Inventor. Innovator. Champion of the Earth. The history books appear to have glossed over the time Nikola Tesla waged a one man war against Emperor Zangorax and his legions of aliens from Mars. Teslapunk is a goofy, tongue-in-cheek shmup that puts the player inside a small, Victorian-era spaceship to do battle against a myriad of alien crafts. From snub fighters to massive battleships, Tesla must duck and weave through intricate bullet patterns in a quest to prevent the extinction of humanity.
Teslapunk is built on the basic tenets of a classic shoot-‘em-up genre. Presented in the vertical scrolling format, you’ll dart across the screen, blowing up a mess of enemy targets while dodging bullets and random obstacles. Tesla’s ship has two fire modes: a basic, wide spread bullet attack, and a beam weapon that does significant damage at the expense of ship mobility. Staying alive involves effective use of both attacks, analyzing patterns in enemy movements, and seeking windows of opportunity. Destroyed targets drop energy cubes that supply ammo for a special screen-clearing attack that cancels out all on-screen enemy bullets, increases attack damage without slowing the ship down, and increasing the score modifier for every bullet canceled out. As a bonus, if your ship is hit by a bullet while the special attack meter is full, the damage will be absorbed. Despite the enormity of the enemy fighters and the staggering intricacy of bullet patterns, you’ll only have to concern yourself with protecting a small green dot -- the ship’s cockpit and primary hitbox -- from getting attacked. Generous by design, it goes a long way to help keep a cool head during the more chaotic stages.
There are two gameplay modes in Teslapunk. Arcade functions as the story mode, where you’ll play through a series of increasingly difficult levels set in strange and interesting environments. To add in a bit of old school flair, you’re given a small number of continues to spend after all lives are used up. Burn through those continues and you’ll have to start over from stage 1. Arcade includes a set of objectives, referred here as “Missions,” that require some skill to complete. These missions include cancelling out 5,000 bullets, reach a score of eight million points or higher, and reach certain multiplier thresholds.
The Survival mode is the most fascinating. In a strange hybrid of endless runners and clicker games, this mode puts you on a one way track down a path filled with rows of randomly generated enemies. Instead of energy cubes, shooting these enemies causes them to drop coins in values of one and ten. The game is over if your ship is hit once, be it from a bullet or by slamming into an enemy ship. A shop is accessible from the game over screen where you can spend coins to upgrade the ship and give it a better frame and weapons, a smaller hitbox, special shields, and other items to aid in longevity. You’ll then take your upgraded ship and go farther and farther, encountering tougher rows that require more firepower to destroy. It’s weird, but it’s also a surprising amount of fun in its addictiveness.
Teslapunk’s content makes up for its artistic shortcomings. A modest looking game, it doesn’t offer the eye popping visuals of other shmups like Sine Mora and Ikaruga. To be honest, it’s even a little ugly at times and the frequent spelling errors don’t really help, though I did like the silly on-screen messages from Emperor Zangorax. His taunts and diatribes are entertaining and worth a few chuckles, though they are wasted in a game that requires absolute concentration. Given the number of bullets and obstacles on screen at any given time, sparing the odd glance away from the action is a foolish mistake. The content would be better served as vignette material for those quiet moments in between stages.
If you’re looking for a fun, “waste the hours away” kind of game, Teslapunk is a good get for its price tag. Though it lacks the frills, gimmicks, and window dressings of popular shmups it’s still surprisingly fun for its price. Between the Arcade mode and the quirky “weird but it works” Survival mode, there’s enough content to satisfy shmup fans of every interest level. Also, you’ll get to explore a little known part of American history. You thought Nikola Tesla was only good for alternating current and being represented by David Bowie? Wrong.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.