The barrel roll has never been so powerful.
There is a temptation when returning to any classic arcade genre to make it more complicated. For forward moving rail shooters, this often means RPG elements that force you to continuously grind to upgrade your ship in order to have a chance in later levels. Astrodogs, on the other hand, is the first one of these games I’ve played in a while that understands how to build on the genre, without breaking it. It adds new mechanics and presents a fresh spin on a few classic ones. It isn’t perfect by any means, but it is hard not to be taken in by Astrodogs’ bold style and fun presentation.
You play as Kombo who, along with several other dogs, must save their solar system from a hyper-capitalistic dog regime. The characters, both your teammates and enemies, are all over the top and feature charming writing. For example, at one point during an introduction to a level the communication line goes dead for an extended period of time before a member of your team finally speaks up and apologizes for having been on mute. Of course, there are plenty of nods to the obvious Star Fox influences as well, which makes Astrodogs the best form of parody, in that it is itself an excellent entry in the genre of the thing it satirizes. The world itself takes heavy influence from vaporwave and early 3D rendering. Bright pastel colors populate every level while each maintaining a unique identity. The music is likewise incredibly catchy and I’ve been disappointed to see that thus far there doesn’t seem to be an official soundtrack release. From a presentation perspective, it’s hard to do anything but sing praises.
Gameplay is generally in line with what you’d expect from classic rail shooters like Star Fox. Your ship flies forward automatically and you can move up, down, left, and right as you dodge obstacles and line up shots. Your range of movement left and right is quite extreme. This winds up being presentationally satisfying but depth perception along the far edge of your ship’s movement range can be difficult. A camera that is a bit more aggressive about staying directly behind your ship would certainly be of help here. That being said, there were only a few points at which I felt I needed to use the extreme range of movement in a way that caused me significant difficulties.
Where gameplay really excels is in combat. While you do of course have your standard, rapid-fire attack, you will also build up energy to use various special weapons and abilities. There are the expected weapons like a multi-lock missile and an area of effect bomb, but there is also a sustained beam weapon and a shield that can destroy anyting that it comes in contact with. You also have a separate “instinct meter” that can be expended to slow time and allow you to freely aim in any direction without moving your ship. Even the classic barrel roll gets a fresh take by not just deflecting enemy fire, but sending it right back at them. In fact, a well timed barrel roll can be an extremely effective way of dealing with a large wave of enemies.
As mentioned at the outset, this isn’t a game where you can upgrade your ship to power through a difficult section. It is entirely a game of skill the whole way through. Bosses in particular sometimes took me a few tries to really come to grips with their attack patterns. That being said, they are all pretty well designed. My only real issue with any of the bosses was one late game boss. Every other boss requires you to shoot yellow weak spots to then expose their primary weak spot. This boss still has those yellow weak spots, but shooting them won’t do anything unless you realize that several large buttons on the boss can also be shot in a specific pattern to make him vulnerable first. It is actually a really good boss fight, but it's so different from anything else in the game that I briefly wondered if I’d broken the game in some way when it didn’t seem to take damage from any of its apparent weak spots. The individual levels are all very well designed and unique, too. While there isn’t ultimately that much enemy variety, each level does have its own environmental obstacles that are largely exclusive to that specific stage.
If you know exactly what you’re doing and can take out every boss in a single try, you can likely finish Astrodogs in a little over an hour, but it will take a lot of practice before you reach that point. Without going into spoilers, there is also some additional content locked behind your score in each level. This is a game that understands on a seemingly effortless level what makes the genre work. It is able to build on those concepts while still staying entirely true to that core experience. Simultaneously, it offers an incredible package in terms of visuals and sound. I have some minor complaints about the camera in conjunction with the movement system, and some very select boss design issues, but overall it's hard not to absolutely love Astrodogs. Even with a couple blemishes this is easily one of the best games of this type currently available on Switch.