After years of remasters, re-releases and reboots, old-school graphics and tunes don’t quite quicken the pulse like they used to – it’s all been done and redone before. Just Shapes & Beats arrives on Switch ticking all the retro boxes. Chiptune soundtrack? Check. Stripped-back aesthetic evoking arcade classics? Present. A whole bunch of audio-visual references to video game history? Natch. But there’s much more here than just nostalgia and nods.
The concept is beautifully simple. You control a small, squidgy cube with the left stick. Avoiding projectiles and other obstacles that materialise is your singular goal – you won’t be shooting ‘em up. These hazards are choreographed to the music and your only ability beyond basic navigation is a dash move on ‘A’ or ‘B’, which also makes you invulnerable for a split second. This enables you to skip over otherwise unavoidable traps and make speedy getaways.
Developer Berzerk Studio describes it as ‘musical bullet hell’, but bullets are the least of your worries – objects to evade range from simple Euclidean shapes to laser beams, spinning saws, spiralling tentacles and ocean waves made from EQ bars. Outlines or silhouettes appear before the shapes solidify, giving you time to steer away. Later levels introduce novelties like scrolling, but the basic premise remains the same throughout: don’t get hit.
Each level is its own chiptune track from one of the featured artists and they’re divided by checkpoints. A bar shows your progress, so you’ll know when you’re approaching the finish line. Your cube can take two strikes before it shatters and the track rewinds to the last checkpoint. A brief period of invulnerability follows each hit, helping you compose yourself. After three rewinds you’ll see the (excellent) Game Over screen and have to start again.
While we absolutely love the music, even after overindulging on retro-flavoured soundtracks over the past few years, your mileage may vary. It revives our appetite, but if electronic music just isn’t your bag, this won’t win you over – and it’s an utterly integral component. Chiptunes are showcased in their natural habitat and the title theme is a shoo-in for the ‘Catchiest Earworm’ category at the 2018 NL Awards.
Gameplay is split across four modes. Story is a sprightly romp through two dozen songs following your little cube as he makes friends and battles against a toxic nemesis busy infecting the world with pink grime. You travel on a network of nodes through minimalist, stylised zones (island, volcano, industrial), accessing the main levels and collecting triangular trophies to progress. It’s delightfully animated and epitomises the game’s focus on accessible fun rather than the twitching skill suggested by the ‘bullet hell’ label.
Difficulty is increased by occasional Boss Battles which remove checkpoints, although you get more health in these encounters. The avoidance gameplay remains the same – again, this isn’t a shmup. Casual Mode is toggleable at any time in Story and gives you extra health at no penalty. It’s a smart way to ensure the story is enjoyed by as wide an audience as possible while the hardcore can busy themselves in the appropriately named Challenge Run mode. Here you must survive three tracks in a row to earn Beat Points which unlock extra songs. Fulfilling other criteria – ‘Finish a level without dashing’ or ‘Dash 1000 times’, for example – also nets you new tracks. This mode accommodates up to four players with local couch/wifi or online options.
A rescue mechanic comes into play in multiplayer – a downed player can be revived if they’re tagged before drifting off screen. With such simple control inputs – left stick and a button – the game handles perfectly on a single Joy-Con making it very easy to dive in with friends. Keeping track of your shape on a busy screen can be a challenge, especially in tabletop mode, but getting through the tougher songs in co-op mode feels like a real team accomplishment, and the score screen fosters friendly competition with performance grades and stats.
Multiplayer is also available in the final two modes. Predictably, Playlist lets you build your own collection of tracks from the ones you’ve beaten, and Party is the real casual mode, removing all penalties and rewinds. Songs play on a continuous, random loop, and death is but a brief countdown to a respawn.
Beyond the obvious references to Asteroids and other arcade classics, the primary influence here is a far more recent game. Just Shapes & Beats feels like an off-rails, spiritual sequel to the brilliant Super Hexagon (indeed, Chipzel – that game’s composer – is one of the featured artists here). It doesn’t quite trigger the intense anxiety of Terry Cavanagh’s hit, but it’s a bigger, more joyous and accessible experience. The soundtrack has more variety and pep, and the freedom of movement means you usually have multiple ways to avoid danger, but the same beating heart is in there.
The sheer verve of Just Shapes & Beats is infectious. True to its name, the elements are simple, but Berzerk Studio explores and executes on its modest premise with an exceptional level of polish. It injects pure joy into the oppressive, pulsing panic of Super Hexagon and creates a celebratory explosion of the audio-visual in video games. Challenge mode and the hectic multiplayer will keep you occupied after you’ve conquered the refreshingly breezy story. Grab some decent headphones or, better still, some friends and hook your Switch up to the hi-fi. The neighbours will love you.