Old school shooters have always been where you’ll find video games at their most direct, and the genre’s side-scrolling subset is where you go to see them at their most stately and spectacular. Konami’s Scramble kickstarted the form in 1982 before it evolved into the atmospheric masterpiece Gradius, while Taito brought to the genre a cinematic scope with the three-screen spectacle of Darius. With complex scoring mechanics not so much of a concern there’s a joyful simplicity to the action, matched by pure-hearted sci-fi panoramas that make these games spaced out thrill rides. It’s why I love them so dearly, anyway.
It’s always lovely to come across fellow enthusiasts, and developer Team Ladybug’s passion for the genre shines clearly throughout the somewhat unfortunately named Drainus – the moniker a nod to the grand dames of the side-scrolling shooter genre that provide the big inspiration that would be adorable if it didn’t also sound like a synonym for taking a dump. Still, silly names have never stopped shooting games in the past and they certainly don’t dent what’s a fine effort here.
Indeed, so lush is the spectacle of Drainus that it puts a fine argument forward for being the best of its sort since Treasure’s Gradius 5 – there’s that same inventiveness to Drainus, the same spark in its environmental puzzles that occasionally throw little physics-based mechanisms for you to unlock and the same wit in its multi-staged screen-filling bosses.
Like Darius and Gradius before it this isn’t about tossing curtains of bullet fire your way. Drainus is no danmaku, basically, to the point where a screen full of enemy fire is an opportunity to flex rather than to get frustrated. Drainus’ distinguishing trick is your ability to absorb enemy fire and toss it back by way of a flurry of homing missiles that grow in power the more you consume; a neat, satisfying rhythm of catch and release that provides the steady backbeat to the action.
It lends Drainus a more sedate pace than other shooters too, with the means of ultimate defence always at your fingertips (there is a limit to how much you can absorb before taking damage though it’s fairly generous, while the hitbox of your ship is small enough that should those defences fall short it’s simple enough to graze past even the densest of bullet fields).
Those who play their shooting games primarily for the challenge might be disappointed – in the hour it takes to run through Drainus there’s little that would cause a veteran of the genre to break out into a sweat until the very last moments, and you’ll have to see through Drainus once to access the more challenging difficulties.
If an easy one credit clear sounds like heaven and you play shooters primarily for the vibe Drainus delivers and then some. The opening level’s an arresting string of set pieces and outrageous sci-fi vistas as you push through sandstorms and skim along the surface of a distant planet, picking apart pleasing formations of enemy craft as they dance on screen.
The aesthetic is sublime, told with glorious artwork that’s blessed with the cohesiveness of the true genre greats (and there’s even a story threading it all together and told in the occasional brief cutscene – a slight and silly little thing that still helps strengthen Drainus’ likeable sense of character).
Bosses, meanwhile, are told through beautiful animations and often wear their inspirations on their sleeves, with what feels like cameos from the likes of Gradius and Treasure’s killer duo of Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga. Things fall apart on closer inspection, though, with odd oversights such as bosses not timing out and thus opening up scoring exploits, or the tangle of upgrades and power ups at your hands that never seem to coalesce into one tangible whole.
There are larger failings and frustrations. I wish the upgrade system was as slick as the visuals instead of inelegantly shunting you towards a fiddly pause menu when you’re looking to enhance your ship, a bizarre approach that’s only rectified in the arcade mode where you are given access to the menu just once at the beginning of a stage – and even then it’s an unruly and not particularly pleasant approach to powering up. There are a few tweaks, essentially, that could make this truly special by the time the inevitable console versions roll around.
Though if you’ve any affection for the genre, or any love for the likes of Darius and Gradius, then there’s really no reason to wait until then. Drainus has a silly name and a few small frustrations, but that doesn’t stop it delivering the same heart-soaring spectacle and sharp, satisfying action that makes the greats soar. This might fall just short of being one of them, but it’s an exquisite shooter all the same.