No, it’s not about crossing the Rio Grande while avoiding patrols. Border Wars is basically a hand-drawn R-type with a highly customizable ship. By highly, I mean completely. As in, the whole game is hand-drawn, and you can completely erase the default ship and drawn your own. You don’t even have to draw a ship. You can draw a panda, or a shoe, or a leper. I didn’t fly around in a doodled penis and shoot green sperm shots at aliens, honest! That would be immature.
But does my penis ship make this a unique and worthy update of a classic side-scrolling shooter? Or is it bound to be ignored, just like in real life?
Border Wars is so named because the battles through the Defender-ish levels take place on the border of a spiral notebook. The enemies are a schoolchild’s absent-minded doodles come to life, and the controls are incredibly simple and retro. A shoots, and B uses an item (rocket, speed boost, or screen-clearing bomb – you switch between these by hitting the right bumper, and it should automatically switch to the next item when you run out of one… but no luck). You collect items from fallen enemies and try to survive all the way to the end of the page (level) while racking up points.
The first thing you’ll notice besides the unique look is the a cappella soundtrack and sound effects. I can’t be positive, but I’m fairly certain that the entire game’s sounds were made by one man’s mouth into a microphone, possibly Michael Winslow. And “pew-pew” is just so much more REAL when it’s actually pronounced “pew-pew.”
So it looks neat, and the sounds are oddly enticing, but is the classic gameplay still great? Pretty much, yeah! I do wish that the horizontal movement was the same speed as the vertical onscreen movement, so that I’d have a greater feeling of control. And the beginning of the game, where you are forced to play with the most basic weapons and shields because you haven’t earned the points necessary to upgrade yet, is a lot harder than the last few levels after your ship is all pumped up. Protip: level up your guns first! If you kill everything, you won’t even need shields.
The level-up system is one of the best parts, as it makes the game even more customizable. After each level, you can use the points you earned by killing baddies to buy stronger guns, more powerful shields, faster engines, more items, or even more lives. You get points based on how fast you complete each level too, but the game is self-scrolling, so I ended up completing every level with the same amount of time left: 28 seconds. Seems a bit superfluous to even have a timer.
Once you Pimp Yo’ Ship, the game becomes less about avoiding the barrage of bullets and more about pwning every scribbled enemy in sight. You feel way cooler, but if you are intent on an old-school challenge, just don’t upgrade your ship. Beware though, as there are no mid-level save points. You have a health bar instead of a one-hit death, however, so you can take a couple hits before dying. The random health/power-up drops help too, although the drops feel too random, as finding one or not may be the difference between completing a level and dying.
If you’re feeling really hardcore, try holding down the X button while you play. The page you’re playing on lifts up, and your invisible pencil scribbles notes on the page underneath, as if you were actually paying attention and taking notes on the inane ramblings of your aging community college instructor. You can still move and shoot, but you can’t see the action. Each word you manage to scrawl out before flipping back to the level nets you bonus points. Flying blind for the win!
After the incredibly self-aware final boss on page five (you’ll see), you unlock Arcade Mode, which is just the same game, but with one-hit deaths. Considering the sheer amount of bullets and enemies thrown at you, I don’t see anyone completing this mode, especially since your weapon upgrades are reset to zero after you complete Border Wars the first time. Maybe if you were allowed to keep your ultra guns, then just maybe you’d stand a chance. Personally, I could only beat the first level in Arcade Mode. Perhaps retro masochists will appreciate the challenge, but I didn’t have much motivation to play anymore after the five (admittedly excellent) levels.
For a mere 240 Microsoft Points ($3), you too can fire up your space phallus and lay down an old-school smackdown in a unique universe, set to a delightfully odd soundtrack. But with no online leaderboards, co-op, or a conquerable second playthrough, don’t expect to be playing forever.