Well, it’s happened again! I’ve found a game I adore at which I am completely terrible. Oh my goodness, I cannot fathom how side-scrolling shmup Squad 51 Vs. The Flying Saucers isn’t already one of the big hits of the year, given absolutely everything about it.
Imagine if Plan 9 From Outer Space were a shoot ’em up and you’re most of the way there. Using a superb combination of faux-50s FMV and computer graphics, this is a spoof black-and-white B-movie surrounding a tough-as-nails arcade game, at which I just want to keep failing.
Things begin with a classic spinning-newspapers Pathé News-like opening sequence that explains how aliens arrived on Earth, formed positive relationships with local governments, and then gradually took over until they were mostly in control. However, a rebel group of fighters made of pilots from all around the world, called Squadron 51, has decided to try to fight back.
This brings us to the game proper, which is a very traditional horizontally-scrolling shmup, except all presented in black-and-white, with enemy UFOs that look as though they’re dangling from threads from the top of the screen. This is just utterly suberb, the whole Ed Wood vibe shining through just as much as you’re playing as when you’re watching, yet not taking away from a bruisingly difficult game.
I am, without doubt, abysmal at arcade shooters, my poor little brain and fingers panicking at all the bullet hell as I repeat the same mistakes over and over. So it’s testament to Squad 51 that I don’t feel frustrated or defeated, but instead determined to creep a little further each time.
Helping me in that goal is a smart system that unlocks an ever-growing number of ability slots on your fighter plane, meaning you can make incremental improvements to help you get farther. Most importantly are extra lives, but there are also better shields against collision or enemy fire, faster fire rates, and of course new weapons to add to your arsenal. The moment I was able to fire backward for the first time changed everything. And best of all, while I ignored that the game was offering so many it was very clearly feeling sorry for me, when I finally finished the first level, I assigned that to my greatly improved skill, rather than how riciculously tanked out I was by that point.
There are a lot of very smart details in here too. I was especially impressed with an option to be able to switch off cutscenes you’ve already seen, and even in-level dialogue you’ve already heard. All cutscenes are skippable straight away anyway (although you shouldn’t, because they’re great), but to not even have to skip them the second, third, and seventeenth time you start a level is marvellous. Let alone being able to hush that one line of chatter right before that bit where you get killed every time.
Personally, I like leaving the chatter on, since it’s so well performed and entertainingly cheesy, adding to the sense of all-encompassing chaos as I play. And I want to pay special tribute to my favourite line in the game, near the end of the opening cutscenes, delivered in a heavy Russian accent:
This is completely brill, and really captures that sense of shoving yet another 10p in to see if you can get a bit further this time. (Yes, 10p, I’m very old.) It’s a bit pricey for the genre, but all that FMV didn’t shoot itself, and it’s a superbly fun game. I’m still terrible at it, with moments of glory as I just manage to perfectly dip and swoop through the screen of bullets, and only I have to know just how many shields and bonuses I have strapped on at any given time.