Review by Jee

"Chess, with....erm, Lots of Bullets"

Mars Matrix is a funny game. I say that because it's one of those games that you have a completely different feeling about the game after a week or so of playing it than you do after playing it for a few days. The way that a Mars Matrix newbie tackles the game and a pro are so vastly different, it's hardly the same game.

You see when you start playing Mars Matrix, the first level is fairly sedate. Sure, there's one or two places where you might get unlucky and not dodge a bullet, but you should get through without too much trouble. Then, you move on to level 2 . . . .

Your jaw will drop as your ship dies time and time again, the screen fills with bullets, and there's supposedly no way out. Your credits are chewed up at an alarming rate, and before you know it, the robotic ''Game Over'' voice is singing your demise. You might get lucky and make it to the third stage, at which point you'll most probably burst out laughing. At times there's literally hundreds of enemy shots, covering about 98% of the screen area.

Yes the highlight of Mars Matrix is it's bullets. Generally, they come in two colours, blue or pink, but there are some exceptions (although not many) in a select few boss encounters. This is for good reason too, as the firepower of your ship is either green or light orange, depending on what ship you choose, but more on that later. For now, back to those bullets.

You see the bullets are all you have to worry about in Mars Matrix. You can't die from contact with enemy ships or terrain. The only way you can die is getting hit by a bullet. Of which there are many. The beauty of the enemy firepower in Mars Matrix is that it comes in many layers. In a typical scene from level 3, you might have one layer of pulsating blue ball fire, slowly curving and arking around the screen in clusters. Then you may have streams of straight cannon fire coming from gun turrets forming a nice grid. While manouvering around this fire, you have to watch out for clusters of fast moving fire sprayed at your ship from other enemies, and smaller but faster moving clusters coming from a nearby cannon. It's beautiful to watch, and even better to play.

But after you learn how to play Mars Matrix, the amount of enemy fire is literally cut in half. By memorising the locations of certain ''spam happy'' enemies, you can take them out before they get a chance to fill the screen with bullets, or even get off any fire at all. Watching a newbie play Mars Matrix, the screen will be filled with bullets for a majority of the time. Watching an experienced player, it might be filled half as much. And watching two experienced players play simultaneously, it will hardly get filled at all.

So there's still a fair bit of dodging to be done, with all those bullets right? Well, not really. You see both of the two ships (called ''Mosquitos'') have an ''Absorption Barrier Mosquito''. By holding down a button, a shield forms around your ship, which sucks in any enemy fire, rendering your ship invunerable. If you hold down the button for long enough, you get a screen clearing bomb. You have to wait for a gauge down the bottom of the screen to fill before you can use the bomb again, but it doesn't take long for the bar to fill. This bomb is the newbie's best friend, but when you discover the true use of the absorption barrier, the bomb becomes redundant.

The real use of the absorption barrier is to suck up the enemy bullets, then fire them back at the enemy. Not only will this only partially deplete your charge bar, but every shot that hits an enemy will result in a gold cube, which powerup your weapon and increase your score. So you can sit on the main cannon of a boss, suck up 300 shots in the space of 2 seconds, fire them back at him, and collect 300 cubes. This does much more damage than using the bomb, and powers up your weapon extremely quickly.

The reason the absorption barrier kills the game though is that it can be abused. You see after using the barrier, there's a small invincibility window, of about one second. When you're in trouble, you can tap the barrier ever so slightly, and gain about 2 seconds of invincibility (one from the barrier starting up, the other from the invicibility frames afterwards). It only takes another few seconds for the gauge to charge up, since you used basically none of it. And then you get your ''2 second invincibility on call'' back. This 2 seconds or so is enough to move through even through the largest clusters of enemy fire unscathed. No matter how many bullets are on screen at one time, you don't have to dodge them thanks to the barrier.

