Have you ever wondered what would happen if you combined campy 50s B-movies with Life Force or R-Type-style shmups? If you have, then your weirdly specific musings have been realized in the form of Squad 51 vs. the Flying Saucers, the debut project from Brazilian studio Loomiarts.
Squad 51 vs. the Flying Saucers is a retro prospect in every sense of the phrase. The gameplay is unapologetically old-school; across its handful of levels, you'll fly planes through hordes of flying saucers, shooting them down to score points. It's all wrapped up in a deliberately lo-fi black-and-white presentation that harks back to the golden age of trashy science fiction.
Of course, paying homage to your forebears is one thing, but Squad 51 vs. the Flying Saucers has to do more than elicit a knowing chuckle; it's got to work as a game. For the most part, this retro throwback delivers the goods, but it suffers from some wonky design that makes it a tricky one to recommend if you're not already in love with shmups.
Squad 51 vs. the Flying Saucers Offers Classic Shmup Fun
Sometimes, games don't need bells, whistles, or extras to entertain. All they need is a solid core gameplay loop, and that's where Squad 51 vs. the Flying Saucers shines. Like R-Type, or even older examples of the genre like Scramble or Airstrike, Squad 51 is a side-scrolling shmup in which the objective is simple: if something comes from the right side of the screen, blow it up.
This simplicity works in Squad 51's favor. The action is big, bold, and brash, with plenty of explosions and visual effects marking successful takedowns. Your plane can always fire a machine gun, but you've also got access to subweapons like bombs, missiles, and a rear-firing flamethrower. All of these tools pack enough of a punch to make Squad 51's core shooting viscerally satisfying.
Squad 51 is a side-scrolling shmup in which the objective is simple: if something comes from the right side of the screen, blow it up.
That's not to say there's no complexity on display. Before each mission, you're given the chance to change your build around a little. Skills you can slot include increased defense against enemy fire or collisions, as well as extra subweapons and the chance to increase the number of lives you have to complete each stage. These choices add just the right amount of variety to the shmup gameplay, ensuring it never gets old or repetitive.
The Retro Aesthetic Doesn't Quite Suit Squad 51
Unfortunately, that complexity doesn't entirely work when it comes to the visuals. Squad 51 has opted for a deliberately retro vibe, and for the between-mission live-action cutscenes, this is delightful. The effort has been made to ensure Squad 51 really does look the part; it's got the same shaky black-and-white camerawork and deliberately (at least, I assume) awkward and hammy acting as the movies to which it's paying homage.
That aesthetic doesn't translate as well to the core gameplay, though. It's not just Squad 51's movies that are in black-and-white; the whole game is rendered thus, and when you're constantly being bombarded with bullet hell-style projectiles, the old-school B-movie look crosses over from cute to irritating. Squad 51 uses pseudo-3D visuals, too, so objects constantly fly in and out of the foreground and background, making it even harder to know exactly what's going to hit you.
Still, Squad 51 is admirably committed to its retro stylings. The voice acting has been filtered to sound like it's being delivered through 1940s radio mics, and the music has a wobble indicative of a slightly janky tape reel. If it weren't for the occasional modern-sounding glitch in the voice actors' vernacular, Squad 51 might actually be convincing as a real sci-fi B-movie of the classic era, albeit one without a particularly involving storyline.
Squad 51 Has Retro Difficulty, Too
It's not just the visuals that are retro in Squad 51. This is a tribute to classic shmups, and as such, it features classic shmup difficulty. To put it bluntly, Squad 51 is screamingly hard in places. If you're not up for a challenge or you thought old-school NES and SNES-era shooters were too difficult, it's safe to say you should give this one an extremely wide berth.
Squad 51's level design is nicely varied, putting all of your plane's moves to the test by asking you to maneuver through tight corridors, shoot down lots of different kinds of enemies, and even switch plane types from time to time. Sadly, the level design is wonky, with many combat scenarios feeling hopelessly unfair unless you position yourself in a way you could never have predicted at the outset of the fight.
To put it bluntly, Squad 51 is screamingly hard in places.
That's all par for the course in shmups like this, though, and eventually, if you persevere, you'll emerge victorious against Squad 51's challenges. It's not a very long game (there are eleven levels and two difficulty modes to tackle, at least at the outset), so even if you find yourself repeating sections a few times, it won't take you long to overcome Squad 51's considerable challenge curve.
Squad 51 vs. the Flying Saucers | Final Thoughts
If you're a fan of old-school shmups, then you'll find lots to like in Squad 51 vs. the Flying Saucers. It has plenty of replay value thanks to the many different skills you can unlock, and the second difficulty mode, while not recommended to anyone who wants to retain their sanity, is a nice addition for the truly hardcore.
Squad 51 isn't going to set the world on fire with its deliberately campy acting and throwback action, but if you've been wishing for the halcyon days of Fantasy Zone or Gradius to return, then you could do a lot worse than Loomiarts' loving tribute to those golden years. Don't expect Squad 51 to change your life, but it's a perfectly agreeable way to spend a few hours.
TechRaptor reviewed Squad 51 vs. the Flying Saucers on PC via Steam using a code provided by the publisher.
- Great Core Shooting
- Charming Retro Aesthetic
- Skills Add Depth
- Confusing Visuals
- Unfair Difficulty Spikes
- Not Much Content