Top-down shooters…who DOESN’T love them? Much in the same way that ghosts and pellets are the main dietary source for yellow blobs that only know one sound effect, shoot-’em-up games have been a staple of video gamers since before video gamers were called that. This particular genre been somewhat in decline in recent years, and I’ve become thoroughly sick of Geometry Wars and Super Stardust HD. So it was with pure pleasure and frisson that I picked up Beat Hazard Ultra. Find out just how much of a blast it is, after the hyperspace jump.

If I had to delve into the history of space shooters, or even shoot-em-up games (lovingly called “shmups” in gaming circles), we’d be here till the evil, bullet-spewing robotic cows zoom home, so for today’s review tax, you’re getting a short history of twin-stick shooters, also sometimes called “run-‘n-gun” games. Inevitably, this short history is going to take a left turn at Geometry Wars Lane and Super Stardust HD Boulevard, but that left turn is about as inevitable as Japanese shmups are of being weird. And you should be grateful that I’m not going anywhere near Cho Aniki, because that’s a game that will make ANYONE feel uncomfortable. On the other hand, if a side-scrolling shooter ever needs reviewing…

Arguably, one of the earliest games in the twin-stick shooter genre was Nintendo’s Sheriff, released in video arcades back in 1979. Yes, twin-stick shooter games have been around longer than some [Ed: Most] of you have. The game was fairly simple, and the controls were pretty rudimentary by today’s standards. On the left was a joystick that moved the sheriff around, and on the right, an 8-way directional knob that you turned in the direction you wanted to shoot, and pushed down to fire. The game proved profitable and challenging enough that people kept coming back to try their hand at this novel way of playing.

The game that put twin-stick shooters in the front of everyone’s minds, however, was Robotron 2084. The “2084” bit is deceptive, since the game actually appeared in video arcades in 1982. This time, the arcade cabinet really DID come with two joysticks on the control panel in front, and formed the control scheme that we know and love: left stick to move, right stick to fire. Many of the features that we today associate with twin-stick shooters first appeared in Robotron 2084: gameplay that was easy to get into but difficult to master; swarms of different kinds of enemies that acted differently; gameplay that started tame, but quickly degenerated into chaos…it all appeared here first. Robotron 2084 was revolutionary. Heck, this game is so important that even the Guinness Book of World Records hails it as one of the most important [Ed: Eleventh most important, in fact, but the point remains] arcade games in terms of “technical, creative, and cultural impact”. If this is not one impressive-as-hell achievement for a video game that’s about as old as the 3½-inch floppy disc drive, then I’m not sure I know what is.

Unbelievably, we’re still not at Geometry Wars, because in 1990, we were blessed with Smash TV, a two player twin-stick shooter set in a dystopian future where people watched extreme violence on TV for entertainment. [Ed: And this is different from our current state of events precisely how?] Two contestants—that’d be you and a friend armed with a mountain of coins to shove into the machine—would shoot down waves upon waves of enemies, all the while collecting power ups and money. Take away the cheesy premise, and you’re left with a lot of the same gameplay mechanics as every other twin-stick shooter. In 1991, Midway, the same fellows who eventually gave us Mortal Kombat, descended from the video game heavens and gifted us with Total Carnage, another two-player twin-stick shooter, this time with a warzone setting and a larger play area. It should become evident that a single thread holds Robotron 2084, Smash TV, and Total Carnage together: a man named Eugene Jarvis. It’s pretty much thanks to him that we have Beat Hazard Ultra—you DO recall that we’re reading a review, right?—in the first place. Since Total Carnage, there have been more than just a number of brilliant twin-stick shooters, including Geometry Wars (and that’s all the mention you’ll get of it), the brilliant I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1, Super Stardust HD, Dead Nation, and of course, the game under scrutiny: Beat Hazard Ultra. We’ve arrived at our destination! All passengers to alight here for the tour.

Beat Hazard Ultra, made by Cold Beam Games (in reality, one single person named Steve Hunt, which makes it quintuply impressive), is a twin-stick shooter with a bit of a difference. There are no predefined levels of play. No predefined enemy patterns. Heck, there’s not really a soundtrack, not in the strictest sense. Instead, the game uses your own music tracks as all of the above: soundtrack, enemy patterns, level layout, weapon power, everything. All of it is dynamically generated based on the track you’ve selected.

