Dedicated 2D shoot 'em up fans might represent a small subset of Switch owners, but they've been pretty well catered for. There's a growing roster of brilliant Neo Geo shmups like Aero Fighters 2 for them to call upon, and just recently they were given the rather splendid R-Type Dimensions EX. It's to the latter series, as well as Gradius, that Super Hydorah tips its hat. This is a tough side-scrolling shooter with a pronounced retro aesthetic that evokes Irem's and Konami's late-'80s work.

Anyone who's played a classic shmup should take to Super Hydorah like a duck to water. You pilot a nimble but fragile little spacecraft into battle against an overwhelming – but ultimately predictable – wave of enemy combatants. Returning fire is a simple matter of holding down the B button, which will prompt your craft to spew out an endless stream of bullets. Destroying enemies will cause them to drop coloured collectables, which bolster your main or secondary weapons, or grant you a temporary shield.

So far, so familiar. However, the game differs from its inspiration and offers a hint that it was conceived in the modern age thanks to the way in which it grants you more freedom of expression. This applies to a level select screen that provides a branching choice tree as you progress, a la Star Fox or Out Run, as well as in the levels themselves. From time to time you'll find the constricted tunnels that make up the bulk of Super Hydorah's levels opening out into broader cave systems, and it's up to you to pick your own path through them.

This changes the nature of the challenge in subtle but meaningful ways. Taking the high route might bring you within range of some ceiling-mounted gun turrets, while skimming the murky pools of the surface could expose you to the threat of leaping, spitting squid-like creatures. The middle path may well sound like the safest way to take, but any extra room for manoeuvre you might find there tends to be countered by an omnidirectional threat.

There are also little secrets to find here and there and these reward curiosity. Super Hydorah is undoubtedly a shooter, but it's got a certain exploratory spirit that makes it more appealing to a general crowd. With this sense of liberation comes a greater sense of insecurity, as it's tougher to nail down the precise order of enemy attacks across multiple runs. And believe us when we say you'll be making plenty of attempts. Super Hydorah is tough – especially in Pilot Mode, where just one hit is often enough to rob you of a life and send you back to the beginning of the stage.

Rookie Mode might be the approach to take if you're new to this shooter lark, as it grants you a good few free hits from a regenerating shield. The flip side to making life easier for yourself is a halved score. It's a sensible trade-off because only the hardcore crowd will likely care about climbing the leaderboard.

Another concession to modern gamers and their desire to steer their own path comes from Super Hydorah's weapon system. As you progress through the game you'll unlock new weapon types, but you'll only be able to take a limited selection into battle. Deciding on the most appropriate tools for the forthcoming level – and experimenting with alternatives in subsequent runs – helps mitigate the inherently repetitive nature of the game.

Super Hydorah's enemies, too, have a certain freshness to them. There are creeping vines that require cutting back with your laser fire, bouncing balls that leave behind a mine-like payload when you destroy them and bouncing frog-like creatures that are hard to get a bead on. And that's just covering the first few levels; not wanting to ruin any surprises but the inventiveness is maintained as you battle your way through the game's later stages.

We don't mean to suggest that Super Hydorah is reinventing the shoot 'em up wheel here. It's resolutely an old-fashioned blaster that's clearly standing on the shoulders of giants. But from that elevated position, the developer – one-man team Locomalito, whose utterly superb platformer Cursed Castilla was ported to 3DS not so long ago (it's coming to Switch soon as well) – has spotted a few modern ideas that can be added to this familiar mix, to generally pleasing effect.

Conclusion

This is an old-school 2D shooter that serves as an effective tribute to the classics while successfully managing to inject some fresh ideas of its own. Super Hydorah doesn't reinvent the side-scrolling shmup, but it does kit it out with some cool new gadgets. At $19.99 / £17.49 it's perhaps a little on the pricey side, but fans of the genre will see this as money well spent.