When playing Nighthaw-X3000, two words immediately come to mind: nostalgic and surreal. It’s core mechanics are mostly what you’d expect from a shoot-em-up, but the experience is elevated by its raunchy humor, strange visuals, and groovy soundtrack. It is most certainly proof that an otherwise standard title can be heightened by the way in which it presents itself.
The game gets your attention as soon as you press play. You play as Jack, a pilot who’s suspended for his attitude and sarcasm only to be called back to save Earth. As soon as the first level starts, Jack mouths off to his superiors and is informed that he’ll be suspended yet again. This immediately sets the tone for the game, and it doesn’t let up. Jack will continue to spew funny lines toward the boss of each level, clearly mocking them. Jack is a guy that clearly doesn’t care and is just out to blow stuff up.
This was what had me hooked from the beginning.Another hook was the game’s unique presentation. The graphics immediately lend themselves towards a retro, almost psychedelic experience. If you’ve ever played Hotline Miami, that is probably the best comparison point. The color palette early on shifts in a way that makes the game feel very surreal in a sense, and the pixelated design of the game mix with a pseudo-3D scrolling effect add to that. Adding to that feeling is the incredibly solid soundtrack that fits perfectly into the atmosphere the visual presentation aimed for. With pieces written by artists such as VHS Dreams and Do Nothing Club, the soundtrack has a mix of techno, electric, and disco music. Throw in some corny tidbits such as the screen saying “Wicked” after a good combo or the game declaring “Danger! Danger!” Before reaching the boss, and you can definitely tell this is a game that’s reveling in its own fun.
This completes the retro vibe of this game, and once you hear that soundtrack blend into the visuals you pretty much feel as if it’s the 1984 all over again. It's certainly a game that’s meant to be experienced. The whole time I was playing the game I was both tense at the chaos happening on screen but oddly entranced by the visuals and audio of the game. This is definitely the main strength of the game. I feel like this stylized presentation of the game was the primary focus of its design, and it delivers incredibly well.
In terms of gameplay and mechanics, there isn’t much that really separates Nighthaw-X3000 from other games of the genre. You'll keep the fire button held down and constantly move around to avoid the constant barrage of enemy fire coming at you. You have a dash for evading enemy fire and a turbo mode to provide extra temporary firepower, which you’ll find a godsend at times because the developers definitely nailed the difficult nature of the genre. You’ll also need to know when to use them since both abilities have to be charged up after use. The levels themselves are solid but aren’t very memorable. Aside from the occasional physical barrier, they’re all just various waves and patterns you need to kill and avoid. Oddly enough, I found some parts of the earlier levels to be among the hardest parts of the game, so there isn’t a clear difficulty curve either. The background was the main thing that changed; You go from a sunset sky to a bright blue ocean to a level in space, etc.
If there is a highlight to the game's design, it is most certainly the bosses. While the first feels pretty typical, each one afterwards are well-designed and fun to take on. The biggest factor is the attack patterns; they are challenging yet fair. I died a lot during boss fights but every time I felt like it was an error on my part, not the result of a cheap or overpowered design. At least twice in the game I can remember being on edge during a boss fight, frantically moving around and trying to hit the boss while just one hit away from death. I never got the same tension during the actual levels when I was about to lose. In this way, bosses certainly fill their roles as worthy end-level encounters and are the meat of the gameplay.
Nighthaw-X3000’s primary flaw is the lack of innovative or revolutionary design with its core gameplay, with levels that do little that stand out. It also could’ve been a little longer, having only eight levels that last a few minutes each. Having said that, the presentation is astounding, the music is awesome, the main hero is over-the-top in a very amusing way, and the bosses are incredibly fun to fight. Add in its low cost and co-op, it’s hard to not recommend. Retro-gaming and shmup fans alike should consider giving this a try.