The sign that says ‘Days since the last twin-stick shooter’ can go back to zero, as UltraGoodness 2 is here and it’s the latest in a long line of twin-stickers. But we’re game: if you’re calling yourself UltraGoodness then you have to be cocky enough to have something up your sleeve, and there’s an Adult Swim-like craziness to the graphics that hints at a good time. Things just might be different this go round.
Regardless, if you’re going to stand out from perhaps Xbox’s biggest crowd, you have to offer something new. UltraGoodness 2 has opted for a gimmick: time only progresses when you’re moving or shooting. Take a step, and enemies step toward you, and bullets inch their way closer. Stop and they all stop. Fire your guns, and they move closer again. On paper, this adds a layer of strategy to the twin-stick shooter, as you choose between fight, flight or sticking right where you are to get an advantage.
You probably noticed that mention of ‘on paper’. As idioms go, it’s rarely ever positive. That’s because the gimmick doesn’t amount to much in UltraGoodness 2. We wish we had a chalkboard to explain why it doesn’t work, as the issue is very much visual. It comes down to this: if an enemy is walking towards you, you have a few options. If you stand still, stopping time, then nothing happens – you and the enemy will be there until the end of time. So, you have to do something, and that means firing. But if you fire, time progresses, and the enemy moves towards you. Since you’re not moving, the enemy will reach you quickly, so what is your best option? To move away from the enemy AND fire at the same time, which is what you do in every single twin-stick shooter under the sun. The gimmick has been chucked into a dumpster and set on fire.
The best thing we can say about the time-stopping is that it lets you take stock. Have you accidentally moved into a room with barrack-fuls of enemies pointing guns at you? Okay, take a moment, stop, and work out an exit strategy. You might use one of your special weapons, activated by a press of LB or RB. Or perhaps you’ll choose a way out, or an enemy to focus on first. When you’ve been backed into a corner and you have no other option, stopping becomes a viable option, thanks to that gimmick.
The problem is, it’s not fun. Stopping isn’t instinctive in a game genre that is built on frantic firefights, so you have to mentally contort yourself into doing it. Why would I want to take a bullet-hell twin-sticker slowly and tentatively? The second problem is that you really shouldn’t be getting yourself into those situations: UltraGoodness has a snowball effect if you are surrounded, taking multiple hearts from you in quick succession (more on how UltraGoodness handles failure in a moment), which means that you’re as good as dead. If you’re stopping to choose an enemy to fire at, you’re probably dead anyway.
Okay, so the unique-selling-point happens to be unique, but not a selling point. How does it hold up as a bog standard shooter?
The answer is not very well. When moving, there’s a tendency for UltraGoodness 2 to correct you to the cardinal directions like you’re navigating a grid. We didn’t feel like we could move freely, and that led to deaths that weren’t deserved. The bosses in particular are true bullet-hell battles that last a fair whack of time. When spirals of bullets are coming at you with minimal gaps between them, you need complete and precise control. But it’s just not there. The character is chunky and the collision detection is ropey, so navigating through the bullets is like threading a potato through a cheese grater.
Luckily, UltraGoodness 2 isn’t what we’d call difficult, so there’s some leeway. We make no claims to being ‘shmup gods’, but we found our way to the end without issue. What’s most damning – particularly with a game called UltraGoodness 2 – is that we had so little fun getting there.
There are countless reasons for the lack of fun, but there are some core ones. For whatever reason, UltraGoodness 2 chooses to make their enemies bullet-sponges. You can be standing at a cannon for five seconds, unloading into it (since the cannon doesn’t move, you’re under no threat) waiting for it to die so that you can move on. This would be fine if – core problem #2 – the victory condition for the level wasn’t to kill every enemy. Not only are the enemies not fun to kill, but there are loads of them, across pretty hefty levels. You’ll be sweeping the area, trying to find every last one (a handy arrow points in their direction), and oh-my-goodness it’s a trudge. There’s no fun in moving from bullet sponge to bullet sponge, and it becomes like you’re a janitor rather than a king.
Nothing makes this less fun than dying. Should you lose all your hearts, which can happen if you’re not paying attention, you’re swept back to the start with all of the enemies respawned. As we’ve noted, exterminating all the enemies is long and laborious, so you might not have the willpower to bother doing it again. We could feel our heart sink into our thighs whenever it happened. In particularly heated levels, we would do ‘sweeps’, moving up a few pixels and then clearing the level row-by-row, so that we never encountered too many enemies at one time. We realised that we were ploughing the screen. We had become farmers.
Then there’s the action itself, which is incredibly messy and hard to read. Enemies explode into blood splatter, while lots of environmental details litter the stage. With that much going on, it can be hard to see where the enemies, let alone their projectiles, are coming from. You have a cat that sidekicks for you throughout, and their projectiles look like those of the enemies. Friendly-fire means that your landmines also need to be accounted for. This unnecessary game-debris litters the screen, and is another reason why you’ll be playing UltraGoodness 2 carefully and slowly.
There are thirty levels here, and not a huge amount of variety among them. While the levels are grouped into ten grass, desert and water-themed levels each, it was disappointing to find that enemies were either duplicated or switched out for different clothes. There are precious few enemies specific to the region. Plus, no story spans the levels, and it’s barely comprehensible why you happen to be a king and what the demons want with your kingdom. When we were finding the levels laborious, we really needed something like enemy-variety or story to save things but, unfortunately, they didn’t come to save UltraGoodness 2.
That’s the heart of what UltraGoodness 2 on Xbox gets so wrong. It forgets what’s great about twin-stick shooting: the frenzy, the pyrotechnics, the stacking power-ups, and how godlike it can make you feel. There’s nothing better than swerving to avoid an enemy as you nail a missile into their broadside. If you are a shooter that is encouraging players to stop, slow down and tentatively tiptoe through your game, then something is wrong. UltraTepid it is then.