Often it’s believed that longevity equates to quality, and that’s something that I feel needs to be called out as false. The modern age of media has seen a rise in complexity, depth, and run times, especially with video games. The titles that get the attention, the commercials, and often the awards are all massive titles that take anywhere from days to weeks to complete. The growing trend of creating ‘live services’ has also incorrectly crafted a narrative that video games need to be capable of long-term engagement to reach their peak enjoyment. While lengthy and complex games can and often are fun, games like Super Mutant Alien Assault exist to fight for the idea that sometimes, simplicity is best.
Super Mutant Alien Assault on the Switch calls itself a box shooter, and I must agree with the description. Each level takes place on a single, static map, and you have to fulfill your objectives while holding off a wave of monstrous foes looking to destroy you. The core concept is singularly focused and works in the game’s favor. Utilizing a rogue-like structure, the details surrounding your playthrough are randomized. The level, its objective, the enemy types, and even your weapons and power ups change from run to run.
Yet unlike a lot of RNG reliant titles, Super Mutant Alien Assault has a finite number of assets. Levels might appear randomized, but you will come to know their types and objectives quite quickly. Likewise, your extraterrestrial foes only travel in packs of two species, and with only a small number of breeds, you’ll become familiar with each one. I found this to be both a help and a hindrance. On one hand, I became familiar with all the game had to offer, allowing me to utilize my experiences and push myself further. The flip side is that certain combinations can end a run swiftly if you get stuck with them.
Weapons and grenades are limited and are given out randomly. Acquired from special dispensers on the map, what instrument you’re gifted with is inconsistent. Luck is the most important factor here, as the selections are not equal in any way, shape, or form. Certain weapons are useful against all enemies while others are situational at best, and cripplingly weak at worst. With a recharge at the station, being stuck with a bad weapon left me feeling powerless and angry.
However, the true strengths of a run don’t end up coming from your offensive arsenal. As your father or father figure would say, defense wins championships, and Super Mutant Alien Assault has some strong players on the roster. You have four permanent upgrades; sidearms, defense moves, special abilities, and perks. Sidearms give you an infinitely firing weapon that is weaker in battle but can be handy in a pinch. Defense moves allow you to dodge and move around the map safer while special abilities give you a powerful boost at the cost of special ammo received from defeated enemies. Lastly, perks give you a special effect that is mostly passive but no any less helpful.
All these facets come together to create the gameplay, and this is where Super Mutant Alien Assault shines. With its core simplicity, combat revolves around maximizing the usefulness of your acquisitions and keeping the field clear of enemies. Set on 2D levels, simply turn where you want to attack and then do so. Each level lasts only a few minutes, providing a swift pace that minimizes lull. The weapons all have their own quirks that makes improvisation necessary to proceed. With limited ammo, you’ll need to make every shot and swing count to keep the attackers from overwhelming you. The confined space adds to the pressure as well, and I found myself astounded how a small area could create such tension and excitement.
However, not every objective revolves around xenocide. Modes like Pressure and HyperDrive are reliant on environmental interactions. Helping to keep the game fresh, they create just enough chaos to challenge you without becoming cripplingly overwhelming. The developers’ choice of mutating aliens who linger too long and become stronger versions of themselves was another great design. Some creatures become truly obnoxious adversaries that will deplete your health fast.
The strongest feature the game has to offer is unlockables. Only a handful of objectives, aliens, and weapons are available to you at the beginning, putting you at the mercy of the RNG. After every few levels you clear, you’re gifted with an unlockable. Sometimes it means you get a new defense power or the machines vend out new weapon types. Other times, it can unleash a new alien into the game. Most importantly, you can unlock starting powers, letting you choose one of your favorite sidearms, defense powers, special abilities, or perks to start off your run with. This allows you to fill out your stock quicker and gives your a firm starting grip on the chaos of the game.
Visually, the game has a nice retro feel, filled with colorful sprites among stoic backdrops. While things can get lost in an anarchic room, your character never bleeds with the background or enemies. I’ve experienced that flaw in games before, and it has been a massive detriment to my enjoyment.
The biggest negative point I have about the game is that bad weapons and perks can be run killers. Getting stuck with a crap weapon means you need to either fight at a disadvantage or burn through ammo. The small amount of bullets helps speed that up, but it also means you’ll lose powerful guns quickly. Bad upgrades are even more detrimental. The Pulse Belt, for example, was a defense item that I found to be so bad that I would restart runs to avoid having it. I would groan when I got stuck with a crap weapon, and as the game adds more and more types of them, it became rarer to get a string of good firearms.
Now, I will admit that I was unable to get a friend to join me in multiplayer, so it’s possible that some of the weaker items might have had strengths there. Without confirmation, that’s just a speculation, but I feel I needed to state that.
Overall, though, I have to give it props, as Super Mutant Alien Assault is a game that truly surprised me. When I first started it, I thought it would be a repetitive game that would lose my attention quickly. I’m happy to say this couldn’t be further from the truth. The fast pace meant I was able to jump in and out of the game with no problems. For being such a simplistic, the game is quite difficult to master as many of my runs fizzled out quicker than they should. The unlockable system keeps you always a step behind the curve, never giving you a chance to get too comfortable. In the end, Super Mutant Alien Assault is one enjoyable title that I definitely recommend.