Sorry for any formatting issues that might crop up below — this piece was originally published for The Trail, the University of Puget Sound’s student newspaper, from which I copy-pasted some articles for archiving purposes. Hence the newpaper-y tone and simplified view of the industry. My work for the paper might still be gathered here.
With Mass Effect fever running high and Skyrim still managing to wedge itself into conversation almost five months after its release, spring alights on a landscape all but dominated by gaming’s mainstream titans.
But skittering around the ankles of giants are a handful of plucky challengers to AAA control, games that might lack the broad scope of mainstream narrative but still manage to cut deep with stylistic daring and technological grace—games like the relentlessly satisfying Sine Mora.
Released March 21 for Xbox Live Arcade, Sine Mora is a side-scrolling shoot-em-up in the tradition of classics like Space Invaders and Galaga and modern titles like Ikaruga and Jamestown. The pilot of one agile, airborne hell-raiser or another (new planes become available throughout), the player blasts through swarms of baddies, torrential barrages of screeching missiles and neon hailstorms of deadly plasma.
The shoot-em-up goes by another name—“bullet hell”—and Sine Mora has no qualms earning that ominous title. At the same time, while the steep learning curve of the “bullet hell” has earned it a strictly niche position,Sine Mora stands out in its willingness to widen its appeal with charming visual innovations, surprisingly engaging narratives, and (thank the Maker) adjustable difficulty levels.
The unique look and story are the fruits of inter-developmental collaboration. Sine Mora is the lovechild of Tokyo’s Grasshopper Manufacture (of Killer7 fame) and Budapest’s Digital Reality: Grasshopper handled art direction and sound design, while Digital Reality worked on the game’s programming and story.
Between the two of them, the developers lend Sine Mora some serious star power. Grasshopper is home to composer Akira Yamaoka, revered for his work on the Silent Hill series, and his score for Sine Mora is another feather in his already crowded cap.
Grasshopper also brought on anime artist Mahiro Maeda (Neon Genesis Evangelion, Kill Bill, The Animatrix) to design the game’s boss battles—these encounters are as imaginative as they are soul-crushingly difficult, and give the game a palpable character.
Pair this powerful aesthetic with unrelentingly challenging mechanics and you’ve got a seriously potent title on your hands. Sine Mora is delightful proof that straying from the beaten path can be more than an entertaining diversion—now more than ever, there’s ripe, fully-formed experiences to be found and savored outside the high walls of blockbuster dominion.
Panning for indie gold, but more of a PS3 person? Download thatgamecompany’s pensive and critically acclaimed Journey, or the charming puzzle-platformer from Denmark’s Die Gute Fabrik, Where Is My Heart—both Playstation exclusives, for now. These games will not only deepen your understanding of the human condition; they’ll also give you the upper hand in drunken debates on the true nature of art!
If all you’ve got is an iPhone and a burning desire for cartoony carnage, check out Action Button’s Ziggurat. It’s got all the arcade intensity, visual charm and alien life that make Sine Mora so great, but you can carry it everywhere you go! Play it while waiting for your John Carter tickets—or during John Carter, even. You know what, why don’t you just stay in tonight?