Shoot ’em ups are famous for their difficulty, but they also tend to find that sweet spot where the challenge is rewarding rather than frustrating. Most modern shmups will happily give you unlimited continues, letting the challenge from the game come from trying to keep that continue count as low as possible, until you can hit the sought-after one-coin clear. Shoot ’em ups are difficult, but that difficulty tends not to come at the expense of the player’s enjoyment.
And then you get games like Super Hydorah. This is a gorgeous retro-styled horizontal shooter with fantastic level design, creative bosses, and a nifty upgrade system, but its punitive difficulty means that everything great about the game is kept hidden from all but the most patient players.
As in most shmups, one hit is all it takes to die in Super Hydorah, but your ship’s hitbox is huge. Maybe I’m just used to the tiny hitboxes of bullet hell shooters, but I often felt like I was dying just for getting close to bullets or obstacles, without even necessarily hitting them. Unlike most shmups, continuing sends you back to the last checkpoint, rather than letting you carry on from where you died, and if you run out of lives, it’s back to the start of the level.
As you might expect from that setup, playing Super Hydorah means repeatedly playing the same levels and the same sections over and over again, with even a tiny mistake resulting in failure. Only when you can make a near-perfect run from the start to the end of a level may you proceed to the next one, and unless you’re godlike at shmups, you’re looking at a few dozen attempts per level until you get to that point.
Compare that with something like Ikaruga, or DoDonPachi Resurrection, or Mushihimesama, or just about any other iconic, famously-difficult shoot ’em up. At least in their modern ports, generous continue systems let you see all the game has to offer no matter how bad you are at them, while preserving their significant difficulty by locking the leaderboards to limited-continue modes. You can play each game at your leisure, then approach each challenge on your own terms and at your own pace. Even if it takes 100 continues, you can see these games to their finish, learning each level in the process, before starting another run and trying to do it with one continue fewer.
Making matters worse in Super Hydorah, each time you die you lose power ups—not everything, but enough to make the next attempt harder because you’re trying to do it with weaker guns and fewer special weapons. It’s frustrating, to say the least; instead of encouraging repeated attempts by making you feel like you’re on the cusp of victory, every death makes success look even further away. This is a game that’s more interested in punishing failure than encouraging you to fight through it.
That’s a shame, because in every other way, Super Hydorah is a fantastic game. It has a pixel-art aesthetic that calls to mind the likes of R-Type, with rich, detailed sprites and vibrant alien designs. Controls are smooth and responsive, and the variety of cannons and special weapons give you a lot of different ways to play.
The level design is particularly impressive, with big stages that offer multiple paths from start to finish. There’s a wide array of obstacles to overcome, from the enemies themselves to environmental hazards like falling rocks and narrow passageways. Some levels have civilian structures that cost you points if destroyed, encouraging you to actually take your finger off the trigger every now and then—a rarity in shoot ’em ups. Super Hydorah‘s levels are meticulously designed and a joy to explore.
That rings true with boss fights as well, which range from standard bullet dodging and pattern recognition encounters to those that make creative use of those environmental dangers. One early boss fight takes place in a maze, as you try to flee a giant alien centipede while dodging its shots and trying to give yourself breathing room to return fire. One long set-piece encounter has you weaving your way through the burning remains of destroyed allies amid a giant space battle, before flying down the barrel of its giant, Death Star-esque cannon and destroying it.
When you’re allowed to appreciate its strengths, Super Hydorah is an enchanting game, combining old-school flair with a very modern approach to level and encounter design. Sadly, it’s such an unforgiving and frustrating game, with such a punitive approach to difficulty, that it’s hard to actually appreciate those wonders. Shoot ’em ups are challenging games indeed, but the best ones are difficult without being frustrating. The same can’t be said for Super Hydorah.