If Housemarque has proven anything in its 22 years crafting modern-day arcade classics, it’s that it has exceptional taste in games. Super Stardust cribbed gleefully from Asteroids, while Super Stardust HD folded a little Robotron into the mix, and Resogun – perhaps Housemarque’s most widely played game to date – did a more than passable impersonation of Defender. Hot on the heels of Nex Machina, Housemarque’s collaboration with Defender and Robotron creator Eugene Jarvis, comes PlayStation 4 exclusive Matterfall, which sees the developer looking beyond the chaos and charisma of the 80s arcade for inspiration
This is, in short, Housemarque’s take on Gunstar Heroes; an explosive side-scrolling platformer where firepower is everything. It’s much more than that, though – a thoughtful hybrid of Housemarque’s own style with that of Gunstar Heroes’ esteemed (and sadly AWOL) developer Treasure, Matterfall emerges as very much its own thing. And that thing can feel very special indeed.
Matterfall retains the twin-stick set-up of Housemarque’s arcade fare and transposes it neatly into a side-scroller. You’re free to shoot in any direction you desire, your jumps mapped to a shoulder button alongside a handy dash that describes an electric blue streak on-screen, stunning any enemies in its path. Combine that with a separate matter gun, mapped to another of the shoulder buttons and one that brings form to translucent platforms while also detonating matter bombs that are occasionally left in downed enemies’ wake, and you have a simple yet effective vocabulary with which you can wreak havoc.
And what havoc it is. Matterfall works that relatively slim moveset into a song of fireworks and fury, all told in abundant showers of exploding voxels and tied together by the pursuit of a high score. Enemies are many-flavoured and tend to come in thick waves, often seemingly out of nowhere. Matterfall’s magic is in how it empowers you just when you feel you’re about to be overcome, and how a screenful of enemies can be turned, with a well-timed dash and an opportune appearance of a matter bomb, into a chain of glorious explosions. It feels heavenly.
All this is united by a sense of purposefulness borrowed from the action game’s absent master. Housemarque already showed it had a love for classic Treasure with 2011’s Outland, an enjoyable appropriation of Ikaruga’s polarity fed into a Metroid-lite action game. Gunstar Heroes is the obvious comparison when it comes to Matterfall, but a more fitting one might well be Alien Soldier, Treasure’s lesser-played and more outrageous follow-up. There’s that same insatiable desire to push the action to ludicrous heights, to nudge things along until they’re just past breaking point.
Get caught in the voxel supernova of a chained attack and it’s sublime, but it’s not long until you realise this lacks the elegance and style of its inspirations – there’s nothing here that matches the ingenuity of Gunstar Heroes’ Seven Force, or comes close to the character of Pinky Roader. Housemarque’s own artstyle continues to be somewhat anodyne, a smear of generic future nothingness that’s hard to get excited by. You always know what’s going to kill you and what isn’t, though, and maybe that’s all that matters.
Matterfall is also a mighty slim proposition, not just in length – there are three worlds here, all featuring three levels and a boss – but in the ideas it offers. New enemy types are frequently folded in, and there’s the odd zero-G section thrown in to mix things up, but the opposition remains largely anonymous throughout and all Housemarque ever really does is ratchet up the intensity. It’s all run its course well before the two hours a playthrough demands is up, and if anything it could benefit from being shorter – a little added punch could go a long way in alleviating some of the fatigue that sets in, and make the idea of going back to attain a new high score that bit more palatable.
Still, this is a fine Housemarque game, and a decent shooter on its own merits. There’s a personality and character to the developer’s games that you can’t find anywhere else, and given how Sony’s moving away from its former indie darlings (the arrival of Matterfall, a PS4 exclusive, has been met with a disheartening lack of fanfare) there’s a very real danger that games like this might soon go the way of their inspirations. This is a way off being Housemarque’s best effort – you only have to look back a few weeks to Nex Machina to see what it’s capable of when firing on all cylinders – but it’s still an enjoyable reminder of this developer’s exquisite craft.