The Pros and Cons of Luftrausers

The Pros and Cons of Luftrausers

Hello, this is The Gemsbok, and today’s topic is Luftrausers, a game developed by Vlambeer and originally released in 2014. Luftrausers, much like every notable game from Vlambeer, is a mechanically rewarding and somewhat unique take on a familiar type of game. It’s a game in the arcade style, which basically means that it has a heavy emphasis on scoring, a high level of difficulty, a simplicity in both premise and visuals, more complexity to the mechanics than the story, and a difficulty level that scales up the further you get—to ensure a challenging experience for its score-chasing players. In the case of Vlambeer’s other prominent games that follow that mold (Nuclear Throne and Super Crate Box), I have practically nothing but praise to give. In the case of Luftrausers, however, I have a more mixed-yet-positive opinion of the game after the many hours I have spent with it, and would like to use a classic pros and cons list to cordon off the good from the bad. Luftrausers is a game that offers a great challenge that looks and sounds great too, and is a stellar title—with only a couple notable exceptions. Let’s start with the good. In a previous video in this series, I covered Vlambeer’s early little award-nominated hit, Super Crate Box, another arcade-style game that takes a simple twist on a classic gameplay formula and designs a brilliant game around that. In the case of Luftrausers, there are two such twists: ship health that regenerates when you are not firing or being hit, and enemy spawns that depend on existing enemy saturation. These two twists are not as new as the simple twist behind Super Crate Box, but they are equally well-implemented. The nature of the regeneration mechanic is one of the best choices that was made in the design of Luftrausers. You can not merely tank damage and keep shooting at an enemy, despite the fact that you can regenerate health and they can’t. You have to master the momentum-based turning and stalling of your plane, because there will be times that you have to focus on dodging and can not return fire. This health system lowers the base difficulty somewhat from the flat one-hit-KO mechanic of Super Crate Box, but also raises the skill ceiling by contributing a further layer of decision-making complexity into the moment-to-moment gameplay. Furthermore, the health regenerating only when not firing a weapon gives an anxious edge to falling low on health, as opposed to a sort of fatalist resign. You almost always feel like you can survive and keep the round going—if you just dodge that next volley! The music even swells slightly when at very low health to bolster the intensity of the moment. In these ways, you are compelled to manage the enemies on screen so as to not become swamped in bullets. And, all that aside, it also gives some balance to the otherwise incredible cannon weapon, which precludes regenerating for the whole duration of its lengthy firing process. The enemy spawning in Luftrausers being based on enemy saturation, meanwhile, is certainly nothing new, but does give a frantic—even somewhat stressful—tone to the gameplay, as it never lets up even momentarily. Compare this to a hypothetical design that is similar in many respects, but which has set waves of enemies instead. Waves instill less tension and demand less persistent fortitude from the player, although they do offer other benefits, such as a more comfortable ebb and flow of intensity and more granular control over difficulty and encounter variety. After all, Luftrausers’ enemy spawning mechanic may be a bit of a double-edged sword, as I suspect it’s partial responsibility for some of the enemies spawning issues I’ll detail later in this video. There are a surprising number of ship combinations available in Luftrausers. The 15 ship parts can be fit together in roughly 125 possible ships in the game, and that’s not including one of the best final playable secrets I’ve ever seen—which I highly recommend not spoiling for yourself unless you’re positive that you’ll never complete all of the game’s missions. The game’s 125-dish buffet of mechanical customization is atypical in the arcade genre; except for fighting games, arcade titles typically include either a singular static player- character or a choice of four or fewer character options. A laudable touch that Vlambeer made along these lines was thinking of a unique name for every possible combination of ship parts, which gives some personality and flair to the player’s consideration of their favorite component combinations, and also provides occasion for an unexpected laugh every once in a while (there are more than a few amusing gems among the large pool of names). It is truly impressive how fresh it feels to switch periodically from, for instance, a sluggish aquatic monster to a fragile agile bird. It is my personal opinion that, had the game simply featured five or so stock ship options instead, its replay value would have been immensely diminished—as the modularity of the planes has a psychological benefit, whereby one can attribute a bad round or a series of failed mission attempts to a chosen combination, spurring the player to switch things up and try again. The freshness inherent to such a swap can likely also be credited to the sound design, but that will be covered in the section immediately following this. The designs of Luftrausers’ enemies and projectiles are also to be commended, as the distinct shapes and behaviors of the enemies make their attacks instantly understandable despite the cluttered screen. These subtle mechanical touches make snap judgments