1950's science fiction meets FMV infused shooter.
Squad 51 VS The Flying Saucers is one of those games that takes a simple premise and then executes on it near flawlessly. On a basic level, it is a horizontally scrolling 2D shoot-em-up (shmup), but with the added twist of visually and thematically emulating science fiction films and serials of the 1950s. The combo works out wonderfully and even with a few small technical complaints, it results in one of the most engaging 2D shmups I’ve ever played.
After deceptively friendly aliens land on earth, they quietly take control of the population in the name of technological advancement. You play as a pilot in Squadron 51, a ragtag group of resistance fighters dedicated to freeing the planet from extra terrestrial control. The story is told through live action cutscenes and near constant banter from pilots during missions. The live action cutscenes are largely filmed against blue screen but do an excellent job of digitally recreating the look of 1950’s science fiction. Aliens are presented as actors in prosthetics, UFOs wobble back and forth as they spin through the air, and your own airplane regularly has visible strings holding it up in cutscenes. During gameplay, the backgrounds are expansive and lively with enemies and friendlies weaving across your flight path. Lasers and aircraft alike display a sort of glow around them that not only helps them stand out in a monochrome environment, but emulates the look of early compositing matte errors. The only spot in which the visual ambition can run into slight problems is in the resolution of the effect used for this glow and dynamic shadows. Some of the interior environments have very visibly chunky shadows that jerk distractingly across the screen as the light source moves along with your plane. It is a minor complaint but is extremely noticeable when it does crop up.
Actual gameplay can be taken on either single or multiplayer, with a seamless drop in option for player 2. Your aircraft can be equipped with a variety of upgrades; some of these are secondary weapons while others will affect things like your resistance to enemy fire, the size of your hitbox, or even the number of lives you start a stage with. As you earn points from shooting down enemies, you’ll unlock additional upgrades along with extra upgrade slots for equipping them. If you’re shot down, the points you gained will still go towards those unlocks so even if you fail a level, you’ll regularly go back in better equipped than when you left. It gives even difficult stages a nice sense of progression even if you find yourself dying repeatedly. Extra difficulty options also exist such as the ability to give yourself infinite lives, if you’re just here for the story. The only downside to restarting a stage is the loading times, which are lengthy. Upon death, you don’t get the option to hop right back in, but rather you’ll wait for the entire stage to load again from scratch. Depending on the level these loading screens tend to take around twenty seconds after every death. It slows down the momentum and tends to make retrying a stage more frustrating than it should be.
What Squad 51 VS The Flying Saucers lacks in technical perfection is more than made up for by its overall presentation and player friendly take on the 2D shmup genre. I was not just having fun; I was invested in the cheesy over the top story. After every level I eagerly loaded up the next one excited to see more of this wonderfully realized world. Yes, the seams are sometimes more visible than one would hope, and loading times to restart a level are legitimately frustrating, but the net result is easily one of my personal favorite shumps of all time.