Over the years classic arcade shoot-em-up’s have become a bit of a dying breed. Games like Gradius, Lifeforce, U.N. Squadron, and R-TYPE once made Nintendo the home of the scrolling shooter. Since then, the genre has begun to slowly fade, pushed into the niche corner of gaming. Of course there have been many since, and some great, but most not quite as popular as the legends that graced the past. Sine Mora EX aims to change this by resurfacing from its initial 2012 release to not only just satisfy that corner with additional content and graphical tweaks, but also introduce a gaming tradition to the millennials of today.
Sine Mora EX is a side-scrolling 2.5D shooter that takes the classic formula and merges it with a modern look. You play as multiple anthropomorphic pilots at war in a complicated tale of revenge, betrayal, slavery, and genocide. Basically, it’s what Star Fox would be if Zack Snyder had anything to do with it. The story gets dark at times, which compared to the actual gameplay itself, adds a much more adult theme to its narrative then it necessarily has to. Thankfully, everything can be skipped easily enough and you can fast forward to the action quickly. There’s plenty of lore to dig into for those who are interested though, with even more once you finish the game.
The Nintendo Switch has seen traditional shooters in a similar vein thanks to Hamster Corporation’s cut-and-paste emulation of the SNK arcade classics, but because you can just simply press a button to simulate a credit, you can quite easily trail through those games in one sitting with little to no danger, leaving you with a quite short and shallow experience. In Sine Mora EX you can pursue its offering with a capped number of continues to create a genuine challenge to see how far you can get. You can also carry on from your furthest point in the stage select option if you want to see the game out to its end even if your continues are all spent. It’s a good way to study each stage and attack patterns to fine tune your skills and prepare yourself for higher difficulties. There’s even a boss training element for you to pick apart so you can decipher the fastest route to take down these the giants of the skies.
It is features like this that make Sine Mora EX an excellent introduction for newcomers to the genre. One of the things that can put people off is the high difficult curves that a game of this ilk is so infamously known for, hence the term, “bullet hell shooter.” Having a screen full of bullets reigning towards you can be frustratingly overwhelming for many but finding the safe spots and making subtle evasive movements between gaps is key to staying alive, as is finding the fastest combination of taking out your enemies.
This is because your vitality is measured with time. You gain time with kills and lose time with damage. If the clock reaches zero, you die. This encourages you to kill as many enemies as possible to keep your timer afloat. It can sometimes feel unfair as your timer empties in the quieter moments of some sections but all that means is that there’s a more efficient way of beating it. You can also manipulate time to slow everything down giving you a fighting chance of navigating through a dancing cloud of bullets, but this ability is very limited as it quickly drains your “speed up” meter that only regenerates when certain tokens are collected.
Tokens come in various colours, each with an appointed benefit. One will extend your time, another will fill your secondary weapon and so on, but it is the red one in particular that provides you with a weapon boost. There’s up to 10 of these you can acquire making your primary gun more damaging with each one collected. However, take a hit and they will float away like balloons, tempting you to chase after them at the risk of taking further damage.
The arcade and score attack modes are a great addition to just jump straight into the action after gaining some experience. Set at a more challenging difficulty by default, you choose your pilot, each with a unique secondary attack. Then an aircraft, which helpfully shows you where your hitbox is located, thus giving you an idea on how much room you can get away with when dodging bullets. In Arcade mode, you have five continues to get as far as you can and in score attack, your points are measured by completing the level of choice in the aim to get your name planted on the online leaderboards.
The dieselpunk visuals are gorgeous with imaginative aviation contraptions that wouldn’t look out of place in a Studio Ghibli movie. The bosses are huge and take full advantage of the third dimension by swinging the camera around at a cinematic curve to the different locations of the enemy, unveiling more concealed weapons that want to knock the time from your wings. The levels are very well detailed with plenty of variety between each section. One moment you will be gliding through blue skies and mountains of a beautiful landscape, the next you will be fighting a giant Jàeger-style robot a midst of an expansive neo-gothic city. The final boss isn’t quite as interesting as those found in the rest of the game though which felt like a missed opportunity to really close the story with style.
The biggest flaws of this title arrive within its new content. The original release of Sine Mora was never created with multiplayer in mind, but for a genre that usually implements such a feature as standard, a multiplayer element has been wedged into Sine Mora EX with an unmeasured lump of timber.
The whole thing feels very tacky and unpolished. Rather than just throwing another aircraft into the mix, your teammate will instead control a little drone that has a shield meter and a rotating gun. The additional gun feature is confusing enough, especially when sharing a Joy-Con as the second player has to use buttons to supplement right stick aiming in a game that doesn’t usually require it. Furthermore, certain areas are just not suited with multiplayer in mind which turns teamwork into a bit of a dysfunctional mess, and to add to the confusion, the drone explodes before the cutscenes which are now unskippable in this mode because the developers seemingly couldn’t be bothered to put any effort into it.
The whole addition leaves a sour taste in the mouth by how poorly implemented it all is. The underwhelming Versus mode is worse, especially because at the beginning of matches, the second player faces the same direction as the first, leaving them at an instant disadvantage in a mode where your objective is to shoot each other down. There is a Race mode I suppose, but even that is a maddening mess. The area of the game that would have worked best for multiplayer would easily have been the story-absent Arcade and Score Attack modes – the two modes that don’t actually have a multiplayer option added. At least they charge an extra tenner for their efforts, even more for the premium advantage of playing it on a Switch, probably due to a physical release of the title. A trait that’s becoming more common recently. (Damn loopholes).
As a single player experience, Sine Mora EX is a great modern day shooter that keeps the tradition of the coin-op alive. The collaboration between Grasshopper Manufacture and Digital Reality has been a solid one. The controls are tight, the sound is great with plenty of replayability to be had. There’s plenty of challenge for the hardcore shmup fan and a surprisingly approachable title for newbies to start off with. Some may not grasp the hook quite as strongly due to the high difficulty and repetitive nature that these games are known for nowadays. As for the added content to warrant the “EX” after its title, honestly, it’s not worth the five minutes that was spent on it. Which is a shame, because Sine Mora EX certainly deserves much more than that. Especially considering that you can download the original Sine Mora on anything that can run games for a fraction of the price.