The Shmup (short for Shoot ’em up) is the one old genre that hasn’t reclaimed its popularity. At one time the likes of Space Invaders, Galaxian, and Phoenix ruled the roost. Then when platformers became big, the genre gave us 1942, Dragon Spirit, and Xevious. Then the Beat ’em ups, and Fighting games all but conquered the arcades. But the genre had continued popularity with the likes of R-Type, U.N. Squadron, and Truxton.
After this period though, the genre began to slowly fade into obscurity. It never truly went away. It still gave the occasional notable game like Giga Wing, or Ikaruga that became darlings. Today, the genre is still around, and there are countless great games in it. It even has a devoted, hardcore fan base. But where Street Fighter IV, and Mortal Kombat 2011 brought traditional fighting games back into the limelight, the same hasn’t been the same for old-school Shoot ’em ups. Sine Mora EX has that potential.
PROS: Beautiful visuals. Great music. Refined mechanics. Fun.
CONS: Story can be hard to follow. Mini games don’t add very much to the experience.
4K: PC, and PS4 PRO versions support it.
Originally released in 2012 as Sine Mora, Sine Mora EX is a refined version that fixes bugs, updates the graphics, and expands content. It elevates a pretty good game, to a pretty great one. The game has a minimalistic menu. You have a Story mode, which is honestly a great way to play it when you start out. Then Arcade mode, which is going to be the option for advanced players who don’t want to bother with the lore. Score Attack, for mastering levels. There is also a challenge mode which gives you 15 endurance rounds. Then there is a boss rush mode, which lets you practice boss fights. But you have to unlock them by getting to them in the storyline first. So this is really going to be for those who are interested in speed running the game upon beating it.
Rounding things out is a Versus mode. This is a small assortment of mini games. In most of them, you’ll pick a single screen arena, and battle a friend as little robotic orbs. Some of the stages have other hazards, or obstacles to maneuver around or destroy. But it’s pretty much kill or be killed. There is one interesting mini game that is different. Here, you each shoot at ships, but if you accidentally destroy a ship that resembles yours, the game ends. They’re a fun little diversion. But really, you won’t be coming to this game for it, and you’ll want to play the main game instead.
Sine Mora EX’s main campaign is awesome. Whether you play it in Story mode or Arcade mode, you’ll be thrust into a shmup that embodies elements of every subgenre. A lot of people have called this a Bullet Hell shooter. While there are moments where the entire screen is filled with bullets, that isn’t really the case. Some boss fights employ this, but you’ll find a lot of the missions themselves do not. Instead they take the movement of something like R-Type, or Gradius, and give you the challenge of avoiding walls, while shooting down enemies, and threats.
But there are many things that make this game stand out on its own. The most obvious one being how it handles lives, and scoring. In a lot of challenging shooters over the years, games had either a scenario where a single hit on your ship killed you, or you had a small life bar allowing for a few hits before you would be destroyed. Sine Mora EX throws those mechanics out the window, and instead puts the onus on time limit. You have to beat the clock in order to win. “Great! I can get hit as many times as need be! This game is going to be easy!” you might be exclaiming to yourself.
Well get that thought out of your head immediately. Because your life bar is the time clock. If you make a mistake, and crash into something the game shaves off a second or two. If you get shot you’ll lose a few seconds. Suddenly that game has gone from being insanely easy, to pretty challenging. Moreover, they’ve made another swerve. Getting hit makes you drop power ups! So you’ll have to pick them up immediately. But if all of this sounds too complicated, don’t lose heart. There are a number of tools to help.
First off, and most importantly, you’ll gain time for every bad guy you destroy. You’ll want to crush as many of them as possible because time is life in this game. Keep adding to the timer, and you’ll see it to the end. The stages also have checkpoints. When you reach one it resets the timer. So if you’re low on seconds, and you reach one you’ll be in the clear for a moment. The game also gives you a wealth of power ups, smart bombs, coins, and even bullet time to use.
That’s right. Bullet time. Now it isn’t infinite. There is a meter that lets you see how much you have, and it drains when you use it. But during those Bullet Hell moments it can be a Godsend. Particularly when you just can’t seem to figure out the spread pattern. As you play through the game you’ll be going through different periods, and characters in the story. So there are a number of different ships you’ll pilot. They’re all designed to look more like planes, but considering the different settings the stages take place in, you’d assume they have features of a star or sea ship. But I digress.
Each of the different space planes has a unique smart bomb that can be fired. Some of them shoot a super laser, others drop a ton of grenades, some shoot a plethora of missiles. You’ll want to know the nuanced differences though because they won’t work the same way in every situation. There’s also the risk, versus reward aspect here that can be really fun. Do you try to save up your smart bombs for the bosses or do you use them now while the screen is cluttered with grunts? There are also your firepower upgrades to grab, as they make your primary fire more effective. If you can get nine of them, and not crash or get shot you’ll chew through enemies. And then there are the time bonuses, and bullet time bonuses to nab. You’ll find the bullet time works wonders.
They also added a cooperative feature to the story as a friend can play as a gunner. It isn’t quite the same has having a second ship altogether, but it does give you some reprieve. They control a satellite which acts like one of the options from the shooters of old. This allows the first player to take on primary targets while they clean up small annoyances. Handy for boss battles.
Another thing you’ll appreciate is how the game puts in some challenges that have nothing to do with shooting weak points, or avoiding a hail of bullets. In one stage you’ll come across a section filled with sensors that, should you be detected knocks off all of your time. After exploding through all of my continues, and restarting, imagine my surprise when I found I had to fly in sync with piles of garbage coming from the background to avoid detection. It’s just a small thing, but it’s different from what many might expect.
