As a throwback to the shmups of the early 90s, there’s a certain appeal in Crisis Wing. Its colourful yet moody pixel art and looming, detailed enemy ships call to mind Toaplan classics like Truxton, and it’s got the challenge to match. But it’s also a game that feels a little too beholden to its retro inspiration, to the point that it can feel more dated and limited than the games it pays homage to.
Crisis Wing doesn’t mess around with complex scoring mechanics or weapon upgrade systems. There’s no grazing or weaving through intricate bullet hell patterns. You shoot things, they explode and drop point tokens, and maybe you get the occasional power-up that gives one of three different shot upgrades: a spread shot, a wide, linear shot, or slow but hard-hitting missiles. You do your best to survive through seven levels of increasingly difficult enemy waves and deadly boss fights.
There’s a lot to like about this simplicity, especially in combination with the Neo Geo-esque art style and thumping electronic soundtrack—it absolutely looks and feels the part of its arcade inspirations, and that goes a long way. It’s uncomplicated in its design, yet challenging: enemy designs and spawn patterns keep you on your toes, rewarding patience, practice, and perseverance more than mastery over systems and fine-tuned routing and scoring strategies. That can be fun, satisfying, and even relaxing in its way: brain off, and let your reflexes do the work as you fight your way through swarm after swarm.
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But Crisis Wing also feels limited, even by the standards of the era it calls back to. Upgrades are few in number and lack variety, a problem made worse by one of the three available upgrades being far outclassed by the other two—the missiles’ slight advantage in raw damage output doesn’t come close to making up for its lack of versatility that comes with their slow movement and lack of screen coverage. Collect a few of the same power-up in a row, without dying, and it’ll level up, but the boost you get from doing so is nothing particularly substantial or noteworthy. And without any incremental gains along that path, most items feel like they’re giving you nothing at all, at least in the moment.
The simplistic nature of the game also feeds into a degree and style of challenge that, while not necessarily unfair, can be frustrating. Crisis Wing is a game of learning through rote, with little room to experiment with different strategies—and like I said before, that can be fun in its own way, but it can easily tip over into tedium if you get stonewalled in one spot too long. Regular deaths aren’t too hard to bounce back from, since default settings have you respawning where you died and dropping a power-up, thankfully, but game overs—and you’ll likely see a lot of them—are where the frustration sets in.
Continuing from a game over means getting kicked back to a checkpoint, often very inconveniently placed, and losing all your power-ups, and with the little pea-shooter that is your basic cannon, surviving the later stages even just long enough to get real weapon becomes a major hassle. I’m not ashamed to say that I love coin feeding, especially when I’m getting acquainted with a new shmup, but Crisis Wing makes that needlessly tedious—even though practicing by doing exactly that is almost mandatory.
It also suffers from some of the common problems with older shooters and the games that channel them: a bulky hit box, sluggish movement, and enemy shots that are often hard to distinguish from the background. Part of this will be a preference thing: I know I find bullet hells far more manageable and enjoyable than “regular” shooting games, odd as that may seem, and the degree of precision and awareness they afford out of sheer necessity is a big part of that. But shmups, bullet hell or not, have come a long way in the 30 years since the games Crisis Wing throws back to, and it ends up feeling dated as a result.
Crisis Wing does at least have a useful practice mode, with which you can play individual stages and choose which checkpoint to start from. There’s also a boss rush and time attack, rounding it a standard assortment of play modes. Beyond that, though, the package is pretty barebones: no online leaderboards or replays, no control customisation, and not much in the way of game settings, even for basic things like starting lives. There is at least tate mode support, for all the Flip Grip players out there (and if you’re not on the Flip Grip wagon already, I can’t recommend it enough).
All this makes Crisis Wing a game that will appeal to a very particular niche—there’s certainly an audience for shmups with a particularly old-school flavour like this one. But design that feels a little too constrained, a lack of features that are now standard even in retro-styled shooters, and a tedious approach to difficulty make it a tough sell, even within that space.
Developer: Pieslice Productions
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Release date: 22 September 2021
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.