Assault Android Cactus: Shooting for the S+

I remember coming across Assault Android Cactus for the first time: it was back in 2013, when I was still working on USgamer, and I was headed for EGX, or the Eurogamer Expo as it used to be known.

My boss Jaz Rignall suggested that I might want to check out this game he’d heard a bit about, and put me in contact with the developer. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into it; if I’m perfectly honest, I was expecting some sort of fairly forgettable indie fare, but I trusted Jaz’s judgement. He’d been around in the games industry even longer than me, after all, so he knew his stuff.

I was right to trust his judgement. Assault Android Cactus ended up being my favourite thing I saw at EGX that year, and it’s remained a consistent favourite of mine ever since.

The version I saw back at EGX in 2013 was an early access version. The developers at Witch Beam Games were keen to implement all manner of interesting features, but at the time I saw it just the base game was in place. Said interesting features continued to be implemented over the course of the next two years, until the game finally launched out of Early Access in 2015, at which point it also came to PS4 and Xbox One.

In early 2019, the game got a surprise port to Nintendo Switch — an ideal platform for an arcadey blaster like this if ever there was one — along with a swathe of upgrades that rebranded it Assault Android Cactus+. Said enhancements for the Switch port also made their way back to the PC version of the game as a free update, which is a nice way to reward longtime supporters.

But back up a moment: what the hell is this game? Well, quite simply, it’s a twin-stick shooter. Yawn, you might say, but don’t fall asleep just yet: this is absolutely one of the best refinements of the twin-stick blasting concept since Bizarre Creations’ seminal Geometry Wars series. And it provides a markedly distinct experience from those games, at that.

Assault Android Cactus was deliberately developed as a blend between two distinct styles of shoot ’em up: the Japanese-style danmaku shooter with its screen-filling bullet patterns and intricate dodging gameplay; and the Western-style twin-stick gameplay where you were confronted with hordes of enemies and had to try and keep your cool under increasingly unreasonable circumstances.

Developer Sanatana Mishra — a former Sega employee — told me that the game had been particularly inspired by games such as Ikaruga and Radiant Silvergun as well as the overall distinctive look and feel of Dreamcast-era Sega games. It’s a joyous, colourful, arcadey affair with a strong emphasis on proving your skills and chasing high scores — though for those who enjoy a bit of narrative context to what they’re doing, there is some entertaining dialogue throughout the campaign too.

In each stage of Assault Android Cactus, you pick one of several different cute android girls, all of whom have a loadout of a basic weapon and a special weapon. You are then thrown into an arena and tasked with defeating all of the enemies before your battery depletes. There are no lives in Assault Android Cactus; everything is about managing that battery level.

Clearing a distinct “wave” of enemies will spawn a battery pickup that allows you to survive a little longer — and eventually to the end of the complete stage — while getting knocked down by losing all your health causes you to lose 10% of your score. Along the way pickups that increase your firepower, freeze all the enemies for a few seconds or accelerate your movement speed occasionally spawn; all of these also cause battery pickups to be attracted to you, so they’re worth grabbing whenever you see them.

This structure keeps things nicely accessible and means that even less skilled shoot ’em up enthusiasts have an opportunity to get to know some of the enemy attack patterns that they’ll have to deal with rather than being unceremoniously greeted with a Game Over screen within about ten seconds. The newer Plus versions of the game even incorporate a “single stick” mode that allows you to concentrate on moving, with aiming being an automatic process; this is ideal for those who find it difficult to concentrate on both aiming and dodging at the same time.

This accessibility doesn’t come at the expense of depth and challenge for grizzled veterans, however. On the contrary, the game has a strong emphasis on pursuing perfection. It’s possible to attain a coveted “S+” rank on each and every stage — including the boss stages — by chaining together every single kill in the stage into a single combo. This is surprisingly challenging to accomplish, even in the early stages, not because it’s difficult to clear the actual stages, but because the game occasionally drops cheeky spanners in the works such as enemies that take just too long to kill to maintain your combo, requiring you to make use of your special weapon rather than relying on your standard shots.

