If you’re a child of the 90s there’s a good chance that you played a Metal Slug game at some point in your life. Whether you were a Neo Geo owner (there has to be one of you reading this, right?) had an arcade at your local mall or lived by a 7-Eleven that housed one of those MVS cabinets, the hyper violent run-and-gun game is a cherished favorite in the gaming community – and an important milestone in the side scrolling shooter genre. It was sort of a measuring stick for animation quality, gameplay and level design for the 2D era, so when I first loaded up Omega Strike, a retro Metroidvania-style run-and-gun from indie developer Woblyware, it’s fair to say the comparisons were already swimming in my head. Unfortunately, that may have poisoned my opinion a bit, because Omega Strike does feel a bit like an underwhelming retread of the 1996 SNK shooter.
The game sees you take control of three interchangeable commandos, each with their own weapons and special skills, as you march, roll, dash and double jump through 7 maze-like levels, seeking out collectibles and secrets before doing battle with bosses cribbed straight from the notepad of Dr. Wiley. The storyline sees the evil Dr. Omega turning people into mutants that…you know what? It doesn’t matter. You move from room to room and shoot all of the robots, mutants, evil bugs and bats you come across. It’s fairly early in the game when you realize possibly the game’s biggest mechanical issue – you can only shoot in three directions. Run-and-gun games live and die by their shooting mechanics, and every major player in the genre since Ikari Warriors has understood the need to shoot in all directions. Limiting your firing capabilities to forward, backward and straight up is a serious issue that artificially inflates the difficulty of the game, and really takes you out of the experience if you’ve played games like Contra or the aforementioned Metal Slug. It isn’t enough to sink the game, of course, but it’s a real flaw that the developers could have easily avoided.
Despite this issue, the game still plays pretty fun, if a little monotonous at times. The levels are laid out in a typical Metroidvania-style maze, with players scrolling from screen to screen opening new sections of the map and blasting anything and everything in their way. There’s some platforming elements involved, especially once you’ve unlocked the double jump, but it’s all fairly standard. I did have an issue with the fact that you have to tap up on hanging ropes/chains in order to grab them, as it tends to disrupt some of the sequences when leaping from rope to rope. This is definitely a game where you’ll want to use the D-pad instead of the thumb stick. The big mechanic you’ll need to figure out is the “teleport” button, which switches between the three characters, as most of the puzzles and platforming will require skills from multiple characters to solve. This is particularly true when facing the bosses, who you fight in segmented arenas ala the Robot Masters in the Mega Man series and utilize attack patterns that will require both your double jump and combat roll to successfully avoid. The problem is that those skills belong to two separate characters, and the teleport button only skips in one direction. Invariably, you’ll end up switching the third character, Bear, who is all but useless in these situations. Honestly, it would have been better if they simply made all of these skills unlockable for a single character ala Mega Man X, rather than involving a whole other button push to every time you need to use a specific skill. At the very least, it would be better to have the teleport tied to two of the PS4s triggers so there could be a forward shuffle and a backward.
Graphically, the game is a throwback to the later days of the 16-bit era. The character sprites are simple, but not in a negative way. Admittedly, I would have loved to see more nuance and definition in the characters, but there is definitely a charm to the cuter cartoony style. It has to be noted, though, that Sarge (the arguable protagonist of the game, given he’s the one character who is always accessible) bears at least a passing resemblance to Marco Rossi, the protagonist of (you guessed it) Metal Slug. I don’t want to keep making these comparisons, but even the animations for the mutant’s deaths feature little pops of gore and the ability to shoot their severed head, which also speak to the cartoony hyper-violence that helped make Metal Slug stand out. I will say that the color palette and backgrounds in Omega Strike are definite stand outs that take advantage of modern hardware, though sprite animations are a touch limited, lacking some of the fluidity of the MS series. This is a pretty brief game, which means that there is not a ton of variety in the types of enemies you’ll encounter. Good on the programmers for making their palette-swap baddies function differently from one another, however. As for the bosses, they are all more or less variations on a theme. In the Jungle stage you fight a robot gorilla; in the junkyard you fight a trash compactor, etc. It’s not necessarily a bad idea, but it does leave some of the battles feeling samey.
The sound and music is a definite strength, with all of the stage themes (barring maybe the junkyard) standing out as great chiptune-style bangers. It’s no Sonic 2, mind you, but there are some fun little numbers here and there. The sound effects are also pretty good, with everything from explosions to menu selections sounding appropriate for the retro-aesthetic. Honestly, the packaging of this game all fits with the established aesthetic, leaving little to talk about from a design perspective.
Overall, Omega Strike is a solid, but mildly forgettable outing. It’s a nice little retro package but struggles with some gameplay elements. The character switching mechanic is more of a chore than a challenge, the lack of variety in enemies and level design sort of kills the replay value, and the inability to shoot at an angle feels more like a design flaw than a well thought out decision. The packaging and aesthetic of the game is a good fit for the retro style Woblyware is shooting for, but the similarities to genre classics serve more to highlight the game’s shortcomings than celebrate it’s successes. Once you’ve beaten the game, there’s not a lot of reason to go back to, but it should make for a fun couple of hours to get there.