Disclaimer: We we’re lucky enough to be given a Steam review code for this game by the publisher Surprise Attack.
I’m a huge fan of a genre I like to call “Frustrating time sinks”. Entries like The Binding of Isaac, Nuclear Throne and Enter the Gungeon, really nail down the various formulae that seem to make or break these style of games. Start slow and simple, then ramp up until you reach utter ridiculousness (at different rates and with varied actions for each game mind you). The developer (yes just one) at Cybernate (Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!) has taken this tried and true formula and added his own spice to it. It would be foolish to mention the Vlambeer title, Nuclear Throne, in the above list without also mentioning the game which Super Mutant Alien Assault (SMAA) borrows most heavily from, Super Crate Box (SCB). SCB is a free game which you can play on Steam right now, for free! So at first, I wondered why anyone should consider paying for something they can experience, more or less, for free. These reasons became very clear, soon enough.
One of the biggest differences between the two is the addition of the health meter in SMAA. It may not seem like much but the fact that you have to start the game all over again, after you have managed to dodge and destroy so much, is something of a kick in the balls for me. In SCB you simply come back to life on the same level and jump around, picking up more boxes and causing more destruction. The counterweight to SCB’s instant respawn though? One hit and you’re dead. Which makes getting as many boxes as you can in that one life incredibly important. Collecting enough boxes nets you rewards like skins for you character and more weapons to play with. Conversely in SMAA you’ve got a few chances to make mistakes here and there, but there is a much clearer and defined goal, an eventual halt on the craziness, there is an ending to each level*. Unlike the limitless amounts of enemies that pour from the ceiling, as you jump and dodge your way to infinity in SCB, SMAA challenges you to defeat a set amount of levels, then a final boss, to conquer the game.
*There is an endless mode which lets you loop through the levels endlessly, strangely enough, once you’ve beaten a boss.
To unlock more goodies in SMAA you actually have to beat a certain amount of levels, this amount gets shown to you every time you die so it’s not all bad news at the end of each individual run. I managed to unlock everything in about 5 hours of play but that’s only the start of the fun. Just like SCB, there is more to this game than just unlocking all the available guns, and you really start to see some depth to the gameplay as more items, defensive abilities and passive bonuses start to become unlocked. You can only equip one of each type of power up, so once you break open a crate that drops during the course of a level, you can choose to leave whatever item it is if you don’t like it, or replace the current item you are carrying. You will more than likely have a harder time without it but if you’re looking to synergise with different pick-ups, then that’s the risk you have to take.
Learning to use everything you’re given is actually a real challenge. I constantly forget that I have things like a force field that I can use to buffer enemies or that I’ve got some explosives to throw around. I think that’s partly because the initial offerings, particularly of the explosives (grenades), aren’t all that useful. They require very precise timing and they are just as dangerous to you as they are to the aliens. The remote bombs which are unlocked soon after starting the game are excellent and a god send when RNGesus blesses you, dropping them out of the slot machine.
There are some great weapons and some absolute duds, which can really throw a run down the drain if you’re unlucky enough to get them at the wrong time. The shotgun is a favourite of mine as it’s just so satisfying to use and great for clearing the rabble as it pours in from the holes in the walls or the blast doors which offer powered up aliens. The Pogo stick is a close second but only situationally useful if you ask me. It’s a great boss killer as bouncing on their head usually keeps you out of their reach. I particularly hate getting the “tiny bomb” which is a slow rolling explosive that takes up your main weapon slot but doesn’t detonate unless it gets attacked by you or one of the aliens. It can be really difficult to actually trigger the bomb if there aren’t any aliens with a ranged attack around or you don’t have a sidearm that is ranged as well. More power to you if you can get in and nick it with the shiv then get out in time in such a way that it still hits your target and not yourself.
The slot machine I mentioned to earlier are in reference to the weapons and explosive dispensers you will encounter in each level, but you could also say they refer to the levels themselves in a way. The actual layout of the levels, like where the platforms are and where the baddies come in from, doesn’t change. The objective for each level and the dispensers within it can however. (The boss levels are a caveat to this. I think there are two levels for each boss type but I’d have to test that more to know for sure.) Some of the objectives that present themselves to you are Pressure, Hyper drive and simply Survive. In the Pressure levels you need to keep an eye on two (or three, as it is on the third galaxy) vats that randomly activate and start to fill during the course of the level. If the fluid reaches the top, the vat explodes which damages everything in the room. You prevent that from happening by running over to it and interacting with it or hitting it with something explosive. In theory, letting it detonate could be helpful if you were having trouble clearing a bunch of enemies but you’d need to dodge the blast wave if possible or have a shield up at the time of the explosion. In the Hyper drive levels, you’ll need to ferry some fuel cells from one end of the
The reason you’re forced into such a state just for Endless mode is that you have control over your starting gear which is everything except for your weapon and explosives. If you have all items unlocked, you can give yourself a set of items that gel together really well instead of crossing your fingers when you break open the crates during a typical level in hopes that you get what you want. Being able to straight up stop anything from touching you for extended periods or having supreme mobility through double jump and teleports is enough to warrant docking you some health points. To be perfectly honest, even with that advantage of a powerful load out, I still haven’t been able to clear a single galaxy in Endless mode which consists of 4 levels. A regular run in standard mode is 3 galaxies. There is a guy who has made it through 50 levels which absolutely boggles my mind, I’d really like to know what his load out is and give it a shot. The addition of an item selection list to the leader boards would be good but I can understand why Cybernate decided against it. Knowing the OP combos without learning through experimentation would suck out a lot of the fun in my opinion.
The one-man effort behind this production doesn’t show in its polish. I’m quite impressed with the graphics and art direction in general as it shows good focus and cohesion. It’s fairly low resolution which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but I find it endearing. The cutesy low level aliens aren’t exactly menacing but it becomes clear if you pay attention that they are babies and the art portrays that nicely. The music however isn’t my jam. That’s entirely down to subjective tastes though, I’m just not into that music in general so it’s lost on me. I’d recommend this when you’re playing.
This game is one best experienced hands on so I’d recommend going out and trying it. You can pick it up for five minutes (you will probably die in less time if you’re not careful) or push it for an hour or two if you think you’re onto a good start in endless mode. I keep a few games like this one installed in case I can’t think of anything I feel like playing at the time and that’s certainly not a bad thing. Simply knowing I won’t have a bad time if I turn to this is enough to warrant the hard drive space. Just make sure you pray that the Church of RNG before loading it up.
The Good: Huge replay value and diverse runs in normal mode thanks to RNG, more consistent challenge in Endless mode with loadout selection, good build up through visual design of enemies.
The Bad: You can get dicked pretty hard by RNG, the soundtrack just wasn’t for me, some weapons feel useless and others more likely to hurt you than the aliens, no online co-op.
Final Verdict: Enjoyable even when taken at face value but rewarding when you dig in and utilise everything you’re given to it’s fullest. Worth keeping around for a rainy day or when a mate is over for an hour or so.