more reliable, and help justify the sharply limited number of enemies (which will be discussed more in the ‘cons’ section in a little while). The one place where Luftrausers unambiguously bests both Super Crate Box and Nuclear Throne is in aesthetics, through its dynamic soundtrack and its restricted-palette visual design. Let me start with the soundtrack, and address any viewers that rolled their eyes at the word ‘dynamic’ in the previous sentence. I promise you that I mean it quite literally, and not as some kind of flashy buzzword. The soundtrack actually changes depending on your ship part selections, each of which has its own associated sound elements. So, those 125 possible player planes I mentioned above also have an accompanying 125 variances to the in-game audio—in effect, 125 similar- but-unique tracks. This brilliant choice takes advantage of the systems already in place in the game to add a further differentiation between different rounds, especially when selecting the random ship parts. In addition, this choice contributes to the feel of each part, as one comes to recognize the beat of a beloved component. On top of this, the visuals of Luftrausers are wonderful! The stock color scheme’s balance of rust red and cream conveys a dim sunset, an ancient computer screen, and a harried battlefield all at once, while the simplicity of its design makes it legible even when there are projectile streams on the screen from numerous different angles. How Vlambeer got this minimalist visual style so right comes now too many small touches, such as the clear difference between player projectiles and enemy projectiles; the wake effects of the plane’s jet on the surface of the water; the way projectiles include multiple colors so they can be seen against any part of the background; the way all elements which have AI and don’t travel in a straight line share the same color, just a shade off of the color of the player’s plane; and the acrobatic way the planes twist through the air as they turn. The gaming landscape is full twice over with games developed by people that just picked the most obvious visual style, usually some approximation of realism or else an uninspired use of a more interesting style like pixel art. So a game with a stylized aesthetic that looks this nice is doubly welcome. Add to this that the game offers loads of different unlockable color schemes for people not as fond of the base choices as I am, or who just want to switch it up after a while, and the aesthetic details here are deserving of even greater praise. Now, onward to the more unfortunate sections of this video. This is my biggest problem with Luftrausers, but it is an issue that will only be encountered by individuals who either play the game enough to achieve or nearly achieve 100% completion, or who truly intend to maximize their scores for leaderboard contention. To put that another way, even noticing that this is an issue is more than likely a ten-hour task for those who are new to the game at the beginning of their playthrough. Now, I like some probabilistic programming and randomness in my games. Sometimes, if it’s implemented very well— like in Spelunky or Isaac or Slay the Spire—I like a lot of it. But the ideal form of randomness does not harm the established rhythm of gameplay, nor do key game events (like being able to attempt to boss encounters) rely on random chance or a system that makes them inconsistent. Let’s talk about key game events first, then the rhythm of gameplay. In Luftrausers, insofar as this game can be said to have boss encounters, those encounters (blimps) are extremely inconsistent. In theory, it seems well-designed: a huge and intimidating enemy descends from above after certain criteria are met. In practice, though, those criteria do not guarantee the encounter; they only make the encounter possible, and it becomes frustratingly rare. The specific criterion is to have destroyed enough enemy crafts to rack up the difficulty score in the background to open up the widest set of possible enemie spawns. Sometimes, very rarely, the encounter will spawn after barely having destroyed enough targets, with maybe only a single aircraft carrier sunk. But at other times, one can spend minutes dancing around the air, sinking carrier after carrier and downing ace after ace, and never once see a blimp. And the latter is much more common than the former. This problem is exacerbated by the various missions that require multiple blimp kills. When a boss enemy spawns, the player should feel nervous and excited, or possibly stalwart and prepared, but they should not feel relieved or bored. Compare this to the rhythm of Isaac, where (just like in Luftrausers) moment-to-moment, the challenges ebb and flow and the advantages wane and wax, all in a more-or-less random way. But the level bosses ground the structure of Isaac into roughly comfortable units of play. I am not saying that Luftrausers ought to have levels or waves; I understand that the constant pressure and continuous challenge of Luftrausers is one of its key design elements. I am just saying that it should be the case that there is a mechanic for increasing or seeking blimp spawns, above and beyond getting to the point in a given round where the player becomes eligible for them—something the player can tangibly do in order to consistently increase the spawn chances of blimps, or, for that matter, submarines. That this and some of the games harder challenges are an issue for most players is easily confirmed by taking a look at the game’s steam achievement statistics. There is a reasonably smooth curve of player progression across most of the