Avoiding Hazard in Dreamcast’s Latest Gem, DUX 1.5

For a dead console, the Dreamcast sure refuses to die. It’s amazing to know that a piece of hardware 13 years post-mortem is still churning out new games — good games, at that. Thus enter indie developer Hucast Games, a studio known best for their side-scrolling shooter, DUXDUX was met with praise upon its 2009 release thanks to solid shooting conventions and vibrant visual flair; but it wasn’t without its limitations. With DUX 1.5 Hucast have gone back to their baby and re-tooled it for a more complete, more refined experience. But refinements aren’t always improvements. How does DUX 1.5 fare?

DUX 1.5 is a horizontal SHMUP heavily influenced by genre classics such as Gradius and R-Type. In fact, the game is about as close to R-Type as one can get without prompting a legal letter from irem (at least, before they turned into a pachinko manufacturer in the wake of the Fukushima disaster). DUX  is more about methodical shooting and defensive tactics than it is the lightning-quick reflexes most commonly associated with CAVE’s infamously manic bullet hells.

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DUX employs a variety of mechanics to ensure a high level of challenge and Shoot ‘Em Up fidelity. It’s more of a throwback title than anything else, but it manages to implement a few ideas of its own. It would have been very simple for the development team to create another been-there-done-that shooter. There are plenty of those available, especially on the Dreamcast, which has been flooded with lazy, unoriginal games over the years. DUX 1.5, on the other hand, was meticulously prepared with all the right ingredients, and served up with stellar presentation. It’s a dish that tastes as good as it looks.

The game really hammers home its point of being a more defensive SHMUP in its implementation of the slower ship speed and various powers. Most notable is the Power Pod: a protective device that floats in front of the player’s ship and absorbs bullets while returning fire. But the player’s ship can pack a punch as well. The charge shot is exactly what it sounds like — a mechanism designed for dishing out maximum-damage blows in single blasts. There are also onboard missiles, which can be fired directly in front of, behind, above and below the ship. When used in tandem, these three weapons allow for deep strategy and cerebral pacing, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Like any good SHMUP there is a slew of weaponry from which to choose. It’s rare for a shooter to come packed with so many viable means of completing the game. SHMUPS have a tendency to be one-trick ponies, but with DUX 1.5, players can really tailor their play-style to the challenges that face them. That makes it accommodating to hardcore fans and newcomers alike.

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DUX does a lot to invite the uninitiated. It has a series of systems in place that make it an ideal point of entry for anyone unfamiliar with (or familiar and terrible at) the genre. The aforementioned strategic variety is only one example. A second is the instant-repsawn setup that allows for players to pick-up from right where they die, instead of having to start over each time they get destroyed. This is a godsend, especially given how lengthy the game is. It could’ve been an incredibly arduous journey to the end credits without the respawn mechanic. The game is only as stressful as the player makes it out to be, since folks can focus more on learning and growing instead of grinding through sections they’ve already beaten.

Better yet, the scoring system accounts for all points earned within the chosen number of lives and credits used. Most SHMUPs’ scoring systems are designed so that a player’s score resets every time they use a continue. In DUX the score resets only when players are out of lives and continues completely — until players reach that “game over” screen, every point they can snag counts. I’m not praising this system for its leniency, but rather the way it opens the game up for risk-takers. This loose scoring promotes a less restrictive, more liberating play experience. The score system doesn’t magically make the game easier. What makes it enjoyable is how challenging a game DUX 1.5 really is. The levels and enemies have been rebalanced so as to not make players want to pull out their hair like they did with the 2009 title. That said, this is still a tough game. Although the first two levels seem like cake-walks, the developers’ refusal to pamper the player becomes progressively apparent, making the later level quite satisfying.

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Outside of its gameplay, DUX 1.5 is a beautiful game, with a lush, effervescent, at times breathtaking aesthetic. 480p on VGA makes the game look even better, and it can be upscaled to look better still. Sometimes the environments can look a bit too similar due to some recycled assets and colors. Occasionally there are so many neon colors and moving parts on-screen that it’s fatally distracting. Nevertheless, the graphics are bright and beautiful by any standard.

The audio, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. Sound effects sound like stock clips. This is particularly disappointing given how invigorating the game’s soundtrack is. It has a decidedly mechanicanized-pop vibe to it, with plenty of pulsing bass and 80s electronica. DUX’s futuristic visuals blend perfectly with the space-opera vibe of its music.

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As a revision of sorts, DUX 1.5 attempts to clean up many of the original game’s problems without creating any new ones. For the most part, it succeeds. By tackling many of the initial game’s bugs, adding a few new features and rebalancing the gameplay itself, Hucast have provided a more fulfilling, less infuriating experience. If you have a Dreamcast laying around and love SHMUPs, then DUX 1.5 is absolutely worth the price of admission — even if you played the original.

We can’t close off without talking about the DUX 1.5 collector’s edition that Hucast released back at the end of April. The package comes with the 1.5 game disc, a DUX 1.1 game disc, soundtracks for both versions, and a 12 page color manual, all wrapped up in an old-school double-decker jewel case. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, you want to have this thing on your shelf. The case design looks totally professional. Four discs and an actual instruction manual are just icing on the cake. That this little indie gem comes with more collectible goodies than most triple-A releases proves what a labor of love truly is.

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