A lot of side scrolling shooters are typically the same in regards to how they play for their mechanics. There’s typically little (or negligible) story, tons of bullets, and a particular way how your weapons are staged as far as strength goes. I know my personal motivation for being sado-masochistic in playing shoot ‘em ups and even more so for danmaku (Japanese for bullet curtain or “bullet hell”) games is purely for the challenge of coordination and dexterity challenge… Well, maybe add in a little bit of nostalgia of being in a noisy arcade during the mid-1990’s era too having an influence on me.
However… There is one word that describes side scrolling shooters very well: Deadly. That brings me to a game that is bold to use the Latin word for “deadly“: Mactabilis. The folks over at Blazing Bit Games wanted to take the concept of side-scrolling shooters up a bit of a notch with some fresh concepts such as being able to fully tailor your own weapons to your taste, jumping in and out of backgrounds and foregrounds, and ship stats. However, how does that affect the total composition of the game?
The story in Mactabilis is a little bit on the generic side as far as shooters go. The premise is that in a distant future, humans develop an AI (artificial intelligence) that basically takes a mind of its own and decides to take over the universe. You’re part of an elite group of fighters hoping to take down the AI and subdue it to save the universe. The game puts you in the role of Jack who is an ace pilot and well acquainted with the AI forces. In an effort for immersion before/after missions, you go through scenes of Jack’s life and his interactions with wingmen, commanders, and even a love interest.
While I appreciate the effort for a story, I personally felt it to be a little on the corny side. *SPOILER WARNING* My reasoning being there is one story scene after Jack has earned the affections of a woman and returned from a successful mission that you are given a backdrop of a cot and the sound of bed springs… After the rustle of bed springs, you get the exchange of “I love you” between Jack and his girlfriend. Which I felt wasn’t really needed, but that is my piece on that. *SPOILER WARNING END* I hate to be one to decry this but I felt that the story could either be negated or just minimized to the basic struggle against the AI war. I commend them for the effort to make a rich story for the game, but I feel it is in vain unfortunately.
The mechanics of Mactabilis are wonderful, save for some minor points. The basics of the game are you are scrolling left to right, right to left, or both on a level and controlling a ship that is blasting away at enemies. The different modes are Regular, Arcade, and Happy. Happy being a secret until you beat the game both in Regular and Arcade on Hardcore difficulty. Arcade is your bare-basic mode where weapons are picked up via weapon icons with “core mechanics” intact. The Regular mode is where all the concepts modified weapons and ship stats are present as well as core mechanics. The ability to switch weapons is lost, because that is a mechanic that is for the Regular mode. There is also a 2-player mode, but the only change is that it takes the both ships to perish before for the mission is marked as a failure and how the indications of objects in the fore/background are flagged in colors.
Before I go into the trappings of Regular mode, let me establish what are the core mechanics: meters for your hull strength, shields, energy, “stims“, and the ability to shift in and out of the background. Hull strength is your basic health and usually depletes from physical collision damage and complete loss of shields. Shields protect you from projectiles and can regenerate after time but if you bottom out on shields. They can take a while to regenerate. Energy is a mechanic for your weapons and the basic gist of things being if you have a bigger gun, it will take more juice to fire and it gets much more elaborate. Stimulants (Stims for short) allow the player the ability to go Matrix-style bullet time with the play field giving a last second shot to evade and fight back foes with things slowed down.
The shifting in-and-out of the background is a nice ability that gives the player the choice of fighting through certain situations or being able to hide away for a bit to recover. The game will automatically prevent you to shifting into solid objects too which is definitely a good thing. Energy goes in tandem with the Combo mechanic as every time the player hits a multiple of 5 enemies killed (5x, 10x, etc), the energy meter is immediately replenished. But wait, there’s more to the Combo mechanic! At 50x combo multiples, the player is given a power-up that puts them into Maniac Mode. Maniac Mode that gives the player invincibility, improved weapons, infinite combo time, and weapons no longer consume energy!
Regular mode adds in a weapon shop where you can fill and swap your weapon slots with different weapons and even the ability to alter their mechanics as long as you have the cash for them. By altering the mechanics, we’re talking things like being able to make bullets detonate on impact to how many bullets are fired and so much more. Also, Mactabilis gives the player a total of 4 weapon slots and you may combine 2 weapons with each other for double the killing capacity. However, keep in mind that double the firepower means double the energy consumed. This means if you choose to combine weapons you will need to carefully watch your energy consumption or you may run out of steam in the midst of a swarm of enemies.
This almost brings an element of ammunition management that I haven’t seen in a side scrolling shooter since Einhander (Square-Enix) and this is a good thing! Initially, it is frustrating to not be able to infinitely rain death, doom, and destruction like you would expect from games like Cave’s DoDonPachi series… (Editor’s note: I will admit I was guilty of this.) But after getting past that tactical decision, the player will understand the rationale behind why the folks at Blazing Bit Games did this as a mechanism of challenge to the hardcore gamer.
Mactabilis isn’t without its flaws however. The ship stats concept (speed, hull, shields, energy, stims) are great, but with the hectic speed of the battles and how the power-ups are dependent on destroying bosses and mini-bosses I feel the ship’s speed stat is a curse towards players. In the beginning stage where you try to fight through the asteroid field, it can be agonizing if you’re not paying attention and end up careening into a large object to your doom. If the player collects too many speed stat boosts your ship could potentially be too fast for your own good.
On the Arcade mode, the stats don’t exist, but I felt the ship was a bit too slow on the action packed portions. On occasion, some of the battles can be a little more visually hectic and include battles both in the fore and backgrounds. The shifts can feel a little slow sometimes resulting in the player missing out on some enemies for a better score. Sure, there is the stim mechanic to help slow things down, but that’s limited by how much you have on tap to begin with.
Overall, I like Mactabilis even if it does have some minor flaws. I feel it is a good and fresh way to remix concepts together for a unique side scrolling shooter game. The poorly scripted story doesn’t get me into the narrative of Jack; however the action packed battles do feel quite fun. Also, the ability to custom tailor your weapon load-out down to their animations is seriously intense as far as customizations for a shooter games go. The inclusion of a regular arcade mode is definitely welcome for those who’d rather play something close to a traditional arcade shooter. Mactabilis is available on Desura and Impulse for the price of $9.99 as a digital download. If you’re unsure if you would like Mactabilis, there is a demo available to let you give the game a spin before you buy it. Check out more screenshots below!