Make no mistake, I love me some big, stompy robot action. Luckily for me, so does Japanese indie developer AstroPort, who has quite the history with big stompy robot action. And if you need proof of that? Look no further than their latest release (As of this writing), Mechblaze!
GENRE: Mecha Run ‘n’ Gun
Back in my teens, I was introduced to a very fun, unique type of run and gun game known as Cybernator for the SNES. It stood out from most run and gun games because you played as a giant robot pilot, and your giant robot FELT like a giant robot. It was big, it was stompy. Its jumps felt weighty, and you could leave visible damage on the level’s terrain. And frankly, very few other games could capture this feeling of what I call a Mecha Run’n’Gun.
Enter indie dev, AstroPort. They clearly have a love for games like Cybernator, as they’ve made several sidescrolling, mech themed Run’n’Guns now, and plenty of other great titles besides. But right now, I want to focus on their latest release which wears its Cybernator influence with pride: Mechblaze.
Like Cybernator, Mechblaze is a run and gun where you feel like you’re piloting a giant robot. Your robot’s jumps are not very high, nor does it normally move very fast. It is, after all, a giant warmachine. That’s not to say you don’t have mobility tools at your disposal though! While on the ground, you can utilize skate-like wheels in your legs to zip along said ground at high speed via a double tap of left or right and use the momentum for an extra long jump. You also have a booster that can give you limited air time and let you reach higher spots when you jump and then hold the jump button down in midair. The big thing about Mechblaze’s movement is learning how to use all your tools together, keeping yourself out of harm’s way with some well timed bursts of your boost, or zooming up close to blast someone in the face, this is a game where run and gun is much more than simply holding left or right and occasionally hitting the jump button.
But sometimes you can’t avoid what’s coming at you. And that’s another way Mechblaze differs from typical run and gun games. You have a defensive shield you can hold out in front of you to block oncoming fire until said shield breaks. And sometimes you may have no choice but to let the shield tank hits for you as you don’t have the ability to reposition in time, or there’s just so much coming at you that you can’t hope to dodge it all. And that’s what’s great about Mechblaze’s approach to run and gun: You have a defensive option besides “just don’t get hit!”
Another little thing I love is the aiming. You have a full range of motion 180 degrees in front of you, with the ability to lock your current direction in by holding the aim lock button, letting you keep your shots in that direction as you move around. And your laser sight means you’re not going to have any problems knowing where those shots are going to go, so you can easily focus on the actual shooting, and not trying to figure what angle your shots are going to take.
Now that we’ve had a chance to go over some of the basics that set this apart from other Run n Guns, let’s talk about how the game plays as a whole. When you start a new game, you’ll have several difficulty options to pick from, so casuals to hardcore players will be able to easily find a comfort zone to blow up giant robots in. After a text story dump, you’ll have to pick your weapons, which will be used throughout a run. More can be unlocked, but you get a pretty nice set of choices to begin with, including a homing missile launcher, a railgun with low rate of fire but devastating damage, and plenty of other explosive options. Point is, there’s definitely a weapon to fit any playstyle here. Your Main Weapon is unlimited in use, while Special Weapons will require ammo pickups should you use up their entire supply, so ammo management is a thing on top of picking the right weapon for the right job at a given moment. Personally I like using the missiles for swarms of enemies that are difficult to hit or that I can’t line a shot up with via my rifle, and my railgun for heavy targets and bosses. But like I said, something for everyone.
Each level is pretty straightforward, with your objective typically being to go from Point A to Point B while shooting everything that wants you dead. A few spots will have you defending something from enemy waves, and of course most levels end with a big boss battle. You’ll have plenty of enemy variety as well, ranging tanks and helicopters, to mechs your size, to mechs MUCH bigger than you, some on the ground, some that fly, you’ve got plenty of different things to shoot at. It’s pretty much Run’n’Gun 101, but y’know what they say about fixing things that aren’t broken. To keep you going throughout each level are supply drones which drop powerups for you…Or you can just shoot them down to get their contents faster, who cares about military budgets anyway? Those pickups come in the form of repair kits to fix a banged up mech, power-ups that will improve your equipped weapon by one level, and ammo pickups that restore the ammo of both your Special Weapons. One thing that does make the power-up system a bit tricky is that it takes some inspiration from Cave Story, where your weapons can actually *LOSE* their powered up levels if you take too many hits. This is why knowing all your defensive tools (Dashing, jumping/boosting, and shielding) are so important: You need to avoid damage in order to keep your guns at their strongest. That’s not to say you’re screwed if your guns are all Level 1, but it’s going to make boss fights that much longer if they are. And the bosses are definitely an impressive sight, many being gigantic, screen filling robotic monstrosities you’ll need to shoot in convenient weak points to take down.
There’s one particular thing that I have to admire about Mechblaze though, and something I wish more games in this genre did. In a lot of Run’n’Gun titles, even if you’re fighting in some massive scale war, it always feels like it’s you vs whatever’s around you. Mechblaze on the other hand makes sure you are well aware of the fact this is a large scale conflict, and you’re just one of many soldiers in it.
Giving the conflict such a large sense of scale is one of the things I love about Mechblaze. Many levels will feature battles happening in the background between your forces and the enemy’s, reminding you there actually IS a war happening out there. And there’s something satisfying about moments like seeing an allied land battleship come in to wipe out an entire enemy battalion in a single shot. As someone who loves his giant robot conflicts, this level of attention to detail is something I can’t get enough of. That’s not to say every level does it, mind. One mission does have you performing a deep strike behind enemy lines, so you obviously won’t be seeing much going on there since it is a solo operation, but not every stage needs to be a spectacle.
Another little thing I love: Like Cybernator, Mechblaze doesn’t keep you on the ground all the time. While it is primarily a Run’n’Gun, there are some flying sequences thrown into the mix that turn it into more of a horizontal shmup. While you’ll now be flying around freely in any direction you please in an autoscrolling environment, things still stay mostly the same: Use your guns and blast away everything that’s not friendly. The only real downside of flight is that you can’t shield yourself, but your improved mobility in the air more than makes up for it. The final stage also has a special cameo from another Astro Port shmup for the flight portion of the level, and it’s an absolute joy to experience.
Now, I will admit this is a short game, but it’s also 10 bucks. Do you get a satisfying SNES era style Run’n’Gun with giant robots for that price? Oh my goodness, yes. There’s something for everyone here, from the casual player who just wants to blow stuff up, to the more hardcore enthusiasts that want to aim for a high score by finishing levels quickly and without getting hit. And each difficulty level is a good stepping stone to the next one, meaning one could theoretically get better by starting on Easy, then attempting Normal when they’re comfy with it, and eventually might just start tackling the game on the Ultra or Insane difficulty. So far, I’ve beaten it on Insane, but it was definitely a challenge to do so.
So at the end of the day? If you like giant robots or 2D Run’n’Gun? Mechblaze is absolutely worth the money. And maybe take a look at AstroPort’s other titles while you’re at it, they’ve got a ton! But if you want more robot stuff specifically, also check out Gigantic Army, Rocketron, and Steel Strider!