We've waited far, far too long for an Xbox Live Arcade game in which you must shoot a robot dinosaur repeatedly in the face with a neon pink laser beam until its eyes fall out.
A flash of classic Japanese exuberance, Omega Five is a throwback to those side-scrolling shoot-'em-ups you once read about in the import section of a SEGA Saturn magazine. With enemies 500 pixels tall and boss battles five frames of animation shy of an anime tentacle rape scene, it's a game whose wild, bright, Dreamcast-esque aesthetic reveals just how accustomed to white, western and (graphically at least) middle-of-the-road videogames we've become. It's bold and incongruous, joining forces with Earth Defense Force 2017 in broadening the style and ethnicity of the 360 library, and for that we already like it.
Omega Five is the creation of Natsume, a Japanese developer best known in the west for its pastoral themed, carrot-growing sim, Harvest Moon. With little arcade action style output since the Super Nintendo's - admittedly very good - Pocky and Rocky games, the company lacks pedigree in this niche. Likewise, unlike forthcoming Ikaruga and Raiden, Omega Five is a new release that has never spent time out in the real world, earning its stripes and credibility from arcade punters' credits. As a result, genre fans have been understandably nervous that this, the first contemporary Japanese shmup on the service might be something of a missed opportunity.
First impressions are mixed. With its slick and seamless leaderboard structure, compelling Achievements overlay and perfectly pitched graphical chutzpah, all of the artistic and structural wants are firmly in place. But, while early screenshots called to mind R-Type or Borderdown, in play it's not quite like either. In fact this is much closer to Capcom's ancient Forgotten Worlds, players tasked with piloting one of four flying characters through four sprawling horizontal scrolling stages, battling off all manner of alien swarm.
For the first twenty minutes the overwhelming sense is that the camera is positioned far too close to the action. Large, imprecise models crowd and cramp the screen and your character 'ship' feels huge and unwieldy instead of svelte, responsive and quick. As a result it's difficult to know exactly where the hit-box on your character is and this initially leads to a general feeling of uncertainty and not quite being in total control.
An overly fussy control scheme contributes to this feeling of confusion. At its most basic, the left stick controls your character while the right controls the stream of fire in the well-established Geometry Wars style. Each character has a choice of three different weapon types that can be levelled through three stages of power and effectiveness. You switch between weapon types via pick-ups in the levels and in addition to this basic offensive fire, each character has a sub-weapon of varying usefulness.
Enemies drop pink triangular chips that can be harvested to fill a smart-bomb style gauge. It's possible to harvest enough pink chips to stock three smart-bombs, each of which is represented as a pink blob that encircles your character soaking up stray bullets. Thus the game provides a tactical dilemma at all times: deploy your smart-bomb to clear the screen and lose the safety net or take your chances through the bullet storm with some extra protection. Finally, there's a dash move (triggered by the two bumpers) that allows a second's grace to zoom past enemy bullets, instantly turning them into pink chips in exchange for a small portion of your health bar.
Unusually for a shmup, your character has a health bar which depletes by degrees when shot or bumped into by an enemy. This can only be refilled with health pick-ups in the field and, as you've just one life per 'credit', the difficulty is ramped sky-high. Indeed, it's unlikely you'll make it to the end of the first stage in your first couple of attempts, which for impatient players will seem mean and unfair. We're not used to games telling us we're rubbish these days, and some buyers will take little more than tantrums and regret from the purchase. But to expect to breeze through the game on your first go is to approach the game with the wrong head.
By clearing your high score every time you use a continue, the game clearly and loudly nails its colours to the mast. This is a traditional arcade game where high-score play is everything and progression through the experience should be measured in screen inches and never guaranteed. Four stages is undoubtedly short but the idea is that you claw forward each time you play the game, progress the fruit of hard work and repetition. It is unlikely that many players will see the third stage within the first week of play, if ever.
This orthodox approach is unusual for modern games, even on a platform that claims to be the 'arcade' reborn. We're not used to the kind of hard graft and practice that this kind of game demands and rewards and, for many, the fact that they can't just blast through the game by throwing free credits at it like Veruca Salt buying her way into Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory will leave a sour taste.
Without scaled difficulty levels the 'problem' is exacerbated. But it's a problem of culture rather than one of negligence or poor game design. Approach the game with the mindset that this is something that demands the growth of new muscles, skills and techniques, and view the leaderboard competition as your impetus to keep pushing on, and Omega Five becomes a hugely rewarding experience.
In time the control system becomes second nature and weaving in and out of the moving mazes created by the gargantuan enemies around you feels like more of a dance than a chore. The camera position soon becomes irrelevant and, as with all the shmup greats, you begin to furrow your own unique path through the game through repetition. You'll learn to use no more than the one life given to you at the start (anything else and you won't make a dent on the leaderboards) and the thrill of improvement becomes rewarding and intoxicating. Omega Five is not the greatest shmup ever made and it's certainly not for everyone. But it's technically the most impressive exclusive XBLA title and is an excellent genre debut for Natsume.
And, of course, there are the pink lasers and robot dinosaurs. Never underestimate the robot dinosaur.
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