the oncoming danger, and is hurt moreso by the 30FPS lock.
One thing that is stupider than this gimmick is the way StarCruiser and co. have structured the main game. Instead of it being a mad dash to the end of the game, with the option of as many unlimited continues as you want (so long as you don’t mind losing your high score with every “game over”), they’ve made every mission self-contained. You’re allowed three lives in each one, and if you lose those three lives, then you have to start the mission all over again.
However! Complete enough missions in a row, and you’ll be given access to a bonus stage, where you have to get score! Score that doesn’t carry over to the next mission! I know, calm your testicles, this offer does indeed sound too good to be true. Anyway, these bonus stages only serve to show how crippled and crap your main character is at dodging bullets, and with the bonus stages’ objective of “hit certain gems, and dodge others”, it bring more frustration once you realize just how pathetically large the hitbox is.
The solution? Zoom out the bloody screen, since it looks like they take up 5% of it most of the goddamn time, or make it so that you’re a ship instead of a flying fucking robot. Better yet, have a visible circle outlining the actual hit-box of your character, instead of me having to make on-the-spot guesses while trying to dodge a 360 degree barrage of multi-colored bullshit bullets.
Even though I denounced the soundtrack for not sounding like something B’z make in their downtime, I will give it credit for sounding half-decent. It’s mostly just over-the-top synth with MIDI drums– Something that sounds like it should be in a mid-90s Sonic The Hedgehog. It’s upbeat, it fits the mood of the game, and it isn’t an over-bombarding stereo assault.
The bosses of Mars: Chaos Menace are mostly fun to fight, even if they engage in tactics and strategies that should never ever be used in a sh’m’up. The first boss you’ll face has the sheer shitting nerve to release Ad’s once you destroy the pods upon its back, but these Ad’s don’t shoot bullets, and instead decide to chase after you. This wouldn’t be so bad if our character could move a little bit faster, or if the boss decided to initiate a cool-down while we were dealing with these annoying pests, but no, if you’re not worthy on the first level, then what’s the point?
I also don’t understand why this game decided to use 3-D environments and assets. They don’t look that good, as it’s mostly just plastic trees and rocks that make it look like I’m fighting in the Jungle level of Goldeneye N64, albeit with a lower frame rate. Just make it a 2-D playing field across drawn environments, the finished product would look much nicer, and it won’t be immediately dated upon release.
Honestly, this game is so unbelievably poor in quality, that I questioned my once-positive thoughts of StarCruiser and co’s previous title, Demon’s Crystals. In truth, I was right to do so, because what Mars: Chaos Menace fails to do so properly, Demon’s Crystals decides to one-up the entire shindig. Awful hit-detections, camera issues that should seem impossible to suffer from in a FUCKING TWIN-STICK SHOOTER, and a lack of visual clarity while fighting bosses. Stuff that Mars: Chaos Menace commits, but even worse.
Look, despite my ranting and raving, I’m not saying that Mars: Chaos Menace isn’t allowed to implement these ideas. Shooting Love 200x had a lot of these 3-D environments and aggressively spawning enemies, yet was presented as a tutorial for people looking to get into sh’m’ups properly, but it also had a visual palette that didn’t take its colors from a last-generation FPS. The problem comes in the delivery, and how intrusive they are to the experience. Shooting Love 200x’s 3-D environments never cheated the player out with a perspective issue, and it was also paced appropriately.
Meanwhile, Mars: Chaos Menace’s speed going against its true frame rate makes it much more difficult than it should be, but that’s mostly tied to the frame rate complaint. Seriously, have you ever played a bullet hell at 30FPS? Absolute madness, since this all relies on pitch-perfect precision and timing, and that’s impossible to do on a 30FPS game.
In the end, Mars: Chaos Menace is an aggravating, tone-deaf and awful excuse for a bullet hell shooter. Ideas that aren’t given the polish they deserved, a lack of attention to detail, a lack of respect for the player– What this needs is a shotgun blast to the face, or a year to be polished properly. Fix the typos, up the frame rate, and add some actual color to your proceedings. Seriously, you make fighting underwater look like I’m having a smoky pub brawl in Scarborough.
This review of Mars: Chaos Menace was based on the Xbox One version of the game. A code was provided for review purposes.
Who would've thought that Silver Surfer NES would get a sequel 30 years later? Haha. No, in all seriousness, this is one of the worst sh'm'ups ever made.
Owner of the largest collection of indie games in the Western Hemisphere, and TimeSplitters’ biggest fanboy.