For a few days now, Binarystar Infinity has thoroughly owned us. At no point have we felt like we’re the ones in control. That’s because it manages to achieve something of a holy grail in shoot ’em up terms: it’s demanding to the point of being cruel, but is enjoyable and rewarding enough that we thanked it all the same.
It’s a journey into masochism that begins reasonably gently. Binarystar is chopped up into eight chapters, and those chapters are linearly presented. You have to complete one to unlock the next, and there’s no Star Fox-like starmap to add branching or choice. Once you have conquered a level, the next is forever unlocked and you can start from that position on future playthroughs. The generosity does mean that Binarystar Infinity allows itself to up the challenge, though…
Perhaps surprising is that there’s no difficulty level on offer. There are no options to dial up the lives or continues either, meaning that Binarystar Infinity is at the difficulty that the designers intended. It’s a rock solid cliff face to start chipping away at, but some people might bemoan the lack of tools.
Hopping into the level, we understood why it was called Binarystar Infinity. This isn’t a game that’s shooting for awesome backdrops, glorious Fantavision-like explosions or, well, a palette beyond black, white and the odd splashes of red. This is a minimalist shooter, and it owns the space. While it’s limited itself to the RGB values it’s willing to use, the simplicity makes it look attractive in its own way.
And it’s certainly legible. The visual vocab is pretty clear: white and black are good, red is bad. Enemy ships have a splash of scarlet on them so they stand out a little, while enemy missiles are a deep and complete red. When you’re flying through a maelstrom of ships and bullets, the at-a-glance colour coding is useful. If you die, it’s on you, bud.
Gameplay doesn’t try anything too fancy. You have an auto-fire (turned off on the menu screen if you’re a super-masochist) and that’s it. There’s no smart bomb or special weapon bar that’s increasing over time. It’s you and your primary weapon against the universe.
Luckily, power-ups appear and add some variety. They bounce around the screen in canisters, and shooting them offers up some distinct weaponry, protective orbs, speed improvements, 1ups and more.
We’d like to take a moment to write an ode to the bouncing hoop weapon. Once powered up (the weapons stack, as long as you keep to the same pick-up), it becomes a ricocheting superweapon, obliterating everything in every corner of the screen. If we were actually good at Binarystar Infinity, we’d keep it for longer, and we would have made short work of all the game’s bosses. But we aren’t, so we didn’t. But there’s always another laser or multiway missile on the horizon, ready to return you to strength.
The weapons don’t paper over something of a crack. Binarystar Infinity is, in our opinion, a little too simple in the options it offers the player. When all you can do is fire, and the power-ups are on the random side, it takes a fair amount of control and strategy out of the player’s hands. We didn’t exactly feel impotent against the levels, but we would have happily taken a boost or turbo effect to avoid some of the game’s larger obstacles, plus the odd smart bomb would have been nice. Bosses regularly stuck us on a stick and proudly paraded us around the game screen, and we would have loved to retaliate with a bomb (which would have had the double-benefit of allowing us to take a breather).
The levels are varied and well designed. Some are heavy on the bullet hell, while others fill the screen with enemies. Others like you to do a spot of evasion, working through meteor showers or what looks like giant picture frames being flung at you (?). But they’re always brief, dense and fun, which is a good thing, as we had to replay them an absolute ton, in the hope that we might progress this time.
The quality continues into the bosses, although from a graphical perspective they’re a bit arse. We missed the floating face-trains of Gynoug or the multi-phased mechs of a Gunbird. What you’ve got is large mechanical messes that don’t coalesce into anything with personality, and that’s something of a shame.
But fighting them? Yeah, that’s a trial by fun fire. They move through a predictable but incredibly intricate series of attack waves, and you have to learn and then overcome them if you want any chance. Even with the best weapons in the game, it will take a minute or two of constant fire to defeat them, so you will need to read the bullet patterns and avoid them for long periods. Which we did. Eventually. But by golly did we die a lot.
If Binarystar Infinity were a worse game, we’d have resented the deaths. But while it’s on the simple side, we can’t deny it’s effective. We found ourselves rubbing our hands and egging ourselves on to try the level again, believing that we’d gained a bit more information, or grown as a shooter player. We believed we could do it this time. Which, more often than not, we didn’t. But hey.
Fancy that same brutal beat down? Binarystar Infinity is a demanding but rewarding little shooter that fans of the genre will lap up. It’s not particularly innovative, outside of the minimalist aesthetic, and it could definitely have added more moves and weapons to its central spaceship, but it gets the important things right. It’s tight shooting, well-designed levels and big-ass bosses. You can’t ask for much more than that.