Review by Kakihara
Whine if you must about the Dreamcast's lack of RPGs or Sega's penchant for porting virtually every arcade game of the time to their system, but you can shove it up your ass when it comes to its shooters. While not as expansive as the Saturn's or Genesis', the Dreamcast's line-up of blasters is absolutely phenomenal, made up of some of the very best the genre has to offer. Takumi, who released the worst of the bunch (Giga Wing 1 and 2), also happen to be responsible for perhaps the creme of the crop: the bullet-hell, vertical-scrolling nightmare simply known as Mars Matrix.
The lightly touched on story revolves around a shackled Mars revolting from its rulers, Earth. Earth deploys you to crush this rebellion, outfitting you in one of two ships, Mosquito 1 or Mosquito 2. The former is equipped with a fairly wide spread shot, the latter with straight forward gunfire and superior speed. Both also come strapped with a short-ranged, but very powerful, piercing cannon and the absorption barrier mosquito. When your gauge is full, using this mosquito technique will suck in all enemy fire and, with a bit of deft aiming, hurl them back toward those dirty rebels. You may also drain the gauge entirely to unleash the ruthless gravity hole bomb.
Takumi obviously has a hard-on for really ****ty names, but before you're even able to wrap your head around the nerdery of 'absorption barrier mosquito,' your ship will probably have exploded. There are absolutely no walls or meteor rocks to maneuver around in Mars Matrix, nor will touching enemies kill you, or even strip you of any weapons. Instead, you face off against bullets. Lots of bullets. Millions of bullets. Lines of bullets, waves of bullets, nets of **********ing bullets. The only time your TV screen won't be soaked with bright blue or neon pink enemy fire is when your score is being tallied up at the end of each level - and you'll only ever see that with a little miracle work.
Okay, so that's not entirely accurate - the first two levels only seem to spit a couple hundred thousand bullets in your face. But Mars Matrix does go ape**** on you, sodomizing you with bright-colored dots from beginning to end. (Your end.) The game walks that line of impossibility, and yet, it's not impossible. Hell, Takumi even includes strategy videos for you to unlock that display the talents of some super-nerd beating all but the last stage without dying once. It's absolutely nuts.
Most of this seems so overwhelming because the absorption barrier mosquito is much harder to use effectively than you'd think. You have to know when to use it, how much of the gauge to drain and to whom you'll make eat their own bullets. To call this demanding would be a serious ****in' understatement. But the stages are properly set up for you to take out a few tanks with your basic shot here, unleash the piercing cannon on a battlecruiser there and pull in gunfire when their dozens of replacements arrive. Your mosquito gauge fills up fairly quickly, too, so you're never really caught with your **** hanging out in wind. You're also given much leeway with your tiny hitbox, and though the later levels churn out more than enough bullets to frighten all the insurgents and soldiers currently in Iraq, you're able to level up your standard shot to respectable power by collecting enough of the gold cubes each destroyed enemy generates.
Mars Matrix takes very strict dedication to overcome, something even the more diehard shooter fanatics might not have the patience for. The bullet patterns, while not unfairly laid out, are cruel and never-ending. (And while you'll probably be too busy choking on them to notice, they are very carefully and stylishly presented - real detail and thought was put behind every web of gunfire.) But you do feel as if progress is being made with each play. Takumi implemented a shop, letting you purchase everything from strategy videos and extra lives, to the options of toying around with background and ship colors or the speed of your ship and its mosquito gauge. I might not be able to top some forum dork's obscene hi-score, but I still feel as if I'm accomplishing something.
And I'd really feel accomplished if I were able to open up an option that makes the game look attractive. While Mars Matrix has some super-slick menus and a nice, almost cold, atmosphere, it was still coded on an outdated arcade board. Bullets are colorful, but the rest of the game looks washed-out; some bosses fill up the entire freakin' screen, but animation is limited; explosions are expansive, but hardly detailed. The design suffers, too - no wacked-out characters, no intimidating enemies, no memorable backgrounds. Plenty of large machinery and tanks and warcrafts and every other space shooter staples you can think of. The laid-back techno soundtrack works wonders, though: subtle but still loud, with skittish synth keys and voice samples all over these tracks.
At six stages, the game does seem a bit brief, but you won't see the end without incredible skill (well, that or credit feeding), and with an arranged mode and options to tinker with the mechanics, the longevity is out of this world. Mars Matrix is a chaotic shooter, messy but concentrated, battering you with slab after slab of gunfire. But there's some great fun in this cruelty, delicately weaving through expansive fields of bullets, mastering the tricky absorption barrier mosquito and unlocking dozens of genuinely rad features. Mars Matrix will leave everybody's thumbs bleeding, no doubt, but it's a pain well worth tolerating for such excellence.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 05/26/01, Updated 06/08/04
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