Thursday, January 3

Review: Horizon Shift '81 [Nintendo Switch eShop]

As I’ve pointed out many times before I was definitely a child of the arcades in the 80’s, probably visiting one every few days and just loving that era as a whole. That means that I’ve seen a ton of different shooters of all shapes, sizes, and levels of crazy. With all of that knowledge I thought I was prepared for Horizon Shift ‘81, and would be able to break it down into its inspirations and then how well it executed a vision or reinterpretation of them. I was wrong. Horizon Shift ‘81 is fully its own beast, an amalgam of multiple styles, ideas, and moves, and somehow manages to feel authentically retro while at the same time being something thoroughly modern.

Trying to describe everything that happens in the game gets to be quite a laundry list but here’s an attempt at a summary. For the majority of the game your ship will be sitting at the middle of the screen, at the horizon, and will take on enemies coming from both the top and the bottom. There will be ships that shoot at you, aliens that will land on the ground and pose a threat, asteroids that can destroy parts of the surface making holes you can fall through, and enemy fire coming from both directions that will challenge you. You’ll start with a trident spread shot but there are multiple weapons you can randomly get dropped which vary from a flamethrower to a rapid-fire machine gun to rockets that seek out enemies and more, and they are generally pretty well balanced and all have merits. Finally, every few levels you’ll face a boss battle and how those play out can vary and be a bit surprising.

The thing is, that’s really only part of the story as there’s quite a bit more going on that deviates even further from the norm. You can make your ship jump and dash to the sides, giving you control and maneuverability that takes getting used to but then also opens up some very non-traditional strategies and solutions to your problems, especially since you can dash through many enemies and threats, you just need to manage all of that with a lot going on at once. You can hit bonus levels that play like the classic Breakout, which is random but feels perfectly at home among the craziness.

To help manage the insanity, or even to make it wilder, you’ll also have options to speed things up in the menus, throttle down the difficulty a little, change up how clean or retro you want the screen to look (I like maintaining the CRT bowing of the screen, but don’t miss scanlines), and more. Though there are quite a few modes, including 2 that are initially locked, for the most part the core of the experience doesn’t change, just how fast or difficult things are, but given how many different ideas and challenges the game throws at you as you get deeper into the levels I have no issue with this. If anything it’s possible what can happen may be a bit too overwhelming for classic arcade fans, as I can’t think of any game that threw this much at you at once, if nothing else I don’t think the machines could have handled it all.

Overall, as a vintage gamer, I’m not sure how to convey how thoroughly impressed I am with Horizon Shift ‘81. While its looks are thoroughly of the earlier era of arcade action its gameplay is absolutely modern and extremely challenging, but in a way that puts a smile on my face. With decades that have elapsed since that era I’m shocked at how many new ideas and refinements have been made in this game, combining things in ways I can’t recall ever seeing before. If you’re a big fan of arcade shooters you owe it to yourself to check this one out!

Score: 8

  • Vintage looks but thoroughly modern sensibilities
  • Between modes and menu tweaks a lot of ways to tune the experience to your liking
  • Combines a wide variety styles and ideas I’ve never seen put together before

  • It’s possible this kitchen sink approach will overwhelm some people or not feel quite right
  • The look is absolutely retro and early 80s in nature
  • While playing vertically in handheld is great in docked mode there’s a lot of unused space to the sides