Long before 'bullet hell' shooters became the flavour of the month, Technosoft's Thunder Force series took an almost perverse delight in humiliating players who foolishly believed they had the skills to beat even the toughest shmup challenge. Titles like Thunder Force III, IV and V were the pinnacle of 2D shooting excellence, but their high difficulty level arguably put off just as many players as it attracted, if not more. Still, these are shooters cut from a different cloth; they don't spoon feed you and instead task the player with upping their game to the point where simply surviving feels like a triumph.

Devil Engine may not bear the famous Thunder Force name, but it has certainly been inspired by the dormant shooter series (as well as others, such as SNK's cult classic Last Resort and the seminal R-Type). You take your highly experimental spacecraft and pilot it through six increasingly taxing levels, facing off against waves of enemies as well as bosses of both the 'mid' and 'end of level' variety.

Your craft has three adjustable speed settings (another nod to Thunder Force, although that had four speeds) and three different weapon types which can be changed by picking up the appropriate power-up. Collecting two more of the same power-up will enhance the strength of your current shot, and each one has its own unique 'Bomb' attack.

These are limited in number but, when used wisely, can be immensely destructive – and by taking down enemies and keeping your score multiplier high, you slowly-but-surely fill up a points gauge which, once it reaches 5,000 points, restores a single Bomb attack to your arsenal. Clever players can, therefore, stockpile Bombs throughout each level before using them to take down the boss at the end. You can also claim an extra life by hitting 50,000 points, so it pays to keep that multiplier high.

While three shot types might seem a little basic when compared to titles in the Thunder Force series or the mighty Radiant Silvergun, this trio covers all of the bases. The basic shot (red) is powerful and spreads outwards in a cone-like shape, which ensures you fill most of the screen with your firepower; its Bomb attack is a salvo of missiles which is even more destructive. The laser (blue) has a much narrower distribution but is more powerful, and its Bomb attack deploys two additional craft which add their laser fury to yours. Finally, there's the homing attack (green) which, as you might expect, takes the effort out of aiming but is the weakest of all three weapons. Its Bomb attack fires off homing missiles.

It's tempting to stick with the homing attack, especially as you spend so much of the game focused on avoiding incoming fire. However, each weapon type has its uses in certain parts of the game; the homing shot is too weak to repel waves of foes in open space, but it's perfect for when you're trying to navigate tight, winding corridors and often don't have a clear shot at enemies. Conversely, if you're facing a boss with a small weak spot, then the focused laser is always your best bet.

In addition to all of this, you've got the 'Burst' ability, which allows you to briefly absorb incoming projectiles. This feature is perhaps the most unique element of Devil Engine, and the single aspect which makes the game stand out against the titles it seeks so hard to emulate. Hitting the Y button (or the ZR trigger, which we found was easier during intense play) deploys a small vortex which draws in enemy fire. The more bullets you suck in, the higher your score multiplier leaps up, which – when you're not chasing a high score and simply want to survive to see as much of the game as possible – initially seems like as godsend.

However, you won't want to spam this ability too much, because your score is vital when it comes to using Burst effectively and (as we're already explained) restocking Bombs. The higher your score multiplier, the larger the vortex that is deployed when you execute the Burst command, but using Burst resets your multiplier completely, so there's a definite 'risk and reward' element to the system. There's no point in using Burst to suck in a small number of projectiles when you can just as easily navigate around them and retain that precious score multiplier; it's best used as a last resort in those tight spots where there is seemingly no clean route through the incoming hail of bullets. Knowing when – and how – to best use Burst is one of Devil Engine's most rewarding challenges (ProTip: Burst can also be used to change a weapon power-up icon into a different weapon type).

And it's a challenge that takes time. While Devil Engine has a tutorial which explains its mechanics, there's a high chance that your first game will be borderline embarrassing – and with good reason. You're automatically thrust in 'Hard' mode on your debut; it's only after your first play that 'Easy' mode is unlocked, and even that's not a walk in the park. However, by giving you a brief taste of its most challenging mode, Devil Engine does at least give you something to mentally aim for; you know that picking 'Easy' is a cop-out, and as your skills increase so to does your ambition to return to 'Hard' mode and prove your talent.

Devil Engine hides other aspects behind unlocks, too. As you play, the game keeps track of your total, lifetime score, and features such as extra continues, ships, music tracks and stages are made available as you play. There are even options to change what enemy bullets look like, add a defined hitbox around your ship and overlay filters on the screen, such as CRT-style scanlines. You also unlock special challenges which usually have a set objective (such as destroying waves of enemies without any of them escaping, or simply surviving against a seemingly impossible onslaught) and provide a stern test of your reactions.

This drip-feed of content ensures that your interest remains high even after repeated defeats, and encourages you to keep playing even in the face of abject failure. It's also a clever mechanic which keeps you playing and – as time goes on – improving your skills. Had Devil Engine simply offered an old-school 'Git Gud' approach then most players would lose interest; instead, it offers an approach which maintains interest, even if you're a novice to the genre. This also makes up for the lack of online leaderboards, which would have done much to extend the game's longevity.

In terms of presentation, Devil Engine does a fantastic job of mixing a wide range of influences and inspirations together; the alien armada in the background of level one is pure R-Type, while the snake-like enemy in level three reminds us of a similar-looking foe in Thunder Force V. Another level is a dead-ringer for Strite, a stage from Thunder Force IV. Heck, even the main menu even calls to mind the intro to Sol-Feace on the Mega CD, although this may not have been intentional on the part of the developers.

While 32-bit shooters are cited as a reference point by the team behind the game, the grainy, chequerboard shading used made us think of titles on Japanese personal computers, like the PC-88. Regardless of where its influences happen to come from, Devil Engine looks fantastic and sounds great, too – it has an incredible soundtrack which features contributions from Hyakutaro Tsukumo, who wrote the music for Thunder Force V on the Saturn and PlayStation. The vast majority of the music is composed by UK artist Qwesta, and mixes screeching guitars with jazz elements, making it perfectly suited for the frantic tone of the on-screen action. It also nails the trademark 'Technosoft' sound so well that you'd swear it was ripped from a pre-existing Thunder Force outing.

On one final note, playing Devil Engine with the Joy-Con analog stick is fine, but you're better off using the Switch Pro Controller or the Hori D-Pad Joy-Con. A proper D-pad is a must for a game like this.

Conclusion

It seems almost customary to include the phrase 'Not for everyone' in any review of a niche genre game, and while that certainly applies to Devil Engine, it has at least been designed in a way that encourages even the weakest players to keep trying and learn from their mistakes. The drip-feed of content is an effective incentive to pick yourself up and have just one more go, and although it is at times brutally difficult – even when compared to other tricky 2D shooters – it has the depth and variety to maintain your interest, and when you're at a competent level it's a heck of a lot of fun. The lack of online leaderboards goes against it, but if you're a fan of this style of game – and you're crying out for a title in the Thunder Force vein – then Devil Engine is well worth a look.