The year was 1978. Space Invaders had just been released, giving birth to a new genre. It took no time at all for clones and copycats to form while providing a large assortment of shoot ‘em up games for players to choose from. Some games, like 1981’s Galaga or 1992’s Recca, found ways to innovate on the formula in order to create more interesting and unique gameplay experiences. With time, countless titles would build and improve upon the designs of those that came before them while delivering brand new ideas. Yet, despite decades of interesting games and examples, 2020’s Red Death manages to be a painfully lazy, horribly generic waste of time.
“Whoa”, you must be thinking, “those are some pretty strong words”. Not strong enough, I can assure you. Eastasiasoft Limited’s attempt at a bullet-hell/shoot ‘em up feels like someone skimmed over the genre’s SparkNotes before creating the game in an afternoon. Tell me if any of this sounds remotely familiar: in Red Death, you control a spaceship with your goal being to stop an alien invasion. The aliens want you dead, so you must dodge enemies, bullets, and the occasional wall while shooting anything that moves. Pretty standard so far, right? That’s okay, because this is usually the part where games will provide an interesting twist or gameplay idea to justify their existence. The problem is that Red Death’s only innovation is an increased likelihood of causing epilepsy.
In bullet-hell games, a defining trait of the genre is that a lot of things are going on when you play. The screen of a bullet-hell at any given moment could have hundreds of enemies, effects or bullets going in every conceivable direction. The best bullet-hells understand that even though this will happen, it is important not to upset your player’s eyeballs. Red Death has some pleasant colors, but once everything gets moving it is an outright assault on the retinas. Distinguishing enemies from their attacks and each other is easy enough, but something about the retro aesthetics is missing in a big way. The fact that the game is not pleasant to look at certainly does not help its difficulty either.
Understandably, a bullet-hell shooter is not for the faint of heart. The best of these games require expert navigation through and around a maelstrom of opposition. The best of these games also ramp their difficulty up over time. Red Death, on the other hand, kicks you in at the deep end of the pool immediately. Difficulty is fine, but it should not be all over the place. Getting to the first boss takes less than two minutes, but the first time I beat the boss itself took almost thirty. Then, on a different attempt, I beat that same boss in less than five seconds because of a random combination of power-ups.
Of course, having to spend almost half an hour to beat the first five minutes of a game would not be too terrible if it were not for the uninspired gameplay. As you zoom around, you can pick up power-ups that are occasionally dropped by enemies. These all look like they were ripped straight out of Recca or Contra. Double shot, triple shot, laser, heeey Macarena. So no, they are not very original or exciting. Is it at least fun to destroy enemies? Not really, because the sound design and music in Red Death reminds me of dial-up internet. Maybe it does not have the exact same sounds, but it definitely felt just as grating.
When it comes to Red Death, I continuously found myself comparing it to the absolutely sublime ZeroRanger from 2018. This is a high-quality bullet-hell that sets out to do everything Red Death does and more. It has a retro aesthetic, but it does not melt your eyes. It has power-ups, but they are exciting and unique. Most importantly, ZeroRanger is fun. You have incredible feelings of power when you destroy enemies and there are some spectacular boss fights. Do not even get me started on the music because ZeroRanger has the kind of stuff you will be listening to long after you have finished the game.
Normally, I would not dedicate an entire paragraph of a game’s review talking about a different game, but there is hardly anything to Red Death. In the first ten minutes of playing it, I unlocked half of the achievements. So after defeating the first boss and failing to beat the second twice, I decided that was enough. Especially because the game has three different achievements labelled “Loser” for when you die a set number of times. I am not a game designer, but if you want people to enjoy your unoriginal game, maybe you should not insult them when they attempt to play it.
Attempt is truly the key word because Red Death on Xbox One is a chore to play. I would say that the ugly visuals and mediocre gameplay bring down the experience, but that would mean there was something enjoyable to be brought down. With the hundreds of bullet-hell games that have been created through the decades, it would be incredibly easy for anyone to find a multitude of games that are more rewarding than Red Death. Or, if you wanted to, you could light a match underneath the amount of money it would take to purchase Red Death. Not only would it be more visually appealing, but if you held the match long enough you might actually feel something.