Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve looked at a couple of brand new (or thereabouts) shoot ‘em ups that for different reasons are firmly grounded in the past, namely Cotton Fantasy and Rolling Gunner + Over Power, both on PS4/5. And that’s precisely why we looked at them – either new entries in a favourite thirty-year-old series, or something modern from the creator of some of the greats from the late nineties, meaning they both fitted into our regular retro remit. Remote Life, on the other hand, is a bit more of a stretch! Okay, I can say it’s grounded in the same origins as the games we’ve just mentioned, and it has been out on Steam for almost three years, which is near enough retro, but actually, I just love a 2D side-scrolling shooter, I love its ambitions to modernise the genre, and I love horror. I was also kindly offered a review code by the publisher, so here we are! By the way, as well as PC and now this Switch version I’ve got, it’s also available on PlayStation at Xbox, all at £14.99.

“You are surrounded by such a Brutal-Frenetic-Sci-Fi-Techno-Alien World that is so brilliantly credible that you can almost smell the gasses that the aliens create when you blast them off” is also the kind of developer statement that I can’t resist, but while we could just call it a day there after something so profound, let’s quickly cover what we’re up against here! The story goes that a giant alien hive is approaching our planet, and the only way we’re going to take it down is to get inside and destroy it from the centre. You’re playing just the pilot for the job, John Leone, “ready to fire all his ammo inside the jaws of horror!” and discover the mysterious story behind the attack. And that equates to sixteen distinct levels of sci-fi horror schmup action, comprising 3D pre-rendered sprites on a horizontally scrolling 2D background, all put together a one-man production team, Mario Malagrino, which is another reason I was keen to have a look at it here!

And all of that is why I don’t want to come down hard on Remote Life from the outset, even though that’s precisely what it’s going to do to you! Yes, the game is brutally hard by design and is going to start dishing out some serious punishment within seconds, and that’s fine – I’m a fan of the genre, and one of the biggest pleasures it offers me is getting to know my ship and my weapons in those initial hours, usually at the cost of many, many lives. The trouble is I don’t feel I was really given the opportunity to get to know either here, a feeling that’s persisted the whole time I’ve been playing, and the main (but not sole) culprit is too many of those lives lost are just down to cheap deaths, which honestly seems to account for a fair proportion of the game’s difficulty. In the very first mission, one of the first things you encounter is an opening and closing set of huge mechanical jaws, where you obviously need to wait for the precise moment they start to open and then dash through to the other side before they close on you. You can’t make it though. First life lost by default. I did see that there are faster ships to unlock as you rank up, but that’s not going to help for some time. Back on the first level, even after you’ve had a few goes there’s still a pretty good chance you’re going to get caught out by something suddenly appear from the invisible below as you make your way along a monstrous tunnel along the bottom of the screen, or come straight out of the pillar you’re carefully skirting around, or just appear right behind you, leaving you with nowhere to go, while other times you simply won’t know what just hit you. Then you eventually get teleported into the first boss area, and suddenly you’re hit before you even work out where your ship has just rematerialised in the darkness (and not for the last time). And first few times around that’s probably your last life gone to the cheapest of deaths so far, before you even have a chance at having a go at the boss. Which, incidentally, looks incredible, and the menacing way it’s writhing around probably means a quick, cheap death is for the best after all!

Fast forward to Mission 2, and once you’ve got to grips with the impressive density and chaos of the opening section (which is also a good chaos, I should say), there’s a big moving circle, clearly a tribute to the one in the first level of R-Type. There are several more cheap death opportunities like we’ve already described around this thing, including several more where you’ll simply have no clue what hit you again… So much for learning stuff! And not quite as bad as those jaws before, but the circle itself (and subsequent ones) moves too fast for your current ship to get in and out of comfortably. But that’s if you’re lucky enough to even have a go at it, because I’ve also then lost every single one of my remaining lives in quick succession here because the ship has repeatedly respawned on a lethal piece of background! Happened in the next level too, on a parade of closing clamp things, where I died and then they’d closed by the time my ship respawned in the exact place the opening had been previously, several times on the bounce. These are likely bugs more than anything more sinister though, and kind of forgivable, and could get patched out down the line I guess. What can’t get patched is all of this in handheld though – with all of the above plus tiny size, it’s a no-go for me!

