For the longest time, Rise of Glory was the only aerial combat game in the mobile Xbox Live lineup. Not a bad game, but the relatively complex tilt controls and sterile atmosphere kept me out of the pilot seat. A year later, MiniSquadron finally touched down on the Marketplace. Both games feature mid-air dogfighting - and still they couldn’t be more different. Created by indie developer Supermono and ported by Fat Pebble, MiniSquadron is simple, silly, and incredibly addictive. Even steep challenge and rampant glitchiness can’t keep it down.
Flying the unfriendly skies
MiniSquadron is essentially a 2D arena-based shoot-em-up. Only here the arenas are the skies, with a spot of land at bottom. Each of the game’s 9 distinct maps contains 12 waves of enemy onslaught. Up to 12 fighters can occupy the screen at once, 11 of them aiming to shoot down you and you alone. Not the fairest of odds, but fancy flying, a good aim, and a pint of luck will help you come out on top. The checkpoints every three or four waves also come in handy when your lives run out.
Build your own squadron
Undoubtedly, MiniSquadron’s best feature is its plane unlocking system. Players start with only a single plane to choose from, but lots more will unlike once specific waves and scores are reached on all the different maps. Each of the whopping 63 aircraft features different stats in speed, armor, size, turning rate, and firing speed, plus one of several different weapons. Weapons include cannons of the single-triple variety, homing missiles, lasers, drop bombs, and my favorite, the cluster bomb. Players are bound to gravitate towards a certain weapon type or two. Even then, the differences in stats between two planes of the same weapon type can make them feel significantly different.
License to fly
Another nice aspect of MiniSquadron is quickly one can learn to play. A highly responsive virtual stick steers the plane quite naturally in all directions. This is a shmup, not a flight sim, so pressing up points the plane’s nose up instead of down. Planes bounce harmlessly off the left and right borders of each arena, but the vertical limits pose a greater danger. Flying too high causes the plane to stall and plummet; quickly steer in the direction of the fall to regain control. Hit the ground or water and lose a life.
While the virtual stick’s performance soars, the button or firing the plane’s guns falls slightly short. Its tiny size and proximity to the bottom-right edge of the screen make it somewhat uncomfortable to hold. After several days of playing, I really felt the hand fatigue. My thumb also inadvertently slipped off the button now and then. The button size and placement seem identical to the iOS version’s, so it’s possible that the different size and shape of my Samsung Focus plays a factor. At any rate, mirroring the size and position of the virtual stick would solve the problem.
During the course of battle, star-shaped powerups and extra life hearts will occasionally fall from the sky. Powerups can bring down air strikes, shrink and speed up a plane, enlarge and slow planes down, restore health, and more. It takes a while to memorize what they do; a list of their effects should have been tucked away in the game somewhere. Also, enemies can and will steal powerups, especially since you can’t see off-screen items. This sometimes leads to unfair situations, like when someone in a horde of enemies grabs an item and kills you right off the bat. Nobody said it would be easy!
Tough but so cute
While the difficulty eventually ramps up uninvitingly, the same can’t be said for MiniSquadron’s visuals. The 2D rendered aircraft have an endearingly cartoonish look that’s even more pronounced with the stranger designs like a man-dead plane and flying squid. Sharp smoke effects ensure you’ll never lose track of even the speediest on-screen planes.
Even the menu system shows a high level of artistic polish and flourish. The menus don’t use the Metro design, but who cares when they look so sharp? Unlike that darn fire button, these buttons are always large and easy to press. Every time you visit the title screen, a different stage appears behind the game’s logo – a cool touch.
MiniSquadron’s soundtrack deserves special praise as well. Each stage has its own classical tune, rendered in satisfying midi style. A couple of the tracks sound too sedate for combat, but ‘Moonlight Sonata’ and ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ can’t be beat. Check out our previous article for the full track list.
At present, a number of bugs and glitches threaten to mar MiniSquadron’s otherwise engaging experience. We already covered a control bug that prevents the virtual stick from working – thankfully that one has a simple workaround. Game-crashing bugs are another matter. For example, playing as Jimbo the flying squid frequently kills the game, presumably due to his giant slowdown-inducing laser. Considering how much work it takes to unlock him, it’s frustrating not even being able to use the guy.
You might expect a tough game like MiniSquadron to have some difficult Achievements, and you'd be right. Some Achievements, like killing 20 enemies without taking a hit, will probably come with practice. But unlocking Freeze Willy, the final plane, may be out of reach of many players due to the Snow Hope level's absurd difficulty.
Still, ‘Indestructible’ makes those tasks look like walking while chewing bubblegum. First off, beating every level with three lives remaining is asking a lot when most players won’t even be able to finish the later levels without continuing (and sometimes 1-up hearts just don't want to spawn). Nor does the game feature a way to track progress towards the Achievement. But all of that is moot anyway because the Achievement is just plain broken and impossible to attain. Since it’s worth an irksome 50 GamerScore, even the most skilled pilots can’t earn more than 150 GS from this title. It might be prudent to contact Supermono and ask for a fix.
MiniSquadron stands out from the Xbox Live crowd with its large and endearing assortment of aircraft, excellent graphics and sound, and highly challenging (but fun!) gameplay. It’s just a shame that the hardcore players who would otherwise gravitate towards the shmup-like gameplay and challenge will likely be scared away by that giant, nasty broken Achievement. Hopefully Supermono and Fat Pebble do the right thing and patch up their game’s glitches. Though bugs riddle its fuselage like bullets, MiniSquadron manages to be one of the most enjoyable Windows Phone games I’ve played in a long time.
MiniSquadron costs $2.99 and there is a free trial. Touch down here on the Marketplace to get it.
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