As If I Needed Motavation to Blow Things Up: Graceful Explosion Machine Review
It’s funny to think that for a genre that is effectively as small as the shoot-em-up (or the even shorter and more fun name “shmup” which I will use on a regular basis throughout this review), there are plenty of factors and tropes that further divide it and essentially create these enduring arguments as to which ways are better and therefore which of the greats is truly the greatest. Even though most fans of the genre like myself are going to be open and excited to try just about anything we can find for a new shmup we haven’t tried yet, the questions remain -- do you like side-scrolling or top-down? Do you like “options” like in R-Type or simply more varied weapons like Gradius? Is a free-roaming or even full 3D shooter really a true shoot-em-up?
Understanding these tropes and these questions isn’t essential to your enjoyment of Vertex Pop’s Graceful Explosion Machine, the latest indie title to hit the Nintendo Switch’s eShop, but they are important if you want to understand G.E.M.’s (that’s a quality acronym, by the way, good job Poppers) approach to the genre and where it’s been going since its golden era of the early to mid-’90s. First off, Graceful Explosion Machine is a Defender-style free-roamer, meaning that while the player is granted full control over their titular G.E.M. ship and where it goes, the levels themselves simply loop around like the borders in Pac-Man meaning that if you were to thrust full force off to screen right for about 8-10 seconds or so, you would end up in the exact same spot as before. Second, while it’s not a proper bullet-hell shooter, simply for the fact that most of your enemies are their own attack mechanism rather than firing bullets at you, but the same sense of being overwhelmed by a screen full of hazards still applies and makes up the bulk of G.E.M.’s identity; it’s all about simple, frantic action that challenges you to think lightning quick to survive at first and pump up your score later on for bragging rights.
The Switch has been noted lately as a system that lends itself to pick up and play and truly delivers on that promise, with the ease and speed with which it can be picked up from the dock, played for however long, and correctly put aside just as easily. Graceful Explosion Machine is one of the early titles to fit this criteria not only for its short and sweet approach to gameplay, but even just in the way it launches you into the action almost in the instant you start it up, with little by way of pomp and circumstance regarding both the presentation and story (or lack thereof). Bright but simple color palettes, basic and seemingly random level layouts, and an intentionally lackluster approach to graphics and design don’t make for the prettiest or most exciting game you’ve ever laid eyes on when you first drop into a level, but G.E.M.’s appeal is that this flash-based, browser game-level presentation was only treated as such to funnel more work into the clever mechanics and addicting gameplay that made games like Alien Hominid or A Dark Room so popular, even if their original platform isn’t the most prestigious.
Graceful Explosion Machine’s formula is similar to that of wave-based defense games, combined with the same one-against-all appearance of any and all classic shmup. In each of the game’s 36 levels, your only goal is to eradicate any and all hostiles by making the best use of your reflexes, the G.E.M.’s slick maneuverability, and, of course, your arsenal of four badass weapons - the basic blaster, the energy saber which swings a protective and destructive wave around your ship, the sniper beam that does the most singular damage but with poor distribution, and missile barrages that fly every which way out of the G.E.M., but also force you to remain stationary until you let up on the fire button or run out of energy. Even if the design of the levels and enemies is bare-bones, the latter certainly gets the job done by being instantly recognizable and forcing you to spread the love around between your weaponry, learning which enemies to take out with which weapon, or later on, which ones typically don’t give a damn what you hit them with.
Addicting really is the key word when talking about G.E.M., especially in this regard because any time you outright fail a level (three hits and you’re done, though some enemies drop health pickups as well as the standard weapon-recharging gems), it’s almost a given that you’ll do better the next time because you know the ups and downs of each wave, which ones have the toughest foes, and how to prioritize against them. Once you use this knowledge to beat the level outright, the score that has been racking up throughout your whole run appears on screen and earns you a grade that you can share with the world. Some players might be satisfied with their D and C grades as long as they can say that they got through the game’s full set of levels, which is the first hurdle to be conquered of the two-fold difficulty curve, while the second merely challenges you to play the game to your full potential, attaining bragging rights through a successful approach at a scoring system that has often felt dead since the end of the arcade era.
Graceful Explosion Machine is not a complex game. In many instances, it feels like it was made in a nearly ancient home game design kit like the classic Dezaemon series of shmup builders. And believe it or not, both of the above statements are actually compliments, and anyone who sees Graceful Explosion Machine in action will understand why after only a level or two. Nothing about it looks or sounds impressive, but much like that project your friend made in RPG Maker II that actually came out really good, the designers at Vertex Pop have created something incredibly basic because they understood that if basic is all you’re going to get, you’re gonna learn how to make basic work for you. Prioritizing mechanics and balance over graphics and story goes against the grain of even many indie games today, as even most indie games carefully craft their low-tech graphics to invoke a sense of nostalgia or quirky charm, but it works wonders for Graceful Explosion Machine, making it one of the better low-price, high-replayability investments of the year. It’s a gem of a title that comes out of a clear understanding of a developer’s limits, influences, and audience. At any more than $20, Graceful Explosion Machine wouldn’t quite be enough content or complexity to really seem worth it, but for only $12.99 on the eShop, it sets the Switch on the track I personally hope to see the system take, with unique, pick-up-and-don’t-put-down titles that boast both quality and quantity, and a plentiful supply of nostalgia for genres and approaches that may have fallen out of favor with the rise of the flashy, generic AAA title.