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Review: Ultrablast

Rating: ★★★★☆

There are quite a few scrolling shooters to choose from on the App Store, and right off the bat Ultrablast sets itself among the best simply by getting so much right.

I’m not damning with faint praise here; as we get further from the heyday of the shoot-‘em-up, new offerings seem to retain less and less of the magic of their forebears.

Whether it’s from misguided experimentation in an effort to reboot the genre, or simple lack of developer experience (most new releases these days are coming from small and independent studios), modern shmups all too often lack the feel of the arcade shooters many of us grew up with.

Ultrablast, on the other hand, is chock-full of this “arcade feel,” which is actually quite a feat considering it has a somewhat slower, more methodical pace than the frenetic, screen-filling action that was popular as the genre reached its zenith.

All the elements are in their proper place, though: enemies move in familiar formations, and appear at just the right pace to keep the player constantly busy. Bosses are formidable, and you’ll need to learn their attack patterns and exploit their weaknesses to be successful. Your weapons cover the genre mainstays of the rapid-fire spread gun, powerful focused laser, and vaguely homing energy beam.

All of the familiar shooter bases are covered, and done so in a high-fidelity manner that keeps it from feeling like just a rehash. One of my favorite features is that the game does not allow you to continue, but instead provides a practice mode where you can play through any stage you have previously beaten.

While it sounds — and at times, is – frustrating, I appreciate the chutzpah in forcing the player to truly master the game in a way that’s become so unfamiliar in an era of checkpoints and autosaves.

The game’s soundtrack deserves special mention, and not just because it is one of the best game soundtracks I’ve heard in quite some time. It’s also a perfect blend of cues from the catchy melodies and driving electronic rhythms of yesteryear’s shooters, and the depth and production values of modern game music. In that way, the score alone serves as a perfect metaphor for everything that is great about Ultrablast.

Unfortunately, for all of its merits, I sincerely wish this were not an iPhone game. The amount of precision required by an arcade shooter is simply not available with the iPhone’s interface.

To make matters worse, Ultrablast uses a virtual analog stick instead of a virtual d-pad. Ostensibly, this would give the player finer control, but because you’ll need your full maneuvering speed more often than not, it ultimately just requires more movement from the player and causes a frustrating drop in responsiveness while dragging across the center of the stick.

Retroflux did try to take advantage of the touch controls, however, by mapping your special attacks to gestures rather than a simple button press. It’s an interesting touch that almost works, but the special power-ups are so infrequently available that it seems wholly unnecessary to either provide instant differentiation between your attacks or to add an additional barrier to their use.

While I would much rather be playing it on a system with tactile controls, it’s still easy to recommend Ultrablast to anyone who fondly remembers what the term “shooter” used to mean in the ‘90s.

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