That special weapon is worth getting a feel for anyway, since the twirling animation your character does while switching to it also carries with it some valuable invincibility frames, allowing you to pirouette your way right through the middle of seemingly unavoidable bullet patterns. Plus they’re just plain fun to use; each character has their own unique weapon loadout, and they’re not just variations on “spraying bullets ahead”.

The eponymous Cactus is probably the most conventional to use, making use of a rapid-fire machine gun as her regular shot and a shorter range flamethrower as her special shot. At the other end of the spectrum, we have Aubergine, who completely lacks a conventional shot altogether, and instead commands an independently controlled drone with deadly spinning rotor blades for slicing through enemies as her basic weapon, and the ability to summon gravitational singularities as her special weapon.

Mishra told me back in 2013 that this aspect of the game had been particularly inspired by a lot of Cave shooters that featured distinctive playable characters, each with their own unique abilities; they cater to different play styles and provide additional challenges for those who feel they have mastered the more conventional ways to play.

Where Assault Android Cactus really shines is in its variety. While each level is based around the same fundamental concept of defeating all enemies, the dynamic, gradually evolving nature of the levels means that things are kept constantly interesting. The first level, for example, is set on a descending elevator with enemies crawling up over the sides; as you progress through the incoming waves, the elevator eventually reaches the bottom, causing the arena to open up considerably. Later in the game, you’ll encounter many interesting environmental hazards; a particular highlight is a set of platforms floating in space that are constantly shifting, completely altering the layout of the level at regular intervals.

Its bosses are extremely cool. Explicitly phase-based — you can see where each phase begins and ends on the boss’ health bar — they are distinctly learnable encounters that you can practice, perfect and master. It’s a significant challenge to get an S+ rank on these stages due to the immaculate timing required, but it is possible with judicious application of special weapons and perfect dodging skills.

The nice thing, though, is that there’s no need to pursue perfection if you don’t want to; the game is substantial enough that it’ll take you quite a while to clear even if you’re just trying to survive each stage. And even once you’ve cleared the main campaign, you can try it again with the other characters. Or the Plus version features a harder “Campaign+” mode with new enemy patterns and dynamic stage elements. And all versions feature an endless “Infinity Drive” mode, a boss rush mode and a “Daily Drive” mode where everyone competes on the same stage for a day. Plus you can play any mode in up to four-player local co-op.

And this isn’t even getting into the unlockable Sega-style “EX Options” that allow you to play in first-person mode, from a fixed isometric perspective, with AI partners, solo against co-op enemy counts or with special “mega weapons”.

There is so much game here, and it should be testament to this game’s quality that I’ve been constantly coming back to it and continually enjoying it ever since I played that first Early Access version. The newest Plus version makes it even better than it already was, and an absolutely essential purchase for anyone who enjoys some highly addictive, extremely creative twin-stick shooter action. It’s a game that has clearly been a labour of love for its developers for the last six years, and that sort of passion and dedication really deserves to be rewarded.

I salute you, Assault Android Cactus; you truly deserve to go down as an all-time classic. Now how about you have a quiet word with Limited Run Games and sort out a packaged release of that Switch version, hmmm…?


More about Assault Android Cactus

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3 thoughts on “Assault Android Cactus: Shooting for the S+”

  1. I found this game via the Switch release this year (which runs like a dream for such a frantic game – rock solid 60fps throughout.)

    It’s fantastic. So cleverly designed. I wasn’t nearly good enough to S+ it – I can’t for the life of me hold full-level combos, and weapon-switching for the invulnerability boost somehow never clicked for me – but like you say, there’s more than enough to the campaign that I didn’t feel short-changed at all.

    And of course those character designs are amazing. If you’re looking for a tip-off on another Switch game with cute art, I recommend checking out Gal Metal. It has a completely charming story and is a pretty novel rhythm game to boot, although the motion controls are sadly, if predictably, not really up to the task (it still plays fine in controller made though.)

    Like

    1. Oh yes, Gal Metal is definitely on my radar, I haven’t got around to picking it up yet. Glad to hear it’s good.

      Cactus is a great game for exactly that reason you describe: there’s a substantial game there even if you don’t want to get all “pro gamer” about it. You can even turn off the S+ notification thing on the interface, if I remember correctly.

      I can S+ a couple of the early levels but from the first boss and beyond? Forget it! I know my limits 🙂

      Like

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