The recent trend of resurrecting long-ceased shoot-em-up IPs from the dead, usually when the original developer has shuffled off its electronic coil, is a welcome one. M2 revived Aleste, Platinum Games reanimated the Crestas, and now small indie outfit Picorinne Soft — comprised of brothers Ryo and Satto — has ventured a sequel to Visco’s Andro Dunos, a largely forgotten, Hellfire-inspired Neo Geo shoot-em-up from 1992.
Despite stellar work, Picorinne Soft’s Steam, Dreamcast, and recent ex-A Arcadia releases remain relatively underground. While Andro Dunos II carries over its forebear’s ship and Hellfire-style weapon system, everything else is so vastly improved and expanded upon, that it bears only scant resemblance to the original game. It’s so different, in fact, that Visco’s IP seems like little more than a Trojan horse to gain them wider recognition. This, as it turns out, is an all-round win.
Anyone who grew up with arcade games will know within the first 30 seconds that something here is very right. Your retro gaming faculties sing like a sixth-sense, recollecting ten-pence coin drops and control panel cigarette burns as stage one’s wonderful indoor space city, barricaded by steel walls and zipping skyscrapers, opens up before you. Within minutes you ascend outside of its confines to a scorched-earth desert that echoes the starker element’s of Zoom’s Phalanx and Taito’s Metal Black.
From there, the creativity goes supernova, using almost every shoot-em-up convention one can think of, from attacks on mobile tanks to a thrilling mothership boss rush that throws up seemingly bottomless invention. There are moments where maps flash up, showing you a route before you race through tunnels, not dissimilar to the Mega Drive’s Aero Blasters; elsewhere, twinkling interplanetary cityscapes carpet the background before you plunge inside laser riddled techno-compounds. An ever-changing sci-fi spectacle, it completely holds its form over a reasonable difficulty curve from one blistering moment to the next, pacing itself as it drives toward increasingly epic new heights. If Gradius V was a 2D arcade game, it would probably be something like this.
Initially very easy — and all the more encouraging for it — it’s hard to overstate how precisely the brothers have captured the gaming traits of yesteryear. While visually a nigh-on perfect facsimile of '90s arcade software, the aesthetic is compounded by an exemplary soundtrack from Britain’s Allister Brimble, who has been composing since the Amiga and Spectrum days. His punchy, spacey themes drive the adrenaline with classic chords and evocative synth in a superior fusion of Eastern design ethics and Western musical composition.
Your little orange Jetsons-like craft, recalling '50s cars of the future, comes with four stock weapons that can be cycled freely. ‘S’ icons power up whichever weapon is currently in use, incrementally increasing in strength up to seven times. In the event of a death, conversely, weapon power is decreased by a value of one. There are also missile and shield icons that bolster the power of your secondary weapons and defensive options.
During play, blue orbs dropped by destroyed enemies can be swept up before floating off-screen. Collecting all 30 orbs in a stage allows a total of three upgrades to be applied during the between-stage interval. While the mechanics seem simple on the surface, one soon realises that there’s a carefully structured economy at play that boasts a wealth of experimental freedom. This is tied expertly and exactingly to the crafting of the stages, their enemies and threats.
Choosing which weapons suit you best and focussing on powering them up is a common first instinct, although ultimately it’s a race to get your entire arsenal maxed out as quickly as possible. This can be done in a variety of ways, from focussing on a single forerunner to spreading your upgrades evenly across the board. Integral to all of this, is each weapon’s ability to go hyper in four unique expulsions, blasting out a few seconds of heavy-duty firepower before dropping into a brief recharge period where your shot is temporarily reduced in power — a small penalty for otherwise unlimited usage. To combat this, you can switch to any of the other three weapons instead, placing emphasis on cycling your arms with the shoulder buttons.
Not only is each weapon unique — some firing behind, some touting power over range — but so are their hyper attributes. Learning to use the right weapon at the right time becomes integral from around stage five onward, with many hyper attacks helping to clear threats from above and below, wiping out busy boss attacks, and even nullifying incoming bullets. Timing, of course, is key.
As you learn the early stages and their bosses, it’s hugely fun to map out your strategies, snatch all those blue orbs, and let rip at giant enemies and popcorn fleets with your hyper attacks. The controls are taut and tactile, and the horizontal format allows plenty of room to breathe and manoeuvre. It feels great to juggle everything in tandem, unleashing hell on alien hordes to Brimble’s fantastic toe-tapping themes.
Bosses are particularly inventive too, impressively dwarfing, with multiple destructible parts and a vast library of exciting attacks to navigate. Whether facing off against monstrous aquatic nemeses or bomb spraying destroyers, there’s rarely a dull moment.
There are plenty of continues available, but if you’re playing it 'properly' you should really only be using one. That said, continues obviously enable you to reach subsequent stages and then have them added to the practice mode’s roster: an all important feature in combating the increasing difficulty curve.
While Andros Dunos II resembles long lost arcade-era magnificence, there are still a few imperfections. It’s only one-player — so no teaming up — and the lack of scanline filters is disappointing, especially in a game that looks and feels this arcade accurate. Elsewhere, being able to change or even turn off the random stock wallpapers would have been nice, and you aren’t able to stretch the display either, but that’s probably for the best.
The worst of it is the inability to remap the shoulder buttons, hampering one’s ability to use different controllers. For example, with 'L' and 'R' permanently locked for weapon cycling, you may well find yourself performing finger-gymnastics on an arcade stick, depending on its layout. This would be less of an issue if weapon cycling wasn’t so integral and didn’t require such regular use, but as it stands it’s a small but rather limiting oversight.
Minor gripes aside, if someone told you Andro Dunos II was a long lost relic of a bygone era rather than a 2022 release — and a salient example of the genre with it — you would honestly be none the wiser. To that end, it will likely be far better regarded 30 years from now than Visco’s original title.
Andro Dunos II is a resounding success. That a small indie developer can bat alongside the likes of M2 and Platinum and, honestly, with greater overall success, is always uplifting. Further inspiring, is how — superficial IP notwithstanding — it manages to be so utterly exacting to arcade standards of the '90s, and at the same time feel breathtakingly original. Its craftsmanship, from weapon negotiations and experimentation, to the way each stage is cleverly built to aid a variety of approaches and play styles, is top notch. Andro Dunos II looks good, sounds great, and plays wonderfully.