A lot of games try to go for a retro, straight out of the 80s style that ends up backfiring for a number of reasons. Sometimes, the visuals come across as bland and simple instead of arcade-esque. Other times, the gameplay might be too basic and one-note for its own good. Or maybe the gameplay ends up being too complicated in a way that betrays the retro style the game aimed for in the first place. Horizon Shift ’81 suffers none of these issues, delivering a game that simultaneously feels ripped from the arcades and modernly flashy in all the right ways.
There isn’t any kind of story set-up for Horizon Shift ’81. Like an old arcade cabinet or an Atari classic, you just boot the game up and get right into business. Horizon Shift ’81 is a score-driven shooter like your Space Invaders or your Galagas. You control a spaceship stuck to a bar in the middle of the screen, with enemies coming at you from the top and bottom. You can flip to either side of the bar at any time, as well as hop around with a jump button and slide across the bar with a dash button to swipe away any enemies that land on it. You destroy enemies with bullets, pick up power-ups, and make your way through dozens of nail-biting levels.
The basic groundwork of Horizon Shift ’81 is dead simple, but that simplicity is quickly betrayed by unforgiving enemy formations and bullet patterns. There’s a lot of different types of monsters that’ll come at you during the game, as well as a lot of different weapons and power-ups to pick up that completely change the way you deal with them. Strategizing and maneuvering through each unique wave of enemies is tense and challenging, but also rewarding and rarely unfair.
While the regular gameplay is simple and arcade-y, boss fights add a modern bullet-hell twist to the game that I was really, really into it. Boss fights have you dodging insane patterns of projectiles and wild giant boss movements in lengthy and sweat-inducing fights for survival. It was really fun to have regular gameplay broken up by these tense boss encounters. I only wish some more sound design went into these fights, because the bosses and their attacks rarely made any noise which lead to some awkwardly quiet encounters.
Thankfully, the music in the game more than makes up for the lacking audio design. Songs are head-bumpin’ and addictive. As you progress through the game, the music starts ramping up and adding more contemporary elements like guitars in a style that edges closer and closer to “What if Mick Gordon composed the score to Arkanoid?” Needless to say, the Horizon Shift ’81 soundtrack is filled with absolute bops.
There’s also a fair amount of flair to the visuals of the game, or rather, the amount of ways you can customize said visuals. Right out of the gate, Horizon Shift ’81 offers a suite of options to tweak and alter the graphics of the game as you see fit. You can rotate the screen, change the border art, enable a CRT filter, and even turn on multiple types of scanline effects. You can also adjust the amount of neon glow applied to the visuals, letting you make things as crisp and basic or flashy and oversaturated as you want.