So we come to the main problem in Mars Matrix. From level 4 onwards, there's pretty much too many bullets onscreen to dodge. No matter how good you are, there'll always be places you get stuck, where's there's no gap in the enemy fire to escape from. This makes using the barrier a necessity. However using the barrier takes away 90% of the challenge of the game. So basically, you can play an impossible game by not using the barrier, or a game that's only as fraction as hard as it should be if you use it. The game is no cakewalk by any means. It's still moderatly challenging, and at times a little insane (the last stage, inparticular the last boss, would challenge any gamer). But you get the feeling that it's not as hard as it aims to be.

Apart from this flaw, the rest of the game is great. The graphics are solid. All of the enemies are pretty well drawn, the bosses are huge, and there's many layers of paralax in the background. The game only slows down occassionally, mainly when there's large numbers of gold cubes on the same screen as large amounts of enemy fire, and several things exploding at once. Slowdown is not really an issue, which is a fairly impressive technical achievement considering the large number of bullets on screen at once. A nice touch is that for each of the eight levels of firepower that your ship gains, it changes in appearance. The game isn't going to win any awards for it's visuals though. They get the job done, but Gigawing 2 doesn't have anything to worry about just yet.

The music is pretty good too. It's not going to have you going out to buy the CD, but it certainly suits the game. It's mostly a generic upbeat techno style, but is fairly catchy. There's not really all that many sound effects, but they're pretty well done . There's explosions, and the sound of your ship firing, and a nice ''cling'' when you collect a gold cube. For the reason that there's often many enemies spewing out ridiculous numbers of bullets, the developers wisely chose to make enemy firing silent. This avoids an aural mess, and gives the game an almost spooky silence if you play for a while without shooting. Mars Matrix has no problems in the sound department.

In terms of actual replay value, the game is great as far as shooters go. There's a ''shop'', in which you can ''buy'' certain things using the points you accumulated playing the game. These include the ''newbie challenge reduction'' items, like extra credits (even freeplay mode if you get enough points), more lives per credit, shorter bomb charge times and the like. However you can also buy interesting educational demonstrations of an elite player flawlessly (well almost - he dies once on the last level) doing the game. These are great to learn the basic play mechanics, and really help you improve your game. You can also unlock score challenge modes, which let you take on any level with unlimited lives, and it records your score. Score challenge is also good for educational purposes, as you can learn firepower patterns and enemy locations on new levels without the pressure of having to start over if you make a mistake. Finally, ''interesting tweak features'' like being able to change the background colour, ship colour and an art gallery can be unlocked. You'll be playing this game for a long time before you've unlocked all this stuff.

The weapons are also pretty nice. Each ship only has three really, and these are all available from the start. Mosquito 1 has a wide spread cannon, which is weak at the start, but really becomes fantastic when it's powered up to around level 6 or greater. Mosquito 2 has concentrated beam type fire, which is much more powerful at the lower levels, but isn't nearly as effective powered up as the spread shot of the other ship. Powering up the main weapon is done by collecting gold experience cubes, which appear when an enemy is destroyed. Collecting several in succession chains them together, and the score increase is higher. These chains are the key to powering up your weapon quickly. You keep your current weapon power level when you die, but probably won't see level 7 or 8 until the last level, even if you really know what you're doing.

The ship also has a close range high powered blast, which is actually used for most of the first three levels while your main cannon is extremely weak. It's also quite effective on the bosses. Combined with the absorption barrier (the third weapon), many bosses that seem impossible at first won't even be able to get a shot off at you. It's certainly extremely powerful, but has limited range, so there's an element of risk when using this weapon that keeps it from unbalancing the game.

So is Mars Matrix worth buying? For the extremely low price it's been released at, there's few better purchases one could actually make. It's quite a steal, and I'd even pick it up if it retailed for full price. It's certainly one of the finest shooters on the DC, and one of the more enjoyable shooters I've played in recent years. The reflect shield bumps the challenge of the game down a little more than I'd like, preventing this game from being one of the great shooters of all time. It might be one of the last good 2d shooters we get on the dreamcast (or any system), so if you're even remotely interested in the genre, you should pick up Mars Matrix as soon as possible. It may sound like I've been a little negative in this review, but I really do love Mars Matrix. It's one of the most enjoyable games on the Dreamcast.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 06/24/01, Updated 06/24/01

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