One of the first arcade games that I ever played with more than a passing interest was Namco's seminal Galaga. One of the original space shooters, Galaga was approachable in ways that most top down shooters simply aren't, and I was able to get better and better as the years went on and I kept returning to it. I feel like a lot of the games in that tradition nowadays are still in the mindset of wowing arcade onlookers with streams of bullets and floods of enemies. Vortex Attack is a bit different. It knows to start off slowly and go with a player's pace, allowing pilots to get into a groove. There are still plenty of bullets to dodge, but the fast pace of the action and the multitude of weapons put the player on a balanced playing field, and the whole package reminds me of arcade games of yore rather than more modern dodging simulators.
The setup for Vortex Attack is very simple. There is a vortex. You must attack it. The black hole summons other ships for you to take down, and you must collect energy dropped from those foes, which is immediately hurled back into the vortex. Before long, the black hole implodes, and you're off to the next level. Nothing too complicated here, just a premise that would fit in with any of the other classics from back in the day. Yet Vortex Attack has one clear advantage on its elders: the power and roominess afforded by modern technology. The game packs in a dozen playable ships each with different weapons and stats, as well as enemy forces that rebound as fast as you can shoot them down and frantic gameplay that you could only dream about in 1985. This is not a nostalgia trip, this is a developer showing us what a cabinet made in 2015 would contain.
While the action is definitely frantic, it allows the player to keep up with it for a long while, and you're guaranteed to get your money's worth of excitement out of each play despite its perpetual free play. For those who are looking for a more shmup type game, just stick with it. The game eventually reaches levels that have you sneaking through streams of bullets and shooting down missiles, all of which will please the more masochistic kind of player. Especially if they choose to use some of the weaker ships, which lack stuff like options and rapid fire on their main weapons. Whether you're in it for pain or arcade pleasure, the game ends after you've run out of lives three times, giving you the feeling of having a limited stack of quarters that few other arcade callbacks seem to get right.
There are boss fights appearing every five levels or so, although each string of levels really feels like one chunk considering the pace of gameplay. Reaching new bosses and defeating them unlocks new ships, and the variety on display in those ships is really something to behold. While some games will give you upgrades to your base ship and then add in power-ups during gameplay, picking a new ship in Vortex Attack really changes the experience completely. Each has a different stock of bombs and shot patterns on top of those in-game upgrade paths. The upgrades will even change depending on the ship, with some weapons going to a spread shot, while others just boost the rate of fire. Other than the base ship, each one feels more like a sidegrade than an upgrade, and different players will find success with different ships, which only adds to the variety.
If there is one thing I really dislike about the game, it's the art style. All the ships look flat and lifeless, as if they were ripped straight from a flash game and onto Steam. Some might not be bothered by this, but I can't help but think how much the game would pop more with even basic 3D models or pixelated sprite work. The soundscape does pick up the slack a bit however. The music is an endless beat that fits the space shooter, accentuated by memorable shot and explosions sounds and a flourish at the end of every stage. Those sounds are actually what reminded me of Galaga while playing—there is just something about those heavy beats whenever you hit an enemy that keeps you coming back to space again and again.
Overall, Vortex Attack is a triumphant game for fans of old school arcades and hardcore shoot 'em ups. The game has been updated constantly since it was released on Steam and is currently running a global high score contest for its best players. It shows that arcade experiences don't have to be all about munching quarters or phone microtransactions. Sometimes it's all about getting into the zone, dodging bullets, and seeing how far your skills can take you. I would have spent much more than five dollars on this game if it were actually in an arcade, so I'm thankful that it only wants that singular price for unlimited free play. I was always bad about stretching my luck with continues anyway.
Vortex Attack was purchased by the reviewer and reviewed on Steam.