I am very sparing in my use of lists on this site, and have only written one list article before now (on 5 writing tips that can be derived from Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo), but this is not because I necessarily dislike them. They have their place, but they are generally overused.
In the case of LUFTRAUSERS, I have a mixed-yet-positive opinion of the game after the many hours I have spent with it, and would like to use list elements to cordon off the good from the bad. LUFTRAUSERS is a game that offers a great challenge that looks and sounds great, too, and is a stellar title (with only a couple notable exceptions).
1. Innovative Mechanics:
I have written previously about Vlambeer’s Super Crate Box, another arcade-style game that takes a simple twist on a classic gameplay formula and designs a brilliant game around that. In the case of LUFTRAUSERS, there are two twists: ship health that regenerates when you are not firing or being hit, and enemy spawns that depend on existing enemy saturation. These two twists are not as new as the simple twist behind Super Crate Box, but they are equally well-implemented.
The regeneration mechanic is one of the best choices that was made in the design of LUFTRAUSERS. You can not merely tank damage and keep shooting at an enemy that can not regenerate health. You have to master the momentum-based turning and stalling of your plane, because there will be times that you have to focus on dodging and can not return fire.
This gives an anxious edge to falling low on health as opposed to a sort of fatalist resign—you almost always feel like you can survive and keep the round going, if you just dodge that next volley! It incentivizes managing the enemies on the screen well enough to not become swamped in bullets. And, all that aside, it also gives some balance to the otherwise incredible cannon weapon, which precludes regenerating for the whole duration of its lengthy firing process.
The enemy spawns in LUFTRAUSERS being based on enemy saturation is certainly nothing new, but it does give a frantic (even somewhat stressful) tone to the game as it never lets up even momentarily (as compared to a hypothetical design that is similar but has set waves of enemies instead). This mechanic may be a bit of a double-edged sword, however, as I suspect its responsibility for the enemy spawning issues I detail below.
2. Detail and Variety:
There are a surprising number of ship combinations available in LUFTRAUSERS. The 15 ship parts can be fit together in roughly 125 possible ships in the game (plus one of the best final playable secrets I’ve ever seen—and which I highly recommend not spoiling for yourself). This level of customization is atypical in the arcade genre.
A laudable touch that Vlambeer made was thinking of a unique name for every possible combination of ship parts, which gives some personality and flair to my head-canon when thinking about my favorite combos, and also provides occasion for an unexpected laugh every once in a while (there are more than a few gems among the large pool of names).
The designs of LUFTRAUSERS‘ enemies are also to be commended, as the airborne types twist exactly like the player ship and their attacks are instantly understandable despite the cluttered screen. These subtle touches make snap-judgements more reliable and help stave off the sameness of the enemy set after they become familiar.
One place where LUFTRAUSERS, to me, unambiguously bests Super Crate Box is in its dynamic soundtrack and restricted-palette visual design.
Let me start with the soundtrack and address any players that rolled their eyes at the word ‘dynamic.’ I promise you that I mean it quite literally, and not as some kind of flashy buzzword: the soundtrack actually changes depending on your ship part selections, each of which has its own associated sound elements.
So those roughly 125 possible ships I mentioned above also have an accompanying roughly 125 variances to the in-game audio (in effect, around 125 similar-but-unique tracks). This brilliant choice takes advantage of the systems already in-place in the game to add a further differentiation between different rounds (especially when selecting the ‘random’ ship parts). In addition, this choice contributes to the feel of each ship part, as one comes to recognize the beat of a beloved part.
On top of this, the visuals of LUFTRAUSERS are wonderful. The stock color scheme’s balance of rust-red and cream conveys a dim sunset and a harried battlefield all at once, while the simplicity of its design makes it legible even when there are projectile streams on the screen from 20 different angles (including the easily-read and separate effects of your own shots).
The gaming landscape is full twice over with games that just pick the most obvious visual style for their games (usually an approximation of realism), so a game with a stylized aesthetic that looks this nice is doubly welcome. Add to this that the game offers loads of different unlockable color schemes for people not as fond of the base choices as I am (or who, like me, just like to change it up after a while) and the aesthetic options here are deserving of even greater praise.
1. Inconsistent Key Enemy Spawning:
This is my biggest problem with the game, but it is an issue that will only be encountered by individuals (like myself) who play the game enough to achieve or nearly achieve 100% completion, which is more than likely a 10-hour task for those who are new to the game at the beginning of their playthrough.
Now, I like some probabilistic programming and randomness in my games. Sometimes, if it’s implemented well (like in Spelunky or Isaac) I like a lot of it. But the ideal form of randomness does not harm the established rhythm of gameplay, nor do key game events (like boss encounters) rely on random chance or a system that makes them inconsistent.
In LUFTRAUSERS, insofar as this game can be said to have boss encounters, those encounters (blimps) are extremely inconsistent. In theory, it seems well-designed: a huge and intimidating enemy descends from above after certain criteria are met.
In practice, though, those criteria do not guarantee the encounter, nor make the encounter more likely (beyond making it possible), and it becomes frustratingly rare. Sometimes (very rarely) the encounter will spawn after barely having destroyed a single aircraft carrier, but at other times I will spend minutes dancing around the air, sinking carrier after carrier, and downing ace after ace, and never once see the thing (and the latter is much more common than the former).
This problem is exacerbated by the various missions that require multiple blimp kills. When a boss enemy spawns, I should feel nervous and excited, or possibly stalwart and prepared, but I should not feel relieved or bored.
Compare this to the rhythm of Isaac, where, just like in LUFTRAUSERS, moment-to-moment the challenges ebb and flow and the advantages wane and wax, all in a more-or-less random way, but the level bosses ground the structure of Isaac into roughly comfortable units of play.
I am not saying that LUFTRAUSERS ought to have levels (although it does have a superficial leveling mechanic). I understand that the constant pressure and continuous challenge of LUFTRAUSERS is one of its key design elements. I am just saying that it should be the case that there is a mechanic for increasing or seeking blimp spawns, above and beyond getting to the point in a given round where the player becomes eligible for them—something the player can tangibly do in order to consistently increase the spawn chances of blimps (or, for that matter, submarines). I do not know how the system actually works; I only know how it feels.
2. Minimal Challenge Progression:
This is a minor complaint, but one that unfortunately does come into play well before 100% completion. LUFTRAUSERS‘ two modes (hard and brutally hard) just do not add enough texture to make the enemy variety sufficient.
Don’t get me wrong: there is fairly good enemy variety for a game of this combo-scoring dogfighting arcade-style nature. But the missions of the game—and its different ship build options—make the suite of enemies you face eventually pale in comparison.
For all that amazing gameplay variety I so praised above with regard to LUFTRAUSERS‘ ships, when the challenges you face do not change, the rounds tend to blur together over time. And the time spent within any given round, while never dull, does tend to get repetitive. It would be wonderful if this game’s challenges had progression as deep and interesting as its ship progression
If you are a player who likes bullet hell gameplay and new arcade-style challenges, but are unlikely to play any given arcade title for more than 5-7 hours in total, then LUFTRAUSERS is perfect for you. Its flaws will never be apparent, and all of its strengths will be fully on-offer.
But even if you are a hardcore player who seeks to master this immensely difficult beast, I would still say that the experience is, on balance, positive enough for me to recommend it. This is still a game with a high level of polish, fun mechanics, and a challenge that yields moments of satisfying triumph after repeated defeats. Simply bear in mind that, barring some future tweaks to the game on the part of Vlambeer, some of LUFTRAUSERS‘ inevitable frustrations will not be limited to being caused by its difficulty.
99 Arcade Luftballons: