The shmup has been a gaming staple for decades, and it has found something of a welcome new home on Nintendo Switch with many a retro port and and a fair few modern throwbacks nestling in the warmth of its hybrid bosom. Revived indie twin-stick affair Black Hole falls comfortably into the latter, but does its bullet hell in space gimmick offer anything new in a genre that’s long been stuck inside its own vacuum?
The short answer is no, but it’s still an enjoyable attempt to capture the ‘pick up and play’ ethos that made the shoot ’em up such a classic to begin with. Once designed for defunct platform Ouya and the Android-based ForgeTV, this modern shooter feels instantly at home on Switch. The use of HD Rumble makes every collision with an asteroid or an enemy projectile that bit more tactile, and it runs buttery smooth in both handheld and tabletop modes, with barely any drop in frames.
There’s also support for touchscreen controls, but they’re unresponsive at best and are ultimately deemed pointless when you’ve got two perfectly good (and, more importantly, responsive) analog sticks right next to them. The same applies to the game’s use of motion-based controls - you’ve got to applaud the developer for attempting to include so many control schemes in one package, but none them feel responsive enough to justify their existence.
With a more traditional set of sticks, Black Hole’s big twist on the classic shmup setup is the presence of the titular gravitational phenomenon, which adds a rotational force that constantly drags you and other items on screen around if left unattended. It’s a neat little concept, one that requires you to evade asteroids and collect glowing space crystals while fighting an ever-present resistance. Those little pickups - handily broken up into different colours - each come with a different reward. Green ones replenish your health wheel, blue ones offer a short window of shield, white ones increase your overall score and yellow ones can be spent on upgrades for your ship between levels.
It’s a rewarding combination of long-term and short-term payoff as you try to rack up that final score and rise up the leaderboard while attempting to grab as many yellow ones to increase your spending choices. Being able to upgrade everything from the spread of your fire, to armour, speed and secondary weapons adds a strong incentive to chase down this collectible currency, while risking losing it all within the chaos of asteroids that blow apart into debris and the myriad enemies that attack in waves.
The upgrade system does mean the three ships you can choose from all feel quite samey during the first two or three levels, but thankfully that early slog soon falls away once you invest in the right places. There is a caveat though - these upgrades only last as long as your set of lives, so should you burn through them all every upgrade will be lost. It might seem harsh, but levels can be blasted through so quickly that the feedback loop of shooting through levels to upgrade never feels overtly unfair if you have to start over.
The inclusion of a speedrun mode will appeal to those who can’t play any game without a clock running somewhere, while the addition of a handy Colourblind mode is a welcoming touch. Much like Portal-esque puzzle shooter ChromaGun, it’s comforting to see developers making concessions for players who wouldn’t normally be able to distinguish between on-screen colours. The use of letters instead of colours can sometimes be a little difficult to make out in handheld mode, but it’s an empowering feature nonetheless.
Considering the fixed-screen nature of Black Hole, the lack of any co-op support is a glaring omission. With the valuable use of stardust crystals and the overall high score chasing nature of the game, it seems bizarre not to include some sort of co-op or competitive mode where two or more players enter the fray. Each level would be no less chaotic in action, so it’s genuinely baffling to limit its own remit to single-player only. With 40 levels to play through, there’s plenty for that one player to enjoy, but this shmup could have added another dimensional string to its bow with support for multiplayer.
Black Hole’s intense shmup action feels far more suited to Nintendo Switch than its previous platforms, and the gravitational mechanic makes for a cool twist on a well-worn formula. It’s a solid little shooter for one player to blast through with twin-sticks at the ready, it’s just a shame there’s no support for local couchplay to go along with its litany of customisable options.