LUFTRAUSERS does everything a modern arcade game should and then some.
Vlambeer’s track record is a remarkable one. The self-styled two-man arcade game developer for the modern era continues to surprise with simple games that wring every ounce of depth out of a single idea. From Super Crate Box to Ridiculous Fishing to the still-evolving Nuclear Throne, Vlambeer has proven themselves time and time again to be masters of the nebulous term: “feel.” Their games “feel” incredible, and their latest release: LUFTRAUSERS plays better than anything they’ve put out to date. It’s not really surprising considering LUFTRAUSERS has been in development while Vlambeer’s other releases came and went. Based on an original flash game Luftrauser, LUFTRAUSERS is the first game of theirs that feels genuinely deep. Though they’ve always presented themselves as the arcade developers of the 21st century, Super Crate Box and Ridiculous Fishing were extremely well-made trifles. LUFTRAUSERS is a step up. A raucous, explosive step up.
LUFTRAUSERS is its controls. At the heart of why it kept me enthralled was how great it feels to pilot your “rauser”. The tightness and responsiveness combined with the audio/visual feedback makes the dogfighting an absolute pleasure. The hook is the role stalling plays in the dogfights. In most flight sims, even in arcadey flight games like Altitude, stalling has played a much more prominent and catastrophic role. Stall and you lose control in those games. Stall when you didn’t intend to and you may have messed up. In LUFTRAUSERS, stalling is an intrinsic part of the gameplay. Letting your thumb off the boost and stalling for a few seconds to let you flip around and shoot down your pursuers is not only necessary, it feels natural verging on the balletic. I’ve never played a shoot-em-up that has allowed such expressiveness on the part of the player. You can play it like a dogfighting game; going on strafing runs and such, or you can play like I do, hurtling through the air in a tailspin and hitting the gas just before ploughing into the ocean. What’s even more impressive is that this variety of play-styles is achieved with about three buttons, and true mastery depends more on what buttons you aren’t pressing at any given time.
It’s a challenging game too. On normal mode, LUFTRAUSERS is pretty tough. Once you kill your first blimp and unlock SFMT Mode (read: balls-hard mode), LUFTRAUSERS transforms into a bona fide bullet-hell shoot-em-up. More often than not though, you’re often the orchestrator of your own demise. LUFTRAUSERS eschews a traditional life-based health system in favour of a recharging system, the only catch being your rauser’s health won’t recharge while you’re shooting. This presents an interesting problem that you have to grapple ever second. Stop shooting and you might get overwhelmed, but if you can’t dodge those bullets it doesn’t matter how many fighters you take with you. It’s a well-implemented system that makes every split-second decision in LUFTRAUSERS a trade-off.
The structure however is where LUFTRAUSERS really differentiates itself from Vlambeer’s previous offerings. In addition to a score-based levelling system that doles out new gear and visual themes, each rauser part comes with its own set of challenges. These challenges are extremely fun to complete and more importantly ensure you’re always achieving small goals on a near-constant basis. The result is that LUFTRAUSERS keeps you engaged with a steady stream of gameplay-relevant rewards for the first three to four hours, after which you’ll either be completely hooked by the gameplay or feeling you’ve had your fill. Either way, LUFTRAUSERS’ stream of challenges and rewards will steal a good handful of hours from you without you even knowing it. It really is Vlambeer’s realisation that chasing highscores isn’t enough for a significant number of players that elevates LUFTRAUSERS to a higher plane.
LUFTRAUSERS also maintains Vlambeer’s trademark sense of style. There has always been something bold and belligerent about their games and LUFTRAUSERS has their ‘attitude’ in spades. Suda 51 always claimed to make “punk games” but Vlambeer actually does, and LUFTRAUSERS is no exception. Each combination of gun, body and engine for your rauser has its own name, all of which are delightful. I had a particular fondness for “The Pig” and the “Karaterauser.” The fact that the game actively acknowledges and validates your own preferred build also provides a great sense of ownership, plus the opportunity to say “HELLRAUSER” on a regular basis. Your gear choices even have an impact on the soundtrack. Different bodies alter the main track while your choice of gun and engine will change the percussion and bass. It’s a shame that even with the player-driven remixes, the main theme will get dull after a few hours, but it’s still a bloody good theme nonetheless. Visually LUFTRAUSERS is probably Vlambeer’s simplest looking game to date, but that’s partially by design. The effects and visual feedback however are fantastic, making each explosion and bullet impact feel chunky and satisfying.
In the end though, your appreciation for LUFTRAUSERS will hinge on your love of the mechanics. The structure will hook you in for a handful of hours but once the stream of new parts dries up the onus is on you as the player to find the depth that LUFTRAUSERS undoubtedly has. Regardless of whether it becomes as obsession for you as it did for me, LUFTRAUSERS is modern throwback on the level of Geometry Wars and Pacman CE DX. It’s nothing short of phenomenal.