Squad 51 vs. the Flying Saucers may get its inspiration from terrible 50s B-movies, but it’s far closer to Hollywood than it is to the bargain bin.
I’m not a big fan of bullet-hell shooters, often finding that they’re much too hard for me and that they’re often just interested in making the screen as much of a nightmare to navigate as possible. But I do enjoy their cousin the shoot ‘em up; that ancient genre that tends to be slower paced and have far less going on on-screen at once. I’m still terrible at them, but I find the focus is more on the shooting and less on navigating a tiny path through swarms of shots. I’d recently come across Squad 51 vs. the Flying Saucers on Steam and have been giving the Xbox release a go to see how it fares in this fairly crowded genre.
The first thing you notice upon starting the game, and the thing that immediately attracted me to it, is just how awesome it looks. That 50s movie style is incredibly well done and permeates every element of the game. The cutscenes are played in the campiest way, with scenery-chewing acting combined with ludicrously cheap-looking costumes, UFOs that are clearly being held up by string, and basic special effects. There’s even that film grain effect that you’d see in classic movies from seventy years ago.
That alone is a serious commitment to the game’s aesthetic, but the fact that it transitions so well to the gameplay’s presentation is incredible. Every stage could pass for an action scene in a B-movie if not for the scrolling camera. The aliens you shoot down look like they’re being held up by someone just off camera, and the scenery looks like it’s made out of wood or polystyrene. I’m genuinely impressed with how well the development team has committed to their vision for this game. I really can’t think of another game that has such a unique art style presented quite so well.
So, there’s been a lot of mention of aliens, and this wouldn’t be a 50s B-movie if it didn’t have aliens, robots, or some bizarre slime monster in it. Squad 51 vs. the Flying Saucers has a plot centred on aliens having arrived on Earth and seemingly integrating with society, only for them to take over in time, their goal being to take more and more freedoms from humans. The titular Squad 51 take to the skies to overthrow this oppressive regime by force. It’s a simple plot, as is to be expected considering the theme, but it does what it’s supposed to. Honestly, the story wasn’t of much interest and provided little in the way of twists and turns, although watching the cutscenes is fun due to all of the silliness.
All that presentation talk is important because it is a main focus of the game. But, that said, in reality, it’s the gameplay that will decide whether you want to stick around once the visual lustre has lost its initial impact. Luckily, Squad 51 vs. the Flying Saucers does pretty well here. In all honesty, it works like pretty much any side-scrolling shooter. Enemies will pop onto the screen and either shoot at you or fly straight for you. Shooting them down or taking damage is the order of the day.
Enemy variety is plentiful, ranging from regular UFOs that fly and shoot at you, through to ground-based turrets and giant lizard monsters. You’ll always come across something new through each of the eleven levels, many of which also include unique bosses that present individual challenges to overcome. I particularly liked the occasional escape sequence where you’d dodge environmental hazards to make it out of a collapsing area. These felt especially cinematic when you escape the first time.
Earning points unlocks more power-up slots on your aircraft. Initially, you can only select a few options for a limited number of slots, such as additional lives or a super weapon, but the more you play, the more you’ll have available. They aren’t all that thrilling if I’m honest, with many of the bonuses reducing impact damage or increasing weapon fire rate. There are a few different super weapons to choose from though, from missiles to flamethrowers, so there’s some variety here.
The real downside is that, surprisingly for a shoot ‘em up, the campaign is over pretty quickly. You can be done with this in just a couple of hours, and unless you’re a high-score chaser, there isn’t really a lot of reason to go back and play again. Getting three stars on every stage is a nice goal to have, but it’s not something a lot of players will be keen on. There’s a two-player co-op mode to play through, which is a lovely addition in this modern era of online multiplayer, but you’re simply playing through the story again. There’s also a Resistance mode, that loops the game for as long as you can survive. A nice addition, but it doesn’t change the game really. I realise that complaining about a shoot ‘em up being short is a little redundant for the genre, but a lot of games offer remixed modes or different unlocks to acquire for subsequent playthroughs, and that’s noticeably absent here.
But that’s arguably a minor complaint. Judging it solely on its own merits, Squad 51 vs. the Flying Saucers is a very enjoyable shoot ‘em up with an utterly unique wrapper. Whilst the gameplay doesn’t offer anything particularly new, the brief campaign plays into this by not outstaying its welcome and keeping things hugely entertaining with that wonderful aesthetic. Whilst it may not always soar, it certainly maintains a steady flight.