Mini Squadron delivers an explosive aerial shooter

Posted: November 18, 2009 in Shooter

The iPhone/iPod Touch platform is aimed at the casual gaming audience who primarily enjoy pick-up-and-play types of games with a low learning curve. Typically, this becomes a juggling act for devs who also want to serve the more advanced gamers as well. The 2D aerial shooter Mini Squadron is one of those games that not only gives the casual gamer a terrific experience, but provides enough to those of us who want a little more entertainment as well. In fact, I’m almost tempted to say that this is one of the best games this year simply because it should appeal to audiences across the board.

Admittedly, when you first look at this shooter, it’s a rather ho-hum visual experience that lulls you into a sense of gaming complacency. Don’t get me wrong, the cartoony graphics and animations are a wonderful part of Mini Squadron. But even with its vibrantly colorful backdrops and eye-catching planes, you’re thinking that the gameplay would be mundane. Ah, but that’s where you’d be wrong, and in a way, that’s the genius behind Mini Squadron.

The 2D graphics zip along pretty well, and the explosions and whirring engines of aerial vehicles provides just the right touch of ambience. Now, this is typical of what you would expect from a decent or even good casual game in the iTunes store. Where Mini Squadron sets itself apart is the gameplay which frankly is some of the most intense you’ll come across. The genius here is that it’s provided in a 2D environment that delivers all the flair, charm and most importantly addictiveness that you probably wouldn’t find in more elaborately developed games.

Along the way, you’re accompanied by a classical music soundtrack that does a nice job countering the extreme air battles. In addition to the cartoony violence, an elfin voice serves as your little buddy announcing the various power ups that come into play as well as your demise as you crash and burn.

Mini Squadron has 8 levels of combat beginning at Duck Island with subsequent battles at places such as Face Land, Knobbly Coast, Lunar Sea, Sunset Lagoon, Jungle Massive, and Devil’s Dustbowl. Each level has present 12 attack waves that must be cleared before unlocking the next battle location. And that’s quite the chore since there are a multitude of enemy fighters, bombers, UFOs and even ducks.

The controls consist of a virtual joystick and a fire button, which work perfectly. The game also includes a sensitivity option for the joystick which I recommend adjusting down for better handling and steering—the default setting is way too sensitive. The controls work amazingly well, allowing you to pursue enemies as well as perform loops in the heat of battle.

The game boasts 56 different planes that can be unlocked. Each plane has different attributes from design and weapons to speed and handling. With planes named Buccaneer, Barney, and Gecko, you know you’re in for some fun. And, you can switch back and forth between planes you’ve unlocked.

Of course, power ups appear in the form of flashing colored stars, and acquiring them can be interesting. These power ups provide a variety of weapons upgrades such as Homing Missile, Drop Bomb, Air Strike, Laser and Big Laser. Additional power ups include invisibility (ghost), speed boost, health, and invincibility.

Mini Squadron has a checkpoint system for saving game progress which after completing every 3 attack waves. The game does keep track of the last wave completed, but you’ll want to be careful about accidentally hitting the restart which is located dangerously close by especially for those with larger fingers.

If you’re not drawn in by the graphics and animation, then the gameplay surely will. Besides zipping around, you also have to be careful about flying too high or too low. Initially, this was a turn off for me, but the top of screen turn blacks when you reach the edge of the environment. After playing this a bit, what you realize is that planes will stall if they fly too high, thus causing them to nosedive and crash. So the limited real estate is a good trade off. Additionally, since the real estate is limited, your plane will bounce off the sides of the screen. This adds a nice element of challenge since other games typically will allow an object to travel off one side and reappear on the other side which I generally don’t like.

The difficulty level is definitely a strong point since enemies do a good job of attacking and evading. A counter appears at the top that shows the remaining number of enemies, and while your plane can take its share of hits, you only get 3 lives to make it through a level unless a health power up is acquired. Taking down an enemy takes several shots, but you’ll spend a bulk of your time dodging enemy fire. From streams of smoke to flying parts, Mini Squadron is as fun to watch as it is to play as the devs did a good job of illustrating damage. And, if you hit an enemy several times consequently, a scoring multiplier jacks up your score.

The game’s controls really are very fluid, and while you can loop your plane and perform dangerous maneuvers, enemies can also do the same. Often, they will steer and loop to stay out of your line of fire which offers the right amount of challenge. Arrow indicators appear along the sides of the screen to show the location of enemies as well as power ups. Catching power ups is not as easy as it seems since they float in all directions, and you have to be cognizant of stalling or hitting the surface. Initially, shooting in all directions will likely hit a target, but as you progress, enemies gradually become faster and more nimble.

The crashes are spectacular in a miniature kind of way with explosions and screen shaking to boot. For some, the screen shaking can be a distraction since it also comes about when an air strike is initiated. A nice touch is when you’re shot down and a splash screen tells you the name of who caused your fiery crash. It doesn’t serve any particular purpose, but it certainly adds flavor to the game.

Where the game lacks is in the tutorial department. Upon playing the game the first time, I had no idea what the flashing stars were or even that my plane could stall. In the scheme of things, it’s a small oversight since many will be able to quickly pick up this game. Right now, Mini Squadron offers only local wi-fi play which is unfortunate, and has only local high scores. Both of these are not deal breakers by any means, but would further strengthen the replay value.

Overall, Mini Squadron exceeds my expectations and should do the same for many others as well. For casual gamers and those more advanced, this is really offers the best of both worlds, and you don’t need an elfin voice to tell you that.

Albie Meter: 4.5 Stars (awesome shooter that isn’t just fun, it’s addictive; good production values along with a large number of unlockable planes; gameplay is designed for short, intense sessions, but flexible enough for longer play; checkpoint save system at every 3 attack waves; lack of tutorial and online scoring; local wi-fi only)

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