challenges in the game, then a sharp fall-off of over 20% of players between having nearly all the missions done and having all of the missions done. Now, as for the basic rhythm of gameplay, it’s time to talk about how this same enemy spawning system negatively impacts score chasers. The highest aim and love of someone seeking a high score in Luftrausers is a maximum combo multiplier. Maintaining a high or max combo is by far the most efficient and effective method of increasing score, especially when taking down larger targets like carriers and blimps. In order to keep up a combo while doing that, it is often necessary to keep alive and slowly deplete either a swarm of small fighters or a swarm of missiles. This makes a precise and long-range weapon like the laser very strong for score runs, as it can be used to accurately down just one or two fighters at a time and can destroy smaller enemies that are off-screen to continue a combo. But the random nature of the enemy spawning means that normal fighters and missile-spawning foes are not guaranteed throughout a round. Two players of identical skill playing with identical planes for an identical length of time may diverge in score widely simply because random chance fed a steady flow of fighters to one of them, and there were gaps in that flow for the other. And the nature of the background difficulty progression system within each round means that each player is guaranteed to have fewer of those all-important smaller enemies as a percentage of total enemies as time goes on. Therefore, if a player hasn’t achieved some massive-point-banking combo kills in the first five minutes or so of a run, their hopes of a high score are significantly diminished. So, yes, even the smallest and most basic enemies in the game can be key enemies, depending on one’s immediate goals. Thus, the inability of the player to reliably predict or else reliably manipulate what will spawn leads to a situation where luck plays a much larger role than in numerous similar arcade titles, potentially to the frustration of its players. This is a minor complaint, but one that unfortunately does come into play well before 100% completion; Luftrausers two modes, hard and brutally hard, do not add enough texture to make the enemy variety outlast the missions. Don’t get me wrong: there is fairly good enemy variety for a game of this pared-down, combo-scoring, arcade nature. But the eventually redundant missions of the game and its remarkably varied ship build options come together to make the suite of enemies you face seem very minimal. One could argue that the list of enemies already includes just about everything a mid-twentieth-century combatant would have at their disposal, but it’s apparent from the laser aces, the laser weapons, and the aquatic jet engine (among other things) that the design of the game was not limited by historical accuracy. Some possible additions, then, would have included a form of carrier that spawns smaller aircraft; a bomber that drops vertically falling projectiles from above; a tethering aircraft or watercraft that attempts to slow the player through a fired towline; a speedboat that lines the water’s surface with projectiles, as the jet enemy does in the air; and a variant of the blimp with slowly rotating laser weaponry. For all of that amazing gameplay variety I so praised with regard to Luftrausers’ player- controlled planes earlier in this video, when the challenges you face are a small set that do not change, the rounds tend to blur together over time. And the time spent within any given round, while never dull, does tend to get repetitive. It would be wonderful if this game’s challenges had variety as deep and interesting as that of its player ships. If you are a player who likes innovative challenging gameplay and new arcade-style designs, but are unlikely to play any given arcade title for more than about five hours in total, then Luftrausers is perfect for you; its flaws will never be apparent to you, and all of its strengths will be fully on offer. But even if you are a more hardcore player who seeks to master this rather difficult beast, I would still say that the experience is, on balance, positive enough for me to recommend it. Three big pros in its favor, two potentially-less-big cons working against it. Luftrausers is a game with a high level of polish, fun mechanics, and a challenge that yields moments of satisfying triumph after repeated defeats. Simply bear in mind that—barring some very unlikely future tweaks to the game on the part of Vlambeer—some of Luftrausers’ inevitable frustrations will not be limited to being caused by its difficulty.

Comments (5)

  1. I really appreciate how this channel gives serious analysis attention to indie games that are more than 5 years old. Other than speed runners, it feels like people completely forget about even very good games if they weren't ultra massive hits or console exclusives.

  2. oooh yeah that's the good stuff

  3. Good to know that as a new player, it’s all pros! Not planning on 100%, so I’m excited to try this game!

  4. Quick note: If anyone is curious why there are overly simplistic 'good randomness' and 'bad randomness' labels over some of the clips in the "Con 1" section, those were added quite late into the edit—after I noticed my narration might make it seem like I was using Super House of Dead Ninjas, Crypt of the NecroDancer, and Risk of Rain as negative examples (which I'm not).

  5. This is my first youtube comment – however this must be noted as a very detailed review. Congrats on your mention of isaac.

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