As I said earlier, these initial hours of getting familiar with everything that I normally enjoy so much in a new schmup weren’t so enjoyable in Remote Life because I was too busy getting frustrated by all of this stuff to have any chance of getting familiar, which was a real shame for me. And for context, we’re on easy difficulty – there’s normal, hard and very hard after that, which I did have a go on but it’s ridiculous! Familiarity does eventually come though, but you’ve really got to want to work for it. Another parallel with R-Type I guess, although for the decades spent never getting more than halfway through that game (which, by coincidence, is slightly further than I’ve got to here so far), there was never a single death that felt unfair…

While in general everything controls perfectly well, with even the regular Switch Joy-Cons offering more than adequate sensitivity and accuracy, there were a couple of things I found a bit jarring here… Firstly, the hit box. Okay, it’s on the large side, but that’s not its problem – actually, the problem isn’t the hit box at all, but the nose of your ship, because that’s where you’re shooting out of and it’s not only a bit weird-looking (especially when you’re shooting behind you) but it’s distracting too, and when the slightest touch against anything means instant death, you need to be focussing on that hit box until you know it well enough that you don’t need to focus on it! Which is why something like Rolling Gunner – and in particular its Over Power DLC which actually turns it into a twin-stick shooter like this – has your directional fire coming out of a drone. Like the one in R-Type too. Second problem is entirely down to me and not the game, and that is I like playing shooters such as this on a d-pad, but this one uses the right analog stick to fire, and my brain just isn’t wired to have one or the other on the go at once – it’s two sticks in perfect union or bust!

I can’t really hold that one against the game though, and we’ve spent more than enough time being negative… A couple of years ago, to mention this game yet again, we had R-Type Dimensions, which had a very cool feature where you could switch between original arcade graphics and a modern reimagining on the fly, while you were playing. The trouble is, as impressive as it often was, when you switched it became over-mechanical and a bit too clean, to the point of being sterile, where I always think of R-Type as primarily organic and a bit grubby over metallic and architectural. Now, back in 1987 when I first laid eyes on that game, I’m not sure I could have even conceived of graphics ever getting better than those, but if I had tried to imagine what R-Type might look like 35 years into the future, it would more likely have been what Remote Life looks like over anything R-Type Dimensions did! It reminds me of one of those World War II shipwrecks at the bottom of an exotic ocean, gradually morphing into a coral reef as its superstructure decays, teeming with strange and dangerous life forms. But this is in space, with way more death and oozing alien flesh, especially when you hit the massively graceful but even more terrifying bosses! This really is a stunning game, part-Geiger and part-Lovecraft in its vibe, beautifully lit and meticulously filled with movement and life, such as it is! Incredible to think that such a clearly gifted programmer could not only possess such artistic vision in parallel, but also realise it. And let me tell you, while I might have some issues with Remote Life, everything I’ve just described performs like a dream, so when I say this guy is gifted I really mean it!

Same for the sound. He knows his sci-fi horror and he knows his techno, and while the latter occasionally veers into the generic, in the main it’s pumping the lifeblood through the game’s grotesque cosmic torture. However, the real star of the show for me is the game over “music” – this is no Shadow of the Beast on Commodore Amiga though! It’s like something John Carpenter might have come up with for The Thing, all minimal and grinding and sinister, and in total contrast to whatever space rave you’ve just experienced in the level you died in! The sound effects are more what you’d expect of a space shooter, but where they really come alive is when they’re in sync with a huge vibration through your Joy-Cons, or some screen-shuddering set-piece. Very impactful!

I’m in two minds about the way the game evolves. It’s all mission-based, meaning you can just pick up again on the last one you got to. There’s no scoring though, so probably no point in ever returning to a level you’ve completed, even when you’ve unlocked the fancier ships, except maybe to admire some favourite scenery again. Not that you can really question the longevity of anything this hard, before you even think about the other difficulty levels! There’s also a ton of weapons to pick up from all over the place and enjoy, with three at play at any time, easily accessed from the shoulder buttons, as well as a bomb. Unfortunately the best ones are limited ammo, which is cruel but I guess fair in this case!

As I write, I’ve just spent the last five weeks becoming vaguely proficient at Cave’s 2001 horizontal bullet-hell shoot ‘em up Progear. Arguably harder than this, but for all the hundreds of times I died, none of those deaths felt cheap. Same for Espgaluda II or Mushihimesama or Batsugun before that, and I could keep going all the way back to R-Type again… I’m not saying I’m any good at any of these, but I’m not exactly the casual gamer having a punt on a cool-looking game, so I reckon I probably gave it more of a chance than most would. And I’ll continue to give it a chance for a while yet – even if I’m realistically never going to see the end and discover the mysteries behind the attack, I’m not quite done seeing what fresh horror is next. Think they call that sado-masochism, but apart from those types of people, there’s no doubt that some kind of superhuman schmup junkie would get way more out of this than I have, but for anyone else it’s a tough recommendation when stuff like Rolling Gunner (or R-Type Dimensions) exists on the same platforms at more or less the same price.