Here we are again. It’s time for me to review another scrolling shooter, this time Underground from Chillingo. I really should just come up with a standard header for scrolling shooter reviews, which I think would go something like this: “I love scrolling shooters. I don’t care if they are horizontal or vertical, or maybe even a mix of the two views. All that matters is that the visuals look pretty good, the sound doesn’t make my ears bleed, and the action is fast and furious. Not R-Type level of insanity, mind you, but I don’t want it to be a walk in the park either. Oh, and for good measure the developers should throw in some nifty power-ups. Give me these things, and I’ll be a happy man.” Well, I’m happy to say that for the most part Underground delivers, and it manages to provide a solid, old style shooter that’s lots of fun.
You play the part of a spray can that turns into a ship – yeah, it’s odd – and your mission is to keep the subway clear of all the weird creatures that come drifting through. Meanwhile, as a spectator you’ll be following the story of some lone guy in a hooded sweatshirt that’s either on some really secretive mission or is starving for attention, because he feels the need to tell you just barely enough between each level that you have no idea what’s actually going on. That’s one of the coolest parts of Underground, though, because you really want to know who this guy is, what he’s done, and why some unknown evil force is scrawling messages to him in subway terminal floors. Of course, you’ll have to finish the game yourself to find all of that out.
From the playability standpoint Underground is old school all the way. You fly through each horizontally scrolling level blasting away the bad guys and trying to avoid the “floors” and “ceilings”, which in this case are some overly aggressive bits of graffiti that get in your way. The monsters come in waves that are ultimately predictable and can be memorized, which means at some point you should be able to play through the game and get everything, right? The monsters will come at you from all directions, so don’t think you’ll be safe staying tucked along the left side of the screen. Most critters will take multiple hits to kill, and some take quite a few. From time to time destroyed villains will leave a power-up, and sometimes the bigger bad guys will leave a ticket for an extra life. When all your lives are gone it’s game over, but thankfully you can continue from the last level you successfully beat (at least in easy mode, which has been my stomping ground).
There are a wide variety of creatures, many of which aren’t even describable. From cockroaches to killer dogs to what can best be termed “two headed flying lawyers”, you’ll see things the likes of which you’ve never encountered in a scrolling shooter – or most likely any video game – before. That’s a big part of Underground’s charm. On the other hand, the power-ups aren’t so creative. You have your basics like a double shot and triple shot, and then the slightly less standard but seen ‘em before varieties like shots coming from both front and back and shots going in four directions. What was creative was the fact that the power-ups came in the form of spray can tops, the color indicating which power-up you would get. I also liked the fact that the temporary shield power-up was in the form of a gas mask. This one you’ll just find floating around when it appears, rather than being dropped off by an enemy.
Controlling your ship is a pretty simple matter. You can either use the accelerometer or touch screen to move the ship. Personally, I prefer the tilt controls. They are very responsive, and using touch to move your ship interferes with firing. By default your ship fires forward, but you can actually direct your fire by pressing on the screen in the direction you want your ammunition to travel. When using touch control for the ship I found myself fumbling over my own fingers constantly. It just wasn’t very comfortable.
The only real issue I had with the game, and it’s quite minor in fact, is that when you come back from dying you can’t pick up any power-ups while you’re in a temporary invulnerable state. I guess that makes it “fair” because the bad guys also can’t hit you, but at least in easy mode I think you should be able to snag stuff anyway. I also feel they really missed the boat on a cool game play feature. The “playground” is the outside of the train, but you also see straight through to the inside of the train and beyond to the other side. I think it would have been really cool to see them utilize at least the inside of the train as a second playing field. Maybe there could be special power-ups or something hiding back there for people who are paying attention. It just seemed like a missed dimension to the game.
Graphically, Underground is a treat. I love watching your ship transform from a spray can at the beginning of each level. The monsters are colorful, bizarre and just downright cool looking. There isn’t a whole lot of animation, though the critters do turn into nice colorful splats of graffiti when you kill them. The train itself is a cool effect. As you scroll along side of it you’ll notice graffiti scrawled across the inside of the train. You’ll also see flashes through the back windows of the train as it passes light sources. It really does a great job of making you feel like you’re flying alongside a train. I also love the “cut scenes” when the mystery passenger talks to you while you’re waiting at a subway terminal. From the passenger’s reflection in the window to the detailed labeling on the soda machines, everything looks lovingly rendered. The terminals that are full of people are especially cool, as they employ that effect where everyone seems to be moving at hyper speed so all you see are a bunch of blurs.
The sound effects are decent enough. The transform at the beginning of the level sounds cool, as does the subtle drone of the train moving when you can hear it amongst everything else. What really stands out here, however, is the music. It’s kind of funny, because if someone handed me a CD with this type of music on it, I’d probably either give it away or be using it as a coaster for my drinks. In the game, however, it just works. It’s not that I’d even consider it “subway music” or anything like that, it just really seems to fit the whole mood of the game.
So there you have it. If you’re any type of scrolling shooter fan, you shouldn’t be reading this review any more. You should already be clicking the “buy app” button in iTunes or on your device. This is old school at its best, with cool visuals, interesting music, and a mysterious man on a train ride. What more could you ask for?