It could be a kind of personality test. If I told you a game was called ‘Rick Henderson’, what kind of game do you think it would be? I go for an action-platformer, which is probably me showing my age and channelling Rick Dangerous. Perhaps it brings to mind an arty walking simulator, or a point-and-click.
Way down at the bottom of that list would be a hardcore space shoot ’em up. No one is going to call their R-Type-killer ‘Rick Henderson’. Are they?
Well, stone the crows, Rick Henderson is actually a space shooter. A very good space shooter, at that. The dissonance shouldn’t bother us, but it does.
Rick Henderson is a forty-three year old, overweight space pilot at the helm of a spaceship, facing off against fleets of enemies before an end-of-level boss. Rick isn’t interested in things like story or cutscenes: he’s all about the pure, arcade shooting and the score chase. It’s as pure a video game as you could expect.
Jump into Rick Henderson (still doesn’t sound right), and your first choice is game mode. There’s a Standard Endless Mode, which thrusts you into a series of game ‘loops’ (just the game’s campaign, played over and over), a Hard Endless Mode, and a Boss Raid Mode. It’s a thin offering in shoot ’em up terms, especially as Rick Henderson is cheating: the Hard Endless Mode is more a difficulty setting, and the Boss Raid Mode is just a copy-paste of all the bosses in the game. We’d say that there’s a mode-and-a-half here.
Then you’re choosing your pilot because – shock horror – it isn’t actually the Rick Henderson show. You can also choose Ben X9 (which we think is a Ben 10 joke), who is an alien vampire, and Thoraxx, who is the spit of Bebop from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This choice is more important than you might expect. Not only are there base differences to stats like speed and the number of life points, but the different characters have specials when you press Y on the pad. Rick has a frankly terrible decoy, while Bebop gets a handy screen-wipe in the form of artillery. Ben X9 gets the ability to teleport forwards, which is alright, we suppose.
Then you’re into the game’s loop, and Rick Henderson’s quality shines through. It is, in the basic stuff of its shooting, really rather good. The ship moves lithely, the collision detection is exact and the bullets have an impact and heft that makes you feel powerful. The foundational stuff is on point.
Move into the weapons and things are even better. You have three core weapons to hand, fired with X, A and B. X is your traditional bullets: the all-rounder that fires in a straight line and deals the same damage to all unit types. A is your energy weapon, which deals damage to shields, and fires randomly like you were pissing bubbles. B is an artillery weapon, and it carves into armoured, rather than shielded, enemies, which is particularly true of bosses.
What this means is that you’re constantly switching between weapons depending on the enemies that have been spat out. Matching the weapon to the enemy is fun enough, and keeps you on your toes. But the real magic comes from the weapon power-ups. Each of these three weapons can be swapped out with nine alternative guns, totalling twenty-seven. These could have been formulaic and, to be fair, a few are. But so many of them are imaginative and positively beckon you to test them out.
Our favourite was the Randomiser, which is like a pinball multiball in shoot ’em up form. Bullets randomly bounce around the screen, and you can fire off so many that you’re given a kind of bullet armour. A sniper-like weapon creates a reticule that can be used to one-shot enemies. Chain guns, channeled lasers and ricochet bullets all make an appearance. It’s an overstuffed arsenal, and it’s fabulous.
Levels are relatively simple, in shoot ‘em up terms, with waves of mobs coming and going in different permutations and patterns. But Rick Henderson has a gentle randomisation algorithm which means that waves appear slightly differently on each playthrough. Bosses have several phases, but call on them randomly too. It means that you’re on your toes: you can’t memorise levels in the manner that you might with other games. If anything, we would have liked more of it: Rick Henderson begs to be replayed, but the sequence of bosses never changes. We’d have taken some boss- or level-variance.
The bosses are a tad anonymous – almost entirely spaceships with simplistic silhouettes – but they’re fun to fight, and they’re telegraphed extremely well. You can soon learn to master them if you have the patience and ability.
But it’s what happens after they’re downed that we love. They explode in a shower of shields (progressing your rank, and therefore your points and achievements) and gems, but they also offer one of four different perks. You might opt for smaller benefits with no downsides, or bigger benefits with plentiful downsides. We loved creating builds that emphasised score, at the cost of things like health and defences. We were a score machine made out of polystyrene.
There’s very little else to complicate matters. As mentioned, Rick Henderson isn’t one for story, so you don’t get anything to chew on in terms of cutscenes or endings. We’d have taken some narrative colour, but we didn’t particularly miss it when it wasn’t there. A ‘graze’ counter accumulates when you narrowly miss a bullet, and it can be spent on smart bombs that obliterate your opponents.
What all of this amounts to is an extremely capable shooter with a cargo-full of ideas. We may not be on board with that name, but everything else is supremely solid, from the arsenal of weapons to the end-of-level perk system. We had a gormless grin on our faces as we played it, and you can’t ask for more than that.
Rick Henderson is a little slice of arcade-shooting goodness, and sometimes that’s more than enough.
You can buy Rick Henderson from the Xbox Store