There was a time, not too long ago, when one screen was all you needed. Monsters would filter in from the top for you to trap in bubbles, or asteroids would drift across the screen to wrap around the other side, or a maze would need to be completely covered before the next one was made available. Scrolling wasn’t unheard of, of course, but it was an option rather than requirement, and the limitations of confining all a level’s action to be visible on screen at once made for some true classics. Super Mutant Alien Assault bills itself as “The Citizen Kane of Super Crate Box clones,” but its real identity is that of a quarter-muncher from the 80s.
As a little security droid in an alien-overrun spaceship, it’s up to you to protect the humans in cryo-statis from the aliens infestation. The hideous jerks are climbing through holes in the bulkhead or, even worse, the bigger ones are using the doors, walking on in like they own the place. Each level is one screen wide with a random layout and objectives, selected from a large number of hand-built areas. Each of the three ships you have to protect is comprised of three levels plus a boss area, and while each individual level may have a simple layout, the combination of varying enemy types, objectives, and weapon pickups make each run unique.
Objectives come in a handful of forms, with the primary goal to keep you scurrying around the level rather than hunkering down in a safe spot. Pressure levels, for example, have two or three pods that open up while a chamber inside fills with an explosive red liquid, and letting it rise to the top before shutting the pod down sends out a health-damaging shockwave. Hyperdrive, on the other hand, needs you to get a canister from one side of the level to a receptacle on the other, three times total, which cues up a countdown sequence where time slows down as the ship blasts through hyperspace. There are only a handful of modes but, when taken in combination of each ship only having three levels before the boss, it means you won’t be repeating them in a single area. Or at least not once you’ve unlocked them.
One of the main features guaranteeing replayability is Super Mutant Alien Assault‘s unlock system. Every few levels a new feature opens up. Sometimes it’s a new weapon or special ability, defeating bosses opens up new monsters, etc. It’s a great way to make sure each run offers the chance of something new, requiring you to learn and adapt as the possibilities get more complicated. The enemies always get tougher but weapons? That’s a different story.
The weapons are found in vending machines in each level, with dispensers specializing in regular guns, explosives or, if you’re lucky, both at once. The regular guns start out nice enough with easy-to-use machine guns and shotguns, but quickly get more complicated as the bazooka, sniper rifle, grenade launcher, explosive pogo stick, rocket thruster, and other weirder items get added to the mix. There’s no guarantee what you’ll get from the vending machine, but once you’ve got a weapon it only lasts a set number of shots before it’s gone and, if you don’t like it, the vending machine is empty until it recharges. The trick is to figure out how to get by with what you’ve got or, at the very least, chew through the ammo without hurting yourself too badly. Explosions are as deadly to you as they are to the aliens, so just dumping a load of rockets everywhere is a great way to end up a tiny-robot-shaped scrap pile.
Thankfully, the robot has other abilities at its disposal as well, although much like the weapons you take what you get and figure out how to make the best of it. Special abilities come in two types- limited and unlimited. Dodge moves like dash can be used as often as you like, and are usually found fairly early in a run as well. Special moves that have an area-of-effect offensive capability are can’t be used quite so often, but the glowing green balls of energy powering these abilities are very common so there’s no point in sitting on whichever one you end up finding. Once you combine the current abilities and weapons into an effective run & gun platforming robot you can get down to clearing out the alien infestation with speed and efficiency, until a new creature or tricky weapons gets added to the possible options and requires a new set of plans to deal with. Hovering laser-squid are not, as it turns, out, your friends.
While Super Mutant Alien Assault is in Early Access, it feels like it could be released as a final game with absolutely no complaints about the quality. The weapons and the monsters you use them on feel nicely tuned to work against each other and there’s a good amount of content for the level randomization to pull from. One of the major stars of the show, however, is the fantastic pixel art that graces each stage, creature, weapon and especially explosions. Whether it’s the massive fireball from the bullet-activated bombs or just watching the minigun spin up, every detail is rendered in wonderful pixely-detail. This isn’t a pseudo-8- or 16-bit art style, but rather what we pictured games looking like before everyone got so completely enamored with giant sprites back in the SNES/Genesis days, fitting a lot of little details onto the screen with very little loss in clarity.
Super Mutant Alien Assault would have been right at home in an ’80s arcade, sitting between Bubble Bobble and I, Robot‘s decade-early preview of gaming to come. The randomized run & gun action starts simple but gets more complicated as more toys unlock, with new abilities and weapons making each run richer. Multiple unlockable difficulties plus co-op multiplayer keep the replay value high, as does the fact that each level is a new challenge thanks to the combination of differing enemy mixes and level goals. A single play-through is only twelve levels long, making for a nice, quick, bite-sized challenge if you can somehow complete the run. There’s a lot of great arcade gaming in Super Mutant Alien Assault already, and with current plans calling for six months of upgrades and feedback, the game should only get bigger and crazier as it goes.