If you don’t have any music available, the game ships with a few tracks of its own, but I seriously suggest firing it up with your own music. One of the best things about the game is that the same track will produce the same result over and over, meaning that you can actually learn to play a song. Since you play for score, and because the effect from a single track of music is repeatable, you can go on to practise a single song to attain better and better scores. In the interest of performing a thorough review, I played the game with a number of different tracks and genres, including some spoken comedy tracks, to see how the game reacts. Hint: spoken comedy; not so great. In general terms, the harder the music rocks, the more exciting the game becomes, and the bigger and brighter your weapon systems become, dealing more damage to enemies. By the same token, however, enemies also become faster, more pumped, and fire more weapons at you. Bizarrely, the best track I played, which has since become my favourite level to play, is the William Tell Overture [Ed: Kids these days don’t call it the Lone Ranger theme anymore? This is a sad loss]. Seriously, if you get this game, get this track from somewhere. It will make you grin from ear to ear. The way the music crescendos with the trumpets and horns is just pure excitement in music form, and Beat Hazard Ultra realizes this excitement almost perfectly. I’ve yet to try the 1812 Overture with its orchestral cannons, but I expect the results to be about the same.

One of the fun things that will keep you coming back to Beat Hazard Ultra, aside from the drive to better your own score, is the sheer number of unlockable perks that you get. Each time you play, your score is added to a tally. Play enough, score enough, and you’ll rank up, netting you a perk. You can then buy, upgrade, and equip the perk (up to eight of them) with money you’ve managed to acquire in-game. Working towards a visible goal always makes for that “one more go” kind of gameplay.

Beat Hazard Ultra boasts a range of play modes in addition to the single player single track mode. Survival mode plays your tracks one after the other, and sees how long you last, good if you’re up for a marathon session and want to just work towards high scores. Boss Rush mode pits you against nothing but bosses, one after the other. If you don’t feel like playing towards a score or worry about lives, and you want to see the full range of unlocked weapons and full range of enemies, you can play Chill Out mode. But wait! There’s more! The game also has local and online versus and co-op multiplayer. Online multiplayer matches songs that you and others have in common and plays levels with those songs only. Sadly, I was unable to play the online mode due to a lack of other people playing, but I hope that more people will be online as the game increases in popularity.

If you can’t tell from the screenshots here—and these screenshots really do the game no justice whatsoever—Beat Hazard Ultra is pure, mind-melting eye candy. The effects are bright and brilliant, and it’s precisely the kind of manic screen activity you want in a twin-stick shooter. If the effects get a bit much, you can tone it down a bit, which I think was a wise setting to include.

On the downside, I do wish the play area was bigger, with the screen either scrolling along or zooming in and out to show more, but this isn’t a major hassle. The game feels a little claustrophobic at times, especially with the larger bosses not giving you much wiggle room. Compound that with bunches of smaller enemies flying in, and things can get a little…frenetic. Mind you, this could also be seen as a challenge to overcome, but the edge of the play area probably needs to be slightly bigger, I feel [Ed: Or you could just not play that particular song. Just a thought]. Another tiny point is that I feel the enemies could have moved more in time to the music, but I’m not sure how possible this is without knowing ahead of time what songs will be played, or without limiting the number of songs.

At the end of things, Beat Hazard Ultra is a fun as hell game to play in short bursts at a time—extended session are almost guaranteed to give you a headache due to the insane effects. Like many such games, Beat Hazard Ultra works well as a ramp-up game to play before delving into something bigger, or as a chiller game where you need to kill some time without stressing too much about the mechanics. Because each level is just one song long, you’ll keep coming back to this game for just one more shot. You really can’t go too far wrong with a twin-stick shooter, and Beat Hazard Ultra ranks up there with the best of them. It’s a big, bright, and explosive game for an awesome price; how can you say no?

Score: 8.5 bright, brilliant special effects prawns out of 10

Detailed information:
Developer: Cold Beam Games
Release Date: September 2011
Platform: PSN
RRP: R65