Modern shoot-’em-ups have lost their way. As much as we love the bullet hell shooters popularised by Cave and their peers, the term ‘shoot-’em-up’ hardly applies at all, since in most cases these games can be completed without shooting any enemies. Weaving in between curtains of bullets is the order of the day in the modern age, to the extent that ‘avoid-’em-up’ may well be a more suitable name for the genre. Sine Mora feels like an antidote to that.
Horizontally scrolling shooters, with their limited screen space and obstacle-laden backgrounds, have always been more tactical than their vertically scrolling relatives for a start, but Sine Mora takes that quality even further thanks to its clever health mechanic. Rather than a health bar or stock of extra lives, Sine Mora uses a timer that sits right at the top of the screen. Let the time run out and it’s game over. And there are so few seconds on the clock that they really will run out if you just try to coast through the stage not engaging with the game.
The timer can be topped up by a few seconds for every enemy you destroy but will also drop with every hit you concede. Which is a clever little mechanic because it forces you to play Sine Mora the way a shoot-’em-up should be played, meticulously trying to take out every enemy while also protecting yourself. Doing so is far from easy, even on the lowest difficulty setting, so most levels will have to be played repeatedly in order to learn and master every detail of the stage.
All this would be for nothing without some decent level design, of course, but Sine Mora thankfully has that in spades. Enemy and obstacle placement is so tight that the design borders on puzzle game, requiring thoughtful strategies or solutions to navigate, while some sections are so demanding they’re like playing an electrified steady hand game, each wall collision deducting precious seconds from the clock.
Enemy design too is exceptional. It feels like everything about the enemy waves – the direction they come from, their bullet behaviour and formation – has been expertly fine tuned to get you moving around and making intelligent use of your limited arsenal. The incredible boss design takes this to the next level – these screen filling monstrosities not only showcase some of the best visual design seen in the genre but spew out unique, even memorable, bullet patterns while pulling out special tricks that make things that little bit tougher and ensure that you’re not left to deal with the same repetitive attack patterns for minutes on end. They’re tough, sure, but tough in a good way. One that forces you to really get to grips with the game design and have some fun with the tools at your disposal. The presence of a Time Capsule power-up, allowing you to very briefly go into a bullet time style mode, is a great asset for getting out of a tight spot, though limited enough that you’ll have to rely on experience and skill first and foremost.
Getting through the story mode is no easy task, but once that’s done it’s fair to say that the real Sine Mora is only just beginning. Progress through the story unlocks content for arcade, score attack and boss practice modes and it’s in these, particularly arcade, where the designers really get inventive. For a start, there’s the sheer number of ship combinations available to you. The story mode jumps between a number of different storylines with each chapter in order to keep variety high, and in doing so, puts you in control of a different ship and pilot. In Arcade mode, you’re able to mix and match these in order to come up with weapon and sub-weapon combinations that suit the level you opt to take on. Careful consideration is a must at this stage because the normal and challenging difficulty modes of the story are completely gone and replaced by hardcore and insane modes – the latter being so difficult that enemy ships explode into even more bullets when destroyed. Furthermore, a real-time adaptive difficulty level is employed while you play, assessing your performance and moving you in-between theoretical ‘ranks’ that are trickier but reward a higher score.
Sine Mora’s visuals are some of the most impressive the genre has ever seen. Though it plays completely on a 2D plane, the entire game world is modelled in three dimensions and looks stunning as a result. So few old school games have this level of production value lavished upon them and, even better, the 3D visuals improve the gameplay, the perspective used to bring enemies in from all angles just to keep the player on their toes.
Just completing Sine Mora’s Story mode is an exercise in dedication, requiring hours of practice, comprehension and self-improvement, so the supplementary modes easily add weeks more play time. It’s fantastic to see such an overwhelming amount of content in a downloadable shoot-’em-up, especially given the high prices traditionally demanded by such games on the import market. But, ultimately, it’s depth and not breadth that makes Sine Mora so special. Its risk-reward mechanic practically trains you to understand shooters and puts game mechanics front and centre without shrouding them in obscurity as certain other members of the genre family tend to do.
The ageing shoot-’em-up is far from dead when viewed on quantity of releases alone, but when it comes to quality Sine Mora has practically zero peers this generation. If you’ve been craving a true modern classic since the days of Gradius V and R-Type Final then Grasshopper Manufacture and Digital Reality have provided the best possible reason we can imagine to return.