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This review has big plans. It tells me it wants to be the most useful review I’ve written so far. I’ve written some pretty ones, and some gushy ones, and a good share of tripe, along with the odd nostalgic recollection. But never something this entirely useful. Because let’s face it: the only way you’ll even give Hellfire a second glance even at the miniscule prices it will sell for at a pawn shop, is if you’re a hardcore horizontal shooter fan. And so you are that. And so, almost certainly, you won’t hesitate to give up your McDonald’s apple pie money for Hellfire in order to get your 16-bit blast on. I can’t stop you. I won’t even try.

But should that pawn shop scenario befall you any time soon, I’d like to think that your two dollar decision was an informed one. Consider this effort, ”review as expectation-smasher.” And thus, the truth up front: Hellfire is hell! Your ship is excruciatingly slow, your weapons painfully feeble – until you’re powered up. Then things seem smooth enough… until… BAM! The game assails you with unkind R-Type-ish unforeseen difficulties, so you’ll likely only be going well once per play session: near the start. Inevitably you’ll die once and get sent back to some checkpoint, once again hatefully slow and feeble, and from there it’s just relentless death until your credits run dry.

Good! Knowing this truth going in will help prepare you, and you won’t be so disappointed. (And really, should you be, you cheapskate? The game cost you two lousy dollars! Two!) Now that you’re ready for Hellfire’s crappiness, I will sit with you and be there for you as you endure it, thus furthering my continuing campaign of usefulness.

In case you forgot: you are a single-minded demographic – I know you well because I am one of you. You’re not interested in the lameness of Guild of the Ultra-Mech and his darkening of the cosmos, and of Lancer (that’s you) and his Sylphide spaceship on its mission to bring back the light. You need only know if Hellfire crushes. And it sure as hell does not.

The graphics range from unsightly, to “huh? Oh, is that what that is? Yawn.” From black construction paper outer space to unremarkable alien outposts, banality has never been so comfy. The few standout scenes – like the pyramids that house the giant sarcophagus, and the eldritch (yes, I really typed eldritch!) alien forest that serves as home to pink robot walkers – are decent scenarios marred by an 8-bit level of detail. The music is uncannily similar to the tunes from Truxton, and this isn’t a good thing for most folks. It’s that metallic, loud, dirty Japanese no-name shooter techno, and no single level tune will shout its independence. Hellfire’s uninteresting presentation collapses any hope of atmosphere like a lung. But with supreme, ideal intensity, the project can be salvaged.

Brilliant as you are, shooter fan, you know already that it hasn’t been, don’t you? Sure, the power up system is sweetly creative. The game provides all four weapon types from the get-go, so the pilot need only find power ups to thicken laser beams and add weight to the currents. Shoot forward, back, up/down, or in four diagonal directions. The latter is usually the best choice because it supplies the best screen coverage, but the game will call the other three to duty almost as often, so there’ll be lots of weapon toggling. And it gets clever.

No bit is cleverer than level five’s outpost sequence; it’s Hellfire’s thinking man’s shooter piece de resistance! It shows us just how passionately the weapon system can make love to level design when the latter is submissive. The mission tucks gunpods away in nooks and crannies that are always hard to reach for at least two weapons, fairly easy to reach for the third, and an easy target for the fourth. This is what you’re looking for out of Hellfire: your brain crunching solutions to screens fraught with enemy problems, your fingers slipping, manic, through weapon selections.

What you’re not looking for from Hellfire, is unfortunately much more prevalent. After an encouraging start, levels three through six will murder you often and with impunity, smashing through your one-hit shield, displacing you at cold checkpoints where you’ll invariably be needing immediate speed and power ups to stand half a chance of competing again – and you won’t get them. At first, you’ll welcome the challenge of trying to select the combination of weapon and ship situation that will best accommodate your recovery until power ups are within reach. You’ll sweat and scramble and use up your tiny stock of special ‘whoa, that’s IT?’ Hellfire beams to try to buy some time like a vertical shooter’s smart bomb… but then you’ll realize that having to fight this hard to get back on the horse at these back-to-life junctures is a circumstance that is as insuperable, as un-fun as it is just plain stupid as shit.

Hellfire can be fun to play, because it’s smart, but most of your time will be spent recovering from unforeseeable crashes; you spend more time being dragged about with one foot in one stirrup than enjoying the ride from the saddle proper.

On a completely unrelated note, Hellfire S for the Turbo Duo, does not employ a checkpoint system, allows a friend to tag along with you for your mission, has hot anime babes, and bathes your ears in aural butter. This tangent-as-summation is going to make sense to you after you play this inferior game, love the unique weapons setup, but inevitably derive a ridiculously low fun factor from the experience. We both know you’re still going to download this or buy it for nothing, or else steal it – also for nothing. Just be aware that when you discover how small the coolness of its switchable weapon system is in the context of the package, you’ll immediately look to Hellfire S – a good game that has made this bad game unnecessary – and you’ll confirm for yourself what I know now: Hellfire is an ugly, mean-spirited husk of a sweet shoot-em-up.

And to us – to you, to me – that’s not at all useful.

3 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in September 2003.

Gentle persuasion

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