App of the Day: Super Ox Wars

Animal instinct.

Super Ox Wars is a shooter by Llamasoft, aka Jeff Minter and Ivan "Giles" Zorzin, which in a just world would be all the description required for this to shift truckloads. It is, true to form, another wonderful game, but it's also one that begs an overwhelming question of the studio's ongoing output. Let's phrase it like this - is an overarching aesthetic a studio's identity, or can it become a comfort zone?

But let's tackle the game first. Super Ox Wars is another classic Minter fusion, a vertically scrolling 2D shooter (think Star Soldier with Galaga attack patterns) intertwined with a power-up and scoring system built on chaining. The twist here is that there are two paths to follow, represented by oxen deities, and overwhelming 'loyalty' to each one results in different and increasingly OTT upgrades. In-game it's immediately obvious how this works; there are red and blue elements, and you want to pick one to concentrate on.

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Enemy ships attack in waves, and racking up the big scores is all about destroying entire waves for a fat bonus - note also the separate scores for each ox.

This scoring system controls how each game of Super Ox Wars plays out, with the aim always being to reach maximum firepower of either colour. This happy state fills the screen with red hearts or blue stars, wasting everything before it gets a chance to shoot back. Each colour has its own attack patterns, but also affects the behaviour of enemy bullets differently; if you're blue then bullets are repelled by the ship's body, slowing down then pushed away, letting you move slowly through glowing thickets. Go red and your bullets repel enemy fire, which works in a more aggressive manner - you have to play this almost like pushing through the crowd in Geometry Wars.

Collecting the right colour icons makes the biggest difference to how quickly you power up, and hitting the maximum with the right timing is the key to Super Ox Wars. The effect will eventually recede, but it can be topped up again and again with judicious hoovering-up of the right colour of icons, letting you waltz through some of the game's toughest areas laughing while the score just soars.

Most of the time, however, you'll be scrabbling somewhere in-between, trying to thread through bullet hell and sneak an icon wherever possible. Death resets all powerups, which can be calamitous, but also shows how finely-tuned the bullet patterns and enemy waves are. There's always an out, even if it's a crazy one. The final flourish that ties everything together is one of Minter's simplest and best ideas, first seen in Space Giraffe, combining the level select with a high score tracker.

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Collecting the little blue stars will show your love for the capricious Ox Caprichoso, but if you want to switch to the steady Garantido destroy those heads on the right.

But of all the numbers cascading around the place in Super Ox Wars, one really hit me. 1,402 players are on the high score boards. Not many, is it? I'm obviously a bit of a Minter advocate, and find it terribly sad that a game as beautifully-tuned and smart as Super Ox Wars isn't hitting a wider audience. Cut through the idiosyncrasies and this is 1.49 for the work of a craftsman at the top of his game, riffing on shooter systems in a way that only experts can.

The point of view I held until recently is that it's an embarrassment to the industry Llamasoft's games are so marginalised, selling just enough to keep their creators off the breadline. Minter's probably the closest thing around to an indie godfather, the real deal, and has produced his greatest work in the last five years.

You play Super Ox Wars, and it's fabulous stuff, but it's all dressed up in the same slightly ragged retro visuals, topped off with a hippy colour scheme and farmyard noises. I've bought and played the life out of every game Llamasoft have made, so immediately recognise the re-used assets and instantly forgive them, searching for the new system underneath. Maybe that's a false kindness, because what is holding Llamasoft's games back from the larger audience they so richly deserve is nothing more than this garish surface. Like everything beautiful, Super Ox Wars is flawed. Its system is the work of master craftsmen; the aesthetic is not. In a just world this wouldn't matter so much. On the App Store, it's everything.

App of the Day highlights interesting games we're playing on the Android, iPad, iPhone and Windows Phone 7 mobile platforms, including post-release updates. If you want to see a particular app featured, drop us a line or suggest it in the comments. For daily app coverage, check out our sister site Modojo.

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