Often when someone opts to make a retro-styled shoot-’em-up, there’s a deliberate choice to carry that inspiration through all aspects of the design. An old-school aesthetic comes with game systems that overtly channel those of yesterday’s classics, and the technical constraints they were built within. There’s plenty of appeal in that—I know I’m not alone in my love of a good old-timey shooter—but there’s also a lot of potential to be found in modern twists on the classic formula. In blurring the line between “retro” and “modern”, Habroxia 2 delivers a captivating shmup that evokes the classics while still finding its own niche.
Habroxia 2 sees a bold young pilot called Sabrina setting out in search of her father, who’d gone missing on a scouting mission to find the source of a brutal attack on Free Space. It’s a journey that sees her going deep into hostile territory and trading fire with all sorts of alien threats—a premise that mostly serves to set up the game’s shoot-‘em-up action, but still manages to deliver some touching moments. Sabrina is brave, if a little naïve; her father wise and caring, if a little overprotective. But their deep love for one another is abundantly clear, even with minimal overt storytelling and exposition.
From that basis, Habroxia 2 launches into a classic shoot-‘em-up procession of flying through level after level, shooting down hordes of incoming foes and going toe-to-toe with a big, deadly boss at the end of each level. Few levels take place in completely open space, with space stations, mining tunnels, and planet surfaces throwing up plenty of environmental hazards to work around, and it’s not uncommon for a level to branch off in different directions, leading to different boss fights and subsequent levels.
At its heart, Habroxia 2 is an old-school shmup. It avoids the allure of flashy effects, labyrinthine bullet patterns, and complex scoring systems that dominate modern shooters. It draws on the same simple concept that’s defined the genre since Space Invaders—shoot enemies, get points when you do, and avoid getting shot—without dramatically embellishing those ideas.
In level design, it echoes the likes of R-Type and Gradius in the way it uses land masses and spacebound constructs as a key part of the level design, instead of just open space and huge swarms of enemies. In its branching level progression, starting from a single first level and then periodically branching off in different directions, there’s clear inspiration from Darius.
Most overtly, Habroxia 2 carries its retro influence in its aesthetic. A lo-fi pixel art aesthetic and chiptune soundtrack lovingly call back to the shmup of the early ’90s. Ships and levels are vibrant and distinctive, making careful use of colour to convey detail in lieu of hi-res textures and detailed models. It’s gorgeous, in that way that only games from the 16-bit era can be.
But as much as it pays homage to those ’90s classics, Habroxia 2 also carries some unique twists on the formula that help it to stand on its own and avoid feeling too stuck in the past. Most significant among these is a free-aiming main cannon: you use the right stick to aim and shoot your main weapon like you would in a twin-stick shooter. It may seem a small thing, but it opens up big opportunities for level design and creative enemy placement that wouldn’t be possible with a regular front-facing shot. It’s not unusual to find enemies tucked away in little nooks or to approach from multiple directions at once, demanding full use of the 360-degree aiming that’s now available to you.
Habroxia 2 also frequently switches between a horizontal and vertical scrolling format, on the fly and in the middle of a level. Though the core of the game remains the same across both, this little change, again, opens up new possibilities for creative level design. This is especially true of the vertical levels, given that the screen doesn’t rotate—a vertically-scrolling shmup in landscape orientation means a lot of space to play with to the left and right of your ship, but less warning of enemies and traps appearing from the front (top) where they normally show up from, creating an interesting dynamic. It’s not always used to its fullest potential, and there are times when the vertical sections feel constrained by the landscape orientation, but it’s a nice twist when it’s used to its fullest.
A persistent upgrade system is where Habroxia 2 feels its most modern. Typically, upgrade systems in shmups are limited to a single play session, tying back to the genre’s arcade roots, but Habroxia 2 instead lets you buy permanent upgrades using credits earned for good performance. The ship you start with is weak, but there’s a clear path to persistent upgrades that let you choose your own priorities, instead of limiting you to whatever power-ups you’re lucky enough to find. It creates a sense of tangible progress that shmups often lack, and it’s always satisfying to see your ship go from this flimsy little thing to an absolute powerhouse.
Likewise, there’s a series of different unlockable secondary weapons that earn by completing specific levels, giving you access to things like missiles, homing shots, or a spread of burst fire. These are the sorts of things that a truly retro shooter would tie to random drops from enemies, but Habroxia 2 instead offers a bit more control and long-term progression. There are still random-drop power-ups in the form of powerful, single-use special weapons, retaining a bit of that arcade feeling, but these are upgradeable, too.
These upgrade systems also help to make Habroxia 2 a lot more forgiving than your typical shoot-’em-up. It doesn’t take long to build a reasonably powerful ship that can handle most of what the game throws at you, and even when you die, you still earn a few credits so the effort doesn’t feel wasted. For those who want something more challenging, a New Game Plus mode lets you retain all your upgrades as you take on far stronger enemies and much more dangerous level layouts. It’s a nice, clean way to make a beginner-friendly game that can still appeal to the experts.
Habroxia 2 is a classic shoot-’em-up at core, complete with its pixel-art aesthetic and clear influence from the genre’s early kings. But with some fresh ideas and enough modern design sense to avoid feeling stuck in the past or overly derivative, it gets just the right balance between retro style and modern playability.
Habroxia 2 is developed by Lillymo Games and published by eastasiasoft. It launches February 3, 2020 for Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox One, and PC .
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.