When we look back at retro games we often do so with rose-tinted glasses. Some arcade classics, whilst a simple distillation of gameplay, now struggle to stand up to modern-day scrutiny. It is why a lot of retro-inspired games can make history kinder by incorporating modern-day advancements into old school style games. That is exactly why Horizon Shift 81 is such a fantastic experience.
The shoot em up hasn’t had much evolution over the years – in the 2D world we are still shooting things merrily away. I quite like the fact it becomes a hi-score challenge of sorts and test of your metal. Horizon Shift 81 brings along some twists to the genre that are simple but genius. Your ship stays on the horizon but the horizon is often at the centre of the screen. More crucially you can flip your orientation like a mirror and you’ll need to as enemies come at you from both sides of the line.
The horizon isn’t a safety net though. Like the Tempest games, when enemies reach your plain they’ll move around it and you’ll need to either jump over them to avoid them or use your rechargeable boost slide to smash them into pieces. The game then adds asteroids into the mix but if they hit the horizon they break through – thus leaving you with less space to manoeuvre with until its repaired. Then some enemy ships create ripples in the horizon that you’ll have to flip or jump over to avoid. It’s such a simple premise to alter your playing field but Horizon Shift 81 does so much with it. There are even bonus levels where you’ll play breakout!
Boss encounters are fun too. Here the horizon line will often move, or the boss will split and try a double attack from either side. The pace isn’t breakneck but there is always a lot going on so you’ll be on your toes to get to the end. Arcade mode lets you have three lives whereas additional modes reduce it to just one life or increase the game speed up to 150%. You’ll do well to get far on these modes but with arcade mode, if you pass a boss level and die, you can restart the game from that point next time if you wish. Some of your luck of progress will come down to the numerous weapons you can collect. I found that lasers and flamers suited my playing style but I didn’t find any of the weapons poor to use. In a nod to Resogun humans are also falling to the horizon for you to collect. These, along with points bonuses, will boost your bomb meter and whilst you can only have one ready to go at any time, a bomb will get you out of a sticky situation as a last resort.
The graphics are very 1981 but in a good way. You can remove the CRT lines, which I always end up playing with once for fun but then never again. There is also a Tate mode for those of you wanting to play on the vertical TV. I also want to give a special shoutout to the soundtrack which is full of superb chiptunes that sound more like a c64 arrangement than say an 8k track.
(PS4 version bought and tested, also available on PC, Switch)
Horizon Shift '81
Horizon Shift 81 is a superb retro shoot em up. I was genuinely surprised at just how good it was and how it kept throwing new tricks at me throughout its arcade mode. It will take some time to complete (I'm nearly there) but this game deserves plenty of love as a hidden gem in modern-day gaming. It is just dressed in its 1981 finest.
Unique gameplay mechanics explored to their fullest.
Takes all the good stuff from retro gaming and polishes it.
Constantly surprising you with how good it plays and with new ideas.
If you don't like early 80s neon graphics you may overlook this gem.
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