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rRootage Online review

Hot ship!

rRootage Online is a version of the original PC rRootage, one of the finest productions from ABA Studios, which has one employee: the brilliant Kenta Cho. Cho's been making games for well over a decade now, mostly shoot-'em-ups, and gives everything he makes away for free; it's an attitude that he says comes from making the games he wants to play and having no interest in making money from them. In every respect he's a remarkable developer.

rRootage is one of Cho's finest (and oldest) games, a vertical one-screen shooter with tons of levels and four distinct game modes, and while modes can often seem like little bonuses in shmups, in rRootage they're the whole focus. The core of the game is boss fights. Every level is one giant ship at the top of the screen and your ship at the bottom, which is in fact just a hitbox with a shell. The boss ship fires a pile of bullets, and will change form several times throughout each stage, which also varies up the shooting patterns. And there's one tiny, crucial other detail: the closer you are, the more damage you do.

This is rRootage in 'Normal' mode, but this is only one of four ways to play through its many, many levels. The modes are like a personal history of shmups filtered through Kenta Cho's unique style, and normal is straight-up bullet hell, where your special attack is a bomb that wipes out all on-screen bullets and damages the boss. This is the best way to settle into rRootage's central rhythm of dodging and getting close, but it's when the mechanics begin to take on some classic influences that things get spectacular.

The bosses go through five stages on each level, exploding with an almighty crash after enough damage and giving you a quick breather before re-assembling into a more deadly form.

PSY mode is based on the shooter Psyvariar by Tokyo's Success Corporation (what a great name), where the central idea is 'grazing' through the bullet patterns to build up power. This is one of the smartest mechanics ever matched up with bullet hell, and rRootage's take on it is an absolute winner - the ship has a small area around the hitbox at all times, and being near bullets will gradually fill a meter.

The bomb in this mode is replaced with a special that increases the grazing radius, meaning you can activate it before picking through a dense cloud of shots and build up power super-fast. Once activated, the ship becomes invincible. In combination with rRootage's main schtick of 'the closer you are, the more damage you do', it means that PSY mode is constantly veering between a delicate dance, at distance, and then forgetting subtlety in favour of jamming the ship right in the boss's face during the brief period of invulnerability. If this was its own game I'd be recommending it without hesitation, but it's only one of the reasons rRootage is amazing.

I'm about to get a little heretical here, so bear with me. IKA mode takes its idea from Treasure's seminal shooter Ikaruga, a much-loved title built around black and white polarities - when your ship is white you can absorb white bullets and vice versa, and you have the ability to 'flip' polarities at any time. Now, Ikaruga has never done much for me - it's one of those games I appreciate rather than enjoy, and frankly I prefer to watch those crazy videos of Japanese players absolutely rinsing it than play the thing. A great piece of craftsmanship, to be sure, but too cold and too clinical for my tastes.

This is IKA mode in full effect - only the dot part of your ship can be hit by the bullets, so you'll be surprised at the gaps in patterns it can squeeze through.

rRootage's IKA mode isn't nearly half as beautiful as Ikaruga, and it feels a little wrong that you're flipping between blue and red rather than white and black, but it makes that mechanic work to its own ends. A small circle around your ship indicates which colour is safe to barrel through, and each bullet hit instantly turns into a small missile that fires at the boss - a mixture of dodging and slamming that makes IKA mode an absolute thrill, especially when you start trying to combine this with being as close to the boss as you can be.

I'm not going to claim I'm great at rRootage, but in IKA mode the moves you can pull off are so spectacular - a sharp sweep to the left setting off a battery of missiles, a quick jiggle up and down firing even more - that you start to think otherwise. It's the one mode in rRootage where the game is constant offence, constant damage, and every single incoming storm feels like a huge opportunity. It's a tribute to Ikaruga rather than something that stands comparison, but rRootage succeeds in making such a singular mechanic feel like its own.

The final mode, GW, is the only one for which I haven't played the source, Giga Wing by Takumi. The mechanic here is a reflector shield with a cooldown; that is, when faced by an especially daunting barrage of bullets, you switch this on and just crash through them, which not only protects the ship from damage but also sends them back into the bosses. You've guessed it: this is great stuff. So much of rRootage operates on the same kind of loop - delicately picking through hot death, then unleashing your own - that it would be easy to think this is just repackaging, but having to make the call yourself in GW is the difference. The cooldown is a few seconds, which is an age in something this fast, and so you want to be using it constantly while also ensuring it's there when you really need it.

You'll always want to be as close as possible to the bosses to eke out maximum damage, and it also makes a difference to how fast the score's increasing - though I play for survival than score-chasing.

On later levels this can come down to a bit of memorisation, because rRootage gets simply crazy after a certain point. In earlier levels the bullets move relatively slowly and with an understandable momentum, but as things ramp up the velocity increases and this is eventually matched to attacks that hit from confusing angles; an orange ball that hares down the screen and stops dead 3/4s of the way down, before firing all around itself. rRootage lets you play any level from the off, and each is around five minutes long, so the pros can get straight in there - but most will probably find their level select screen looks a little like mine, with the top half cleared and the bottom dotted with the odd sign of a real achievement.

rRootage Online is obviously a version of an older PC original, and has been out on iOS for a few years; I'd somehow missed it, but since release the game's been updated into a universal app with high-res visuals. Much more important than that, rediscovering the game with touch controls is a revelation. The biggest change this brings to rRootage is analogue control - the ship in the PC original moves at a constant speed, meaning you have to master bit-by-bit movement when negotiating bullet fields. In rRootage Online you control the ship by moving your finger on any point of the screen, and it's a breeze to move very slow or very fast, with the implementation so pitch-perfect it hasn't let me down once.

Kenta Cho releases all of his games under a Creative Commons licence, because that's the kind of guy he is, and may the god of shooters bless him for it. rRootage Online is free in an ad-supported version, or you can pay 69p to get rid of them and have the high-res visuals. I checked out the money side of things with the developer, and this charge means that the port might just about break even for them (it's on the verge of doing so; there have been plenty of downloads, but the number of paid ones is surprisingly low).

But to overly focus on a small charge for the work that's gone into the assets and porting misses the point. rRootage Online is why Kenta Cho releases his games in the way he does; it's now got a chance to hit a new audience, and be enjoyed by many more people, in what feels like the definitive version. If you've got any interest in shooters, don't let him down.

9 / 10

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