In 1980, Eugene Jarvis’ Defender set a video gaming landmark with its use of two-directional horizontal scrolling and relentless difficulty. Ever since then, developers have tried to build and improve on this successful formula with varying results. I think it’s safe to say that Studio Evil, a small Italian developer, delivered one of the best iterations, which also sports enough bells and whistles to make it proudly stand on its own. The game in question, Syder Arcade, was released in early 2012 and appeared on the Steam marketplace a couple of months ago. Despite being feature-complete, it’s still being actively worked on, with the next set of new additions coming in a few weeks.
The shooter genre is steeped so deeply in nostalgia and tradition that each game simply has to be reminiscent of its precursors. Syder Arcade not only acknowledges this, but revels in it. The game’s most curious feature is probably the inclusion of optional 20 different retro graphics filters, which make it look like some long-lost home computer classic. It’s ultimately quite useless and potentially distracting to play this in glorious 4-color CGA style, but I appreciate the nod to the game’s retro roots. Visual silliness aside, it really plays like a supercharged version of Defender, updated according to modern standards and preferences. This means that in addition to the original “fly left and right while shooting at bad guys” gameplay, there are four different kinds of spacecraft to choose from, four difficulty levels, a campaign with superfluous cut-scenes, and three survival modes.
The campaign itself is somewhat short and the accompanying story doesn’t draw you in. It certainly doesn’t make you care for its protagonists, spouting exposition for missions that don’t really need that. I would have been more happy with clear instructions at the beginning of each level instead of meaningless banter. Every stage has a different objective, from classic Defender gameplay to escort missions or navigating narrow tunnels. On the easiest difficulty, you can beat the six levels in about an hour. However, games like these are hardly meant to be played this way. Each of the subsequent difficulties ramps up the challenge considerably. On the third one, appropriately dubbed “arcade difficulty”, I barely lasted a minute in the final stage. It’s a good thing Syder Arcade doesn’t want your hard-earned quarters! It takes a lot of dedication to climb up the leaderboards, but every bit of progress you make feels rewarding.
Having different ships at your disposal also adds to the replay value. Each one of those has its strengths and weaknesses, as well as some unique tools of destruction. For instance, the Dart, your run-of-the-mill pea shooter, is a fast ship with good armor and a fairly strong laser weapon. Its secondary weapon, though, is just a forward-shooting beam which just isn’t that effective. The Mule, on the other hand, is a slow, cumbersome craft with good armor and a weak main cannon. However, its secondary weapon creates a couple of rotating orbs that crush everything in their path and can be used both defensively, or as melee weapon. Each ship allows for a different approach, adding immensely to the game’s replayability. While the campaign is alright, I found the most enjoyment in Syder Arcade’s wave-based survival levels. They do away with the insignificant cutscenes and just focus on shooting, dodging projectiles, and getting that coveted high score. In a lot of games, survival mode feels a bit tacked-on, like cheap padding in order to extend the game’s feature list or length.
Syder Arcade’s Defender-styled extra levels have actually turned out to be its meat and potatoes; they’ll see me coming back time and again for some fast-paced, no-frills arcade action. There is one exception, which would be “Ice Canyon”, a stage that has you traversing said canyon and defeating a single enemy at the end. Considering the relative amount of freedom Syder Arcade gives you in every other level, flying in only one direction, avoiding walls and collecting points feels at odds with the gameplay. However, the other two survival stages more than make up for it with wave after wave of enemies to shoot down. As soon as the huge capital ships enter the fray, the game will have your full attention. They are not as impressive as that legendary R-Type stage, which was essentially one big boss fight, but they are formidable foes nonetheless.
Technically, I had only a few issues. Generally, the game seems to runs fine on everything you throw at it. I played it on three different machines and encountered no performance problems. While playing on the laptop, only using the on-board Intel GPU, there wasn’t any noticeable slowdown. Both keyboard and gamepad controls were responsive. However, when changing the resolution and enabling windowed mode, the main menu just disappeared, forcing a restart. It’s certainly not a game breaking bug, but there are a number of people on the Steam forums complaining about all kinds of different issues, which I personally didn’t encounter. The developers are very responsive and seem to constantly be working on the game, though. In any case, I recommend you try out the demo, which can be downloaded from the Studio Evil homepage.
Technical problems and minor niggles aside, Syder Arcade is a solid package of frantic arcade shooting. The game gets the Defender gameplay down pat, with near-perfect handling and a good range of difficulty levels. The worst points of contention, such as issues with different gamepads or balancing problems, have already been patched out. You could maybe fault the game for not being particularly innovative, but that would be missing the point. Syder Arcade is meant to be a retro throwback, and the execution in style and gameplay feels flawless. Considering there are slim pickings when it comes to similar experiences on the PC, fans of the genre should definitely give this game a try.
Conclusion – Is It Worth The Money?
Syder Arcade has everything you would need from a solid and entertaining space shooter, and it’s still being worked on despite being released almost two years ago. The $9.99 investment is definitely worth it. While the game is not particularly long, gamers of a certain mindset can still find many hours of fun.