Shmup Essentials: Riddled Corpses EX

You know sometimes you just see a game and think “I’m going to enjoy this?” That was very much me and Riddled Corpses EX.

There was something about the game’s excellent use of convincing 16-bit style pixel art and the suggestion that it would incorporate two of my favourite shmup subgenres — bullet hell and twin-stick — that made me pretty sure I was going to have a good time with it. And I most certainly did.

If you’re yet to check out this enjoyable blastathon, either in its original PC incarnation on Steam or its all-new “EX” version on PlayStation 4/Vita cross-buy and Xbox One, then grab yourself a sturdy controller, strap yourself in and get ready to perforate some cadavers.

Riddled Corpses was originally released on PC in 2015 as the work of solo developer Daniel Fernandez Chavez, better known as “Diabolical Mind”. The new EX version is a remaster by solo French developer Fabrice Breton of Cowcat Games, and features a number of significant improvements to the original — so many, in fact, that even those who had a good time with the PC original should check it out.

There are several different ways to play Riddled Corpses EX. First is the story mode, new to this incarnation of the game, which allows you to select a character, start from any stage you’ve previously unlocked and attempt to reach the conclusion. Next is the arcade mode, which starts you from the beginning at minimum power level and allows you to collect powerups to get stronger as you progress. And finally comes the Survival mode, an endless arena of enemies that becomes very challenging very quickly!

In each mode, you’re thrown pretty much straight into combat. In the story and arcade modes, each stage consists of several waves of enemies that you have to survive on a static screen, with a forced-scrolling section between each, and a boss battle at the conclusion. Each stage has a distinctive aesthetic and lineup of enemies to challenge, so there’s plenty of variety as you make your way through the five available levels.

Initially, you’ll confront just mindless zombies that shamble towards your position, but before long you’ll be taking on enemies that fire bullets at you, high speed enemies that charge, large enemies with significant HP pools, “turrets” that fire complex bullet patterns and plenty of others besides. In story and arcade mode, there’s a natural progression in difficulty as you start to come across stronger enemies more frequently the further you go; in survival, meanwhile, all bets are off as the game flings everything it has at you pretty much from the outset!

There’s a degree of strategic play to the game through the use of items and destructible scenery objects. The former consist of a stopwatch that freezes time (or slows bosses) for a short period and bundles of dynamite that act as a screen-clearing “smart bomb”, while the latter consist of barrels, cars, trucks and other items around the stage that can be destroyed with enough gunfire, causing them to explode and either kill or deal heavy damage to any nearby enemies. Careful use of these elements is absolutely essential to crowd control as the screen gets busier, particularly as it can fill the “Combo” meter more easily; filling this causes your shots to be temporarily powered up, so it’s definitely something worth doing.

The boss fights and stronger, large enemies are where the bullet hell elements come in most obviously. Many of these larger foes make use of learnable, clear firing patterns, and understanding how to avoid these while continuing to attack is important to your overall progression. The game takes heavy cues from popular bullet hell developers such as Cave by making bullets bright pink and thus very easy to distinguish, particularly against the fairly dark backgrounds seen in most of the stages. And, like all good bullet hell games, your character’s hitbox is smaller than their overall sprite — so learning exactly how much you can get away with “grazing” incoming attacks is something you’ll need to get on top of quickly.

In fact, the game is very good at providing visual and auditory feedback to the player in general — something that is of critical importance to the whole shoot ’em up genre, but particularly those subsets that require extreme accuracy and agility. I never lost my character on screen, and colour flashes during enemy spawns helped me identify where the biggest threats were likely to come from and allow me to position myself accordingly. A+ for something so important, but so easily forgotten!

Presentation-wise, Riddled Corpses EX is quite lovely. The quality pixel art demonstrates that Chavez clearly understands the 16-bit aesthetic intimately rather than just paying lipservice to it as some indie devs do, and the game even includes the option for various scanline and CRT simulation filters for those who enjoy such things. The chiptune-style soundtrack by Jorge Olivares Giorgiost is catchy and well-composed, too, drawing heavy inspiration from thrash, death and heavy metal compositional techniques and combining these influences with lovely crunchy square waves and noise generators. There are actually two variations on the soundtrack available in the game — the somewhat C64/SID chip-esque original, and an arranged version with a slightly more “PSG” sound to it. Unfortunately, the actual full-on rock arrangements from Giorgiost’s Bandcamp page for the game’s soundtrack appear to be absent, which is a shame — they’d have been a fun inclusion.

Riddled Corpses EX is one of those games that is extremely simple to understand and get into, but which has a lot of depth and longevity for those who wish to invest a bit more time into it. Both the story and survival modes make use of a persistent progression system, where gold you collect in any game mode can be used to level up and unlock characters. Initially, you only have a single character available, but others can be unlocked for varying outlays of gold or achieving particular milestones in the game. Each character has their own unique stats and passive abilities, and the two-player local co-op mode allows you to mix and match characters for maximum killing and looting efficiency.

One of the most recurring criticisms of the PC original was that it was very grind-heavy, particularly to unlock new characters — and for sure that element is still present in Riddled Corpses EX to a certain extent. However, it doesn’t take a lot of money to upgrade your starting character, so rather than immediately aiming to unlock the cutest girl in the cast as I’m sure many people might, it pays to spend a bit of time powering yourself up more gradually. The choice is yours, of course, but you’ll likely find you have a better experience playing this way rather than attempting to grind out thousands of gold in one go.

All in all, Riddled Corpses EX is a great time, and a fun addition to the libraries of the PS4, Xbox One and Vita. The latter version is particularly noteworthy for being just as slick as its TV-connected siblings, and this sort of game is always a great fit for handheld play, too; if you have an original model Vita with that gorgeous screen, enjoy really seeing the vibrant colours used in the pixel art “pop!”

You may think you’re tired of blasting zombies, but don’t let the seemingly played-out premise put you off; this is a super-fun twin-stick shooter, a love letter to retro games and a fine example of a console port being significantly superior to its source material to boot! In your face, “PC Master Race”.

More about Riddled Corpses EX

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