If you play through the Story mode, you’ll get voice overs that are in line with a Star Fox game. Just with more curse words. There is however, zero percent Slippy Toad in the list of ingredients. Kidding aside, you’ll also get some monologues between stages that try to set up motivations of pilots, and give you a little bit of narrative between stages. It helps explain why you have completely different vehicles, and settings every stage. Unfortunately it doesn’t always make the most sense if you’re only passively seeing it. Because of how everything jumps around. The story is a bit more cohesive if you pay attention to every last bit of dialogue, and you re-read every word of every monologue. But even if you’re invested in the story, you’re going to miss some of it as you’ll forget some of the chatter you just heard when it becomes time to blow away enemy targets again.
That said, the story itself is actually pretty cool. It centers around characters facing an iron-fisted Empire on a planet called Seol. It declares war on an opposing nation of inhabitants called Enkie. Both of the factions master time travel. One of the characters is out for revenge when the Empire kills his son for not wiping out the Enkie. So in a number of missions, you’ll follow his story arc. But the Enkie also want revenge on the Empire for driving them toward extinction. So in other stages you’ll be playing Enkie characters. The story is an interesting one, and it even has a pro wrestling grade swerve in it that honestly surprised me. The problem with it, is the execution. If the game had done just a tiny bit better with the cut scenes, and shown more of it, instead of having you read it, it would have been a bit easier to follow. Still, if you take the time to pay more attention on subsequent play through attempts it gets a bit more enjoyable.
Repeatedly playing in the Arcade mode is also where you’ll notice this game’s use of difficulty scaling. The game starts you at rank C here, and if you’re not doing so hot this is about where you’ll stay. By contrast, if you’re blowing through sections with ease you can expect the game to rank you up to B or even an A! Then it will punish the crap out of you. Enemies take more hits, shoot more lasers, and things get more hectic. If you can’t hang, the game will knock you back down a peg or two. This is also where the game has a real chance of reinvigorating the genre for those who don’t come to it as often. At the same time it gives enthusiasts something they can really sink their teeth into. Arcade mode also lets you select different planes to start with, so you may find some work better in some missions than the ones you have to use during the Story mode. Back to Story mode a second. In that mode you’ll have eight continues (though there is a slightly harder variant of Story mode) to complete the game. If you don’t get through the entire Story campaign You can start on a higher stage when you come back to it later. Though you’ll start the way you did at the beginning which means you’ll be outclassed.
Arcade mode eschews all of the story elements, reduces the number of continues, and exclaims “Come and get some!” You’ll be seeing all of the same levels, and bosses but with none of the narration. This mode is also a bit harder from the outset. But if you’ve plowed through the story, and want to go back to the game again, it’s a great way to experience it again. There are even a couple of power ups you won’t see in the Story mode. The game is gorgeous enough you may just want to replay it anyway. For a small game, it boasts some pretty great production values. Mind you it isn’t going to be quite the same as something from a AAA vendor. But it does so much with so little. Though I suppose a big part of this is the involvement of Mahiro Maeda. When one of the people behind The Animatrix is designing bosses in your game, it’s going to show.
The Nintendo Switch version of the game (which you’re seeing in this review) looks great. It has crisp textures, nice lighting, wonderful color depth, and detailed models. All running at a full 1080p with a fast frame rate. The Xbox One port is just as good-looking, and the PS4 version will even support 4K provided of course you’re using the PS4 PRO model of the console. The PC version of course will support it as well if you have the 4K monitor or TV to display it on, and hardware in the machine to run it that high. Which shouldn’t be much, as the system requirements aren’t very high for the PC version. As far as I could tell in my time on the Switch, I saw no real issues with slowdown, stuttering, or other performance problems. The PC version also gave me no real issues.
The audio is pretty good too. Grasshopper brought in Akria Yamaoka who did the sound direction on Silent Hill. Silent Hill made great use of ambient sounds for the horror vibe. Here he combines that ambience with an electronica sound. So it gives this a cyber thriller kind of score. Which you might not think much of at first. But when the bosses show up to crush you into dust, does it ever fit the theme. It may not have the same effect as it did in Silent Hill, where the discomfort melded with the fear. But it does make the encounters even more imposing. You might not worry about monsters getting you. But you’ll probably take the giant robot spider a bit more seriously.
While by no means an expert on the genre, I do feel like this is the most accessible shmup to come out in years. It may technically be a re-master of sorts. But the game’s attention on the Switch has been getting people talking about them again. Oddly enough if you want a physical copy of the Switch version you’ll likely have to go online, as few retailers appear to have gotten it when it came out last year. At least Stateside. Target, and Wal-Mart have it on their online sites, but not at their stores. GameStop, Best Buy, and others don’t (of this writing) seem to have it at all. But you can find it through smaller businesses usually on Amazon. There’s also the option to import the European release. If you don’t care about physical media you can download it from Nintendo’s e-shop. The Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 versions however, seem to be everywhere. You can download those on their respective stores too. The PC version is available on Steam as well.
Ultimately though, Grasshopper has put out a game that can be enjoyed by veterans, and newcomers alike. The easier Story mode (of which you can go with a harder version) does make things a bit more inviting for newbies. Even if the story could be executed a little bit better, it’s still pretty good for what it is. The Arcade mode is something longtime enthusiasts will more than likely love. Especially for those who may not have played the original Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Vita, and PC release. The scaling is also nice for those who are competent, but not masterful. If you love shmups, but somehow haven’t played this, pick it up. If you’ve never played a shmup, this is a great jumping on point to see if you’ll enjoy them. Hopefully we’ll see more Sine Mora in the future.
Final Score: 8 out of 10