The magical mystery core has been stolen and taken away. The Aki-Do forces are the ones responsible and naturally they've split it in to five parts and scattered them across the galaxy. But forget that cobblers, the cool part about Vortex is that you take control of the Morphing Battle System which as the name suggests is capable of transforming in to one of four modes as you stomp, fly, drive and sometimes just sit there in your quest to restore peace to the galaxy.
The Super FX chip provided SNES gamers with impressive (for the time) 3D visuals and Vortex, a shooter coded by the chip's developer Argonaut Software, was the third game to use it. Argonaut had helped with Star Fox and there are some visual similarities between the two games. Of course when you have texture-less 3D, similarities are inevitable but some enemies (both ships and creatures) would not look out of place in the earlier game.
There's quite a range of foes throughout the seven levels of the game, so what you're blasting will vary, as of course will what you're blasting them with. The four modes of your MBS are a Walker, Sonic Jet, Land Burner and Hard Shell: each mode has advantages and disadvantages and you’ll find some modes suit certain situations better than the others. The Walker has weapons on both arms (two options for each) and is your best bet for picking off hordes of enemies, and is also the only mode that can pick up items such as powerups and keys. The Sonic Jet and Land Burner are your speedy options. The jet burns more fuel and cannot stop but is faster and can handily fly over large gaps, although both the Walker and Land Burner can jump over smaller gaps if needed. The Hard Shell can move slowly either forwards or backwards, has a small amount of bombs to take out multiple enemies and subtracts damage from the fuel meter rather than the shields. It would be largely useless were it not for the fact that thanks to a built-in solar panel it recharges your fuel as you sit there – as long as you’re not under attack.
Pressing Select cycles through the four modes but holding down L whilst pressing a button will transform your MBS into a specific form which is handy when you need to change quickly. With the R button similarly switching the weapons on the Walker, things could potentially get very confusing. Luckily the controls feel intuitive and after a quick go with the handy tutorial you should be ready to go. If you'd like to make extra sure you know what you are doing there are optional training missions for you to try.
The opening mission of the game proper takes place in the titular Vortex. The setting (which you visit twice in the game) is quite unspectacular: simply black space, stars and unsightly barriers either side of the screen, although things soon improve thanks to your enemies exploding colourfully. Other levels give you greater freedom and have more interesting backgrounds and terrain. Like Star Fox you will find an abundance of buildings represented by plain blocks and here – in a game that allows you to stop and look at your surroundings – it is a lot more noticeable, but there are also some interesting objects to be found such as towers that fire at you, traps and miniature spitting volcanoes.
It can be difficult to tell one part of the level from another but thankfully you can call up a map to show your current location. Although the map will highlight places you need to go (coded locks, elevators etc.), some will only show up when you are nearby. Looking for things is part of the adventure, but after a while boredom sets in and sometimes you will have seemingly been everywhere and still have no idea where that final item is.
The camera will on occasion zoom in or out to take in the onscreen action which the game manages to do fairly smoothly. Whenever you take an elevator down to an underground corridor the action switches to a first person perspective which helps immerse you in the action, as do the sound effects: a series of thumps and explosions that add to the atmosphere. The sounds for transformations and the movement of your Walker are very effective and the various weapon noises fit well, even if your rockets do sound like they're being fired from a Nerf gun.
Music-wise the SNES sound chip produces a wide range of electronic sounds to create some memorable tracks. There’s the simple but effective minimalist mission briefing track whilst others start slow before getting more ambitious and turning into something really quite funky. Handily you can listen to the tracks via a sound test in the options menu.
The game can be very challenging and you are unlikely to get far by rushing along blasting everything in sight. Generally your best bet is to pick off a few enemies at a time, recharge, try not to use that bomb you picked up and repeat. If you attempt to leave the mission area the mothership will come to recharge your shields and refuel you before dropping you off again. That may sound like it removes the challenge but it's not possible on all levels and it's not uncommon to find yourself in the middle of the map, shields heavily depleted and having to protect yourself in Hard Shell mode, the enemy attacks preventing you from getting anywhere near the perimeter.
Unfortunately you may on occasion find yourself in trouble due to problems with the game itself rather than a carefully orchestrated enemy attack. Sometimes you will find yourself bumping against a building that is quite clearly some way to your side. Other times you will hit an object and get stuck to it – although simply transforming the MBS will free you. Neither of these happens often but if you are under attack at the time it's a frustration you could do without.
Should you survive the level you then go up against a tricky boss character: typically large in size, they rain down attacks whilst you struggle to do any kind of damage at all. Though possessing a basic blocky design these metal giants are quite impressive to watch as they walk or fly around. Their attacks change when you do start causing damage and it'll likely take several attempts before you figure out a way to beat them. Still, one of them is called Sparticus, which is cool.
Though you can earn extra lives via bonus stages, you're unlikely to attempt the game in one sitting, and a far more sensible option is to jot down the passwords received after each cleared mission. Depending on your ability there are three difficulty settings to adjust the challenge but once beaten it's not a game suited for a full replay and you’ll likely opt to play a select few missions.
What adds to the replayabiliity of the game is simply the MBS itself and finding new ways to use its abilities, or perhaps handing the controller to someone else and seeing how they tackle the game. On one level you can jump off a platform, transform into the jet and fly across a gap before changing in to the Hard Shell moments before you run out of fuel to land on the platform on the other side. Of course you could just follow the path instead, but where’s the fun in that?
Even on “easy” the game provides a challenge so will keep players occupied for some time. The difficulty can be frustrating, as can an extra long collecting mission, and getting stuck to a building always annoys. There are some visual flaws, and it lacks the cinematic moments found in the previous Super FX games, but the game makes good use of the multiple modes of the Morphing Battle System and has some cracking music. Overall Vortex is an enjoyable gaming experience – assuming you haven't got lost.