Score Rush, developed by two man development studio Xona Games, (edit: who I interviewed a few months after this review was written) is a mixture of two classic gameplay styles (2D Bullet Hell Shmup and Twin Stick Shmup) wrapped in a 4 player co-operative, neon coloured, $1 shell. Imagine, if you will, a mixture of Ikaruga and Robotron 2084; or, more relevant to today's gamer, and more accurate with respect to the game's visual style, Ikaruga and Geometry Wars.
Note: if you are familiar with shmup games, skip ahead to the 7th paragraph of this review (not including this one).
For those unfamiliar with these sorts of games, a shmup, or shoot-em up, generally consists of a plane or spaceship (any sort of aerial craft, really) being piloted around a playing field with two main goals in mind: destroy the enemy craft while avoiding both said enemies and their gunfire. Shmups are usually sharply difficult, require fast reaction times, visual acuity, excellent concentration, and, quite often level and enemy attack pattern memorization. Memorization is more closely associated with the so called bullet hell variety of shmup.
A bullet hell shmup is simply a shmup with a focus on overwhelmingly large amounts of enemy projectiles. Avoiding these projectiles, and memorizing their spread patterns, is key if the player wishes to survive. If you can not react quickly enough to this pattern, you will be inundated by enemy fire, trapped in an unfavourable position, and ultimately, find yourself dead. It's really quite a simple setup, and it has been utilized for decades due to its effectiveness.
The sorts of playing fields you see generally fall into one of three types: vertical scrolling, horizontal scrolling, and stationary. The stationary fields are generally featured in the twin stick variety of shmup, whereas the bullet hell style of classic shmup generally take place in the vertical and horizontal scrolling type fields. Ikaruga, one of the games mentioned above, is an example of such a game, whereas Geometry Wars and Robotron 2084 exemplify the twin stick type of game (both taking place in a stationary field).
In terms of control, the twin stick variety of shmup uses one analog stick (generally the left) to move and the other (usually the right) to shoot. This gives you the ability to move in 8 different directions while simultaneously shooting in one of those 8 directions. Firing in a direction opposite your movement is entirely possible in this style of shmup.
The classic, non twin stick variety, however, allows either 4 or 8 directional movement, but only one direction in which to fire, and firing is generally handled with a button input. It's this style of ship control that is generally utilized in the bullet hell style of shooter, while the twin stick is more often used in non bullet hell shmups. Score Rush, however, bucks this trend.
Score Rush takes place in a stationary field and features twin stick control, as well as a bullet hell type of gameplay design. The player is given three lives and three screen clearing bombs (mapped to the bumpers and triggers on the Xbox 360 controller), placed in the one solitary level, and is tasked with one thing: survival. Well, more to the point, survival while also attaining as high a score as possible.
Along with the aforementioned three lives and three bombs, the player is also granted two types of powerups, which appear when certain enemies are killed. One type of powerup adds a component to the back of your ship which features a miniature gun and automatically fires at enemies; the other adds firepower to the ship's main gun. If the player reaches the point of being fully powered up, any and all future powerup drops act as bullet repellants, granting the player a slight bit of extra breathing room.
The game starts off slowly, with but a few enemies and projectiles on screen, but within a minute things start to ramp up, and before you know it you're facing your first boss and the screen is literally covered in bullets. It's at this point everything comes together to form the absolutely thrilling experience that is Score Rush. The pin point design (the ship's hit box is a mere (and precise) 4 pixels by 4 pixels, which constitutes the inner circular part of the middle of the ship) (the rest of the ship is impervious to enemy fire), the beautiful bright neon graphics, the simple (yet effective) hard rock soundtrack, the excellent control, and the steep, but fair (due to excellent design) challenge all come together to form a frantic, intense, and chaotic, yet entirely cohesive experience.
And so the game goes. Once it ramps up (a process that is far shorter than it is in say Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, a game to which this one will inevitably draw comparison) it stays up, with few spots in which the player gets a moment to catch their proverbial breath before another giant enemy hits the screen and spews 400 bullets at them. The full game, if beaten, should last 12-15 minutes or so, depending on player skill, the difficulty, and whether or not the game is played alone or with friends. And for the duration of those 12 or so minutes, the game is absolutely intense. The challenge of just getting through it within three lives is hefty as is, but when you factor in the additional focus on score, you end up with a fine balancing act of taking risks to earn extra points, and remaining conservative to preserve life.
All is not completed even when this balance is mastered and the game is won, as the successful player is presented with additional difficulties. All in all, the game features six difficulties: Normal, Hard, Expert, Crazy, Insane, and Godlike. For the record, in the dozen or so attempts I have made thus far, in my limited time, I have not once finished the game. I believe I have lasted between 5 and 7 minutes. I have much practise ahead of me.
A more seasoned shmup player should likely have little trouble getting through the game on Normal within a couple of tries, but even the most die hard will have difficulty with the harder levels. The two developers themselves, playing co-operatively, have not been able to finish the game on Crazy or above. So, if you're reading this and you think you've got the stuff, having cut your teeth on the likes of Radiant Silvergun, Raiden, and Ikaruga, pony up the one dollar (there is a free trial as well) and see if you have what it takes to beat Xona Games at their own game. Anyone else who is even somewhat interested would be well advised to do the same.
Scoreboards aside, Score Rush is a visually appealing, fast, furious, intense, incredibly challenging, and fun game that features support for up to 4 local players, and it only costs $1. It's a no brainer for even casual shmup fans (of which I am one; hardcore I am not), and worth a look (download the free trial) for anyone who is even remotely curious and owns both an Xbox 360 and a sturdy disposition.
Overall Score: 9.5/10.