Shoot 'em ups (schmup) are a dime a dozen on Steam, but Z-Exemplar from Scottish developer Suminell Studios stands out thanks to its distinctive retro graphics and wealth of levels and ship upgrades. Plus it sells for only five bucks, so shmup fans won't want to miss it.
For the Z Empire!
Z-Exemplar begins with a cheeky introduction in which your pilot receives an assignment: to singlehandedly conquer an innocuous solar system for his government, the Z Empire. The pilot's superiors speak like jolly good British imperialists, creating a whimsical background for your less-than-ethical mission.
Amusing premise aside, Z-Exemplar was also designed to look and feel like a classic R-Type-style shoot 'em up (shmup) for the ZX Spectrum, a series of personal computers sold in the UK in the 1980s. The ZX Spectrum had strict color palette limitations that lent its games a distinct look. Z-Exemplar doesn't strictly adhere to those limitations, but it borrows the ZX Spectrum's basic color palette to create a unique and appealing retro style.
Conquering the galaxy
Back in the old days, shmups weren't always short arcade experiences – they were often designed to last. That's certainly true of Z-Exemplar, which has a whopping 960 planets to visit and conquer. You'll access them from a galactic map, opening new pathways as you complete each level. These levels can't be replayed, unfortunately, but there are so many that it hardly matters. Each has a difficulty rating, and many have bosses to thwart as well.
Z-Exemplar is a side-scrolling shmup with walls and environmental obstacles that will destroy your ship if touched. Enemies often drop a currency called Z that activates power-ups during a level and is also used for purchasing ship upgrades and new weapons from the map. There are over 20 new weapons to buy (most with multiple upgrades). You'll equip them in place of the default power-ups upon starting a level.
The gameplay feels like a combination of R-Type and Gradius, two classic non-bullet-hell shmup series. One big difference here is the levels are nice and short, which works well considering the vast number of planets the game offers. You only have a single life in each level, so you'll have to start at the beginning if you die. And you will die a lot, but this game is still easier than a bullet hell shmup (a shmup style that favors huge quantities of enemy bullets over tight level design).
Controls and system requirements
Z-Exemplar can be played with keyboard or a controller. My one gripe with the controls is too many functions are assigned to a single action button. You have to press and hold the fire button to access the menu from the map, for instance; and you must press and hold it to activate upgrades during gameplay. Having to hold a single button instead of simply assigning those functions to a second button on the controller is a bit too dated, design-wise.
- OS: Windows XP SP2 or later
- Processor: 1.6 GHz
- Memory: 1 GB RAM
- DirectX: Version 9.0
- Storage: 200 MB available space
Look at those specs! Z-Exemplar will basically run on anything that runs Windows, including netbooks, Ultrabooks, and the Surface Pro.
Z-Exemplar is a great little Steam find. Shoot 'em up enthusiasts will undoubtedly enjoy the hundreds of levels and dozens of upgrades that make this one of the largest games in the genre, while retro gaming fans should appreciate the colorful ZX Spectrum-inspired visuals. That one-two punch makes this a must-play game. And because it only costs $4.99 and will run on virtually anything, playing it is super easy to do. Let's hope this one makes it ways to consoles eventually too!
- Looks a lot like a classic ZX Spectrum game, only prettier!
- Hundreds of short levels to conquer and lots of fun upgrades to buy.
- Many controls involve holding the fire button for extended periods of time rather than using a second button.
- No Steam Achievements or Steam Cloud support.
Steam review copy provided by the developer.
Paul Acevedo is the Games Editor at Windows Central. A lifelong gamer, he has written about videogames for over 15 years and reviewed over 350 games for our site. Follow him on Twitter @PaulRAcevedo. Don’t hate. Appreciate!