Shmup Essentials: Devil Engine

“Modern retro” games have been fashionable for a while now, but anyone who’s been around the block knows that making an authentically retro-feeling experience is more than just adopting a pixel art/chiptune aesthetic and calling it a day.

No; a truly authentic-feeling “modern retro” game needs to not only capture the look and sound of titles from classic platforms, it also needs to recapture the feel — and while doing so, take into account some more modern conventions to create a satisfying experience for the 21st century gamer.

I can think of no game that has nailed this better than Devil Engine, the new release from Dangen Entertainment. And if you’re a shoot ’em up fan, you are going to want to be all over this masterpiece.

Devil Engine is a Western-developed shoot ’em up, the work of Protoculture Games (aka “Shmoopdev”). It’s heavily inspired by the 32-bit console gaming era and classics of the horizontally scrolling shoot ’em up subgenre, specifically titles such as the Thunder Force series. In fact, Thunder Force series composer Hyakutaro Tsukumo even contributed music to this game’s spectacular soundtrack — just one of many ways in which the overall experience feels absolutely, 100% like a lost Saturn game in the best possible way.

In Devil Engine, you take on the role of the obligatory lone pilot up against an army of things that want you and the rest of the population of Earth dead. The details aren’t important — the plot is something to do with “that which was meant to be our saviour” going rampant, if you care — but what does matter is that you have six lengthy, beautiful stages ahead of you, filled with enemies, bullets, power-ups and bosses.

The basic mechanics of Devil Engine take a few cues from the Raiden series. Your ship can equip one of three weapons at a time: a red spread shot, a blue laser that is narrow but powerful, and a green plasma shot that homes in on enemies but is the least powerful of all the shot types. Like in Raiden, collecting a power-up of the same colour as the shots you are currently using increases its power, while collecting one of a different colour switches to that shot type without increasing in power.

Devil Engine places quite a heavy focus on bomb use. Rather than being a screen-clearing, “last resort” sort of attack or a counter to an incoming attack, bombs in Devil Engine vary in functionality according to your current shot type. With the red shots, you fire a volley of powerful missiles forward; with the blue, two additional laser cannons appear and swirl around your ship for a few seconds; with a green, you fire a barrage of homing missiles.

The reason I say there’s quite a heavy focus on bomb use — more so than in, say, the aforementioned Raiden or vertically scrolling bullet hell titles — is that it’s quite easy to restock your bombs. Every 5,000 points you earn, you get a new bomb, meaning that you’ll be replenishing them quite quickly if you keep scoring. In fact, earning new bombs is such a key part of the game that there’s even a little meter under your bomb gauge indicating how close you are to earning your next 5,000 points — a really nice little touch that means you don’t have to parse your score manually. (There’s also a similar meter under your lives count; you can earn an extra life for every 50,000 points, though obviously this happens a bit less often.)

Scoring highly in Devil Engine is based on a combo system. Shooting down enemies fills a circular gauge in the corner of the screen, and any time this fills completely, your multiplier increases by one. Naturally, it gets more difficult to fill at the higher levels, drains over time and is completely reset upon death, but there’s another reason for its existence besides score, too: the Burst mechanic.

Burst is Devil Engine’s unique selling point. By tapping a button, you can send out a small shockwave around your ship that cancels bullets and awards you points, making it both an important defensive technique and a key method of scoring points. The twist is that performing a Burst costs you your combo gauge, with the shockwave being larger the higher your multiplier was when you triggered it. However, just to add a further wrinkle to the mix, if you cancel sufficient bullets with a Burst, you can actually immediately replenish your combo gauge and perhaps even push it over where it was originally, so making effective use of this mechanic is essential to netting the best scores.

The standard controls are set up in such a way that all these functions are easily at your fingertips. On the Switch version, shot is on B (with autofire, so you can just hold it down), bomb is on A, Burst is on Y and the ability to switch between three different movement speeds is on X. However, all these controls are also mapped to the shoulder buttons and triggers on the controller, allowing you maximum flexibility without having to move your thumbs and fingers around too much. It’s an extremely logical, well thought-out control layout, and the game’s super-slick frame rate means that every button and direction press feels satisfyingly responsive, keeping you feeling 100% in control at all times.

Supporting these excellent controls are a wealth of options that all grades of player can make good use of. You can make your ship’s hitbox visible, or draw a prominent outline around it. If you want to try and speedrun the game, you can bring up a visible timer. After getting your first Game Over, you unlock an easy mode — rather amusingly, the only two difficulty options available once this has occurred are “Very Easy” and “Very Hard” — and repeated playthroughs unlock additional credits, allowing you to continue more and credit-feed your way to the end if you’re not quite up to a 1CC just yet.

There’s also an unlock system based on your total lifetime score across all your playthroughs, and this opens up a variety of new features. Some of these, like alternative rendering modes, are just for fun, but there are also a number of Challenge Modes to unlock, offering you short-form challenges that give you an opportunity to practice specific skills.

The game itself takes you through a variety of different, beautiful encounters, beginning with a battle through a fleet of spaceships, followed by a descent into a neon-soaked city and a flight over a misty woodland. Each stage provides its own interesting and unique mechanics as well as some spectacular boss fights, presenting a stiff challenge even for shoot ’em up veterans while remaining accessible and clearly learnable even to newbies (or just people who are crap, like me!). You’ll find there’s a satisfying progression curve; take the time to practice a few times rather than giving up after an attempt or two and you’ll make slow but steady progress each time you play. It’s really satisfying and addictive; that sense of being able to push just a little further each time is excellent motivation to continue playing.

On top of all this, the whole thing is wrapped in a wonderful sense of understanding and appreciation of modern gaming, streaming and shoot ’em up culture. The default entries in the high score table include things like “BLAME CHAT” (referring to the common trope of a streamer supposedly getting distracted from the game they are playing by their chat participants) and “2HUISHARDER” (a reference to the popular — and notoriously challenging — Touhou Project series of bullet hell shoot ’em ups), while the continue screen occasionally reminds you that only a 1CC really “counts”, so you may want to bear that in mind before hitting that start button like a big old dirty credit-feeding Cheaty McCheatpants.

In short, what we have here is a near-perfect example of a modern shoot ’em up; it both acknowledges the great things about the genre’s past — including how beautiful artwork deliberately designed within technological limitations can be; look at that gorgeous dithering! — and simultaneously incorporates a variety of modern features and conveniences to keep 21st century gamers satisfied. Whether you’re a shoot ’em up veteran or a complete newbie, this is a beautifully crafted game, a real labour of love, and it deserves every success.

More about Devil Engine

Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.

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8 thoughts on “Shmup Essentials: Devil Engine”

  1. I remember losing my shit when the original announcement trailers for this once circulated. I’m so glad to hear that it turned out well. It’s on Switch, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed for a physical pressing.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It certainly looks like it. I’ve already harassed the developers, publishers, and Limited Run on Twitter. Limited Run has worked with the publisher Dangen before to put out Momodora, so a physical copy is not out of the question.

        Liked by 1 person

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