Dark Omen Games – Nebulon review

retro Xbox shoot-'em-up
Photo of Dark Omen Games – Nebulon
£1.70 (200 MS points)

2D shoot-’em-ups are as traditional, well worn and aged formulas as, say, to pick something completely at random… Limericks. In this offering from the Xbox Live Marketplace, you play the role of a fighter pilot who has to kill lots of aliens. A fighter pilot called Laurie. In fact, the back story goes a little something like this:

“There was a young pilot called Laurie,
Who furiously blasted his quarry.
But in his great haste,
He hit hyperspace,
And ended up in the Orion Nebula M42.”

We lie, of course. There is no back story, the pilot is anonymous, and the only goal is to shoot the various blob shaped aliens. There isn’t even a hyperspace key, although Nebulon does have the traditional smart bombs, three lives and weapon upgrades dropped by vanquished enemies.

It also offers the player a choice of two control systems. There’s the dual stick method (left stick moves, right stick directs fire) Geometry Wars addicts will be familiar with, and a more old school shoot-in-the-direction-you’re-pointing scheme. We disliked the latter – it seemed much less intuitive – and we gravitated towards the dual stick setup like a lead spaceship towards a black hole.

But even using our preferred controls, Nebulon remained a tough space weevil of a shooter to crack for a few reasons. For starters, there’s the small play area, a compact grid to which your ship is confined. The craft has inertia and the grid has a solid boundary you can bounce off. The result? A number of ricochet deaths where we were flying a bit too fast across the screen and rebounded off the edge into an alien.

Nebulon also employs a philosophy of adaptive difficulty, meaning the longer you last and the better you play, the quicker the aliens morph into more powerful adversaries. To begin with, they’re simply dots which are essentially target practice, but when two of these bind together (into a bi-oid), they become a much faster spinning entity that hounds you at speed.

The more complex enemies get really hairy (not literally, although you never actually see the pilots, so, you never know…). Tri-oids annoyingly hoover up any power-ups dropped if they can get to them first, and the quadroid and pentoid both spawn creatures; small swarmers and a massive worm respectively.

When you’ve got a screen-full of these various craft, plus nippy little swarmers, a big worm whipping its tail around and tons of explosions on top, it becomes tricky to see what the Hell’s going on. In the later stages, Nebulon reminded us of bonfire night, simply because the mass of glowing pyrotechnics and booms of exploding ships lends it an uncannily similar feel to a fireworks display. Just add the smell of baked potatoes drifting through the air and you’d swear it was Guy Fawkes night.

Despite the moments of frustration when we snuffed it due to losing sight of our craft amongst the incandescent exploding pixels, we felt an undeniable pull to have another go and try to better ourselves. This time, we told ourselves, we’d manage to keep out of trouble when our shields went low, to let them recharge. This time, we’d try upgrading to the plasma gun instead of lasers. This time…

There would be even more incentive to replay and beat your high score if Nebulon had some sort of online leaderboard. Currently it doesn’t, but we’re told by the developer that a patch is in the works which will introduce such a feature. Along with new enemies, and a cooperative mode which sounds like fun. Roll on the update (it may even be live by the time you read this).

Company: Dark Omen Games

Nebulon is frustrating at times, with the visibility of your ship being a problem amongst a screen thronged with pulsing craft and explosions. Even so, this indie effort becomes surprisingly addictive. As long as you don't mind your shoot-'em-ups on the tough side, it's well worth a couple of quid.