Even spending a few minutes with ZeroRanger, the game feels like a Where’s Waldo of shoot ’em up references. This is a game that was clearly developed by fans of the genre. Seemingly everywhere one looks, there are references to shmups of old. Some of these may be blindingly obvious. Meanwhile, others may slip under the radar until the umpteenth playthrough. It’s a love letter to these games that long time fans will thoroughly enjoy. Even if this is your first shooter ever, there’s still plenty to like. The game has responsive controls, nicely scaling challenge, and a very appealing retro art style.
Like so many shooters before, in ZeroRanger the earth is being invaded by beings from another planet. As such, players need to hop in their ship and blast their way through entire armadas solo to try and stop them. There are a few other twists and turns in the story. However, this is the general gist of things.
That being said, most people don’t play shoot ’em ups for robust narratives. They just want to blow stuff up. Happily, there is plenty of opportunity for that here. The first stage feels like something from the early 90s. There aren’t too many ships and things are relatively calm. However, it doesn’t take long before the pace picks up in a big way. By stage three things get very intense with gameplay becoming more and more bullet hell-ish. It’s interesting, as it feels like the game is trying to straddle the middle ground between traditional shmups and more hectic modern ones.
Boss fights will have bullets flying everywhere. There are patterns to be learned, and strategies to hammer out. All the while, the game makes little nods to classic shoot ’em ups. This can especially be seen in some of the mid bosses that look a lot like ships from other popular series.
Playing through ZeroRanger, it’s interesting to see how the game evolves. It starts off being a very traditional experience. Then things shift into the world of bullet hell. For the last little bit of the game, things go right off the rails (in a good way!). First, players’ ship suddenly gets the ability to turn into a giant robot. Then a little bit later they’re greeted with a gauntlet of shmup-y mini game boss thingies. It’s not the best set of descriptors but it will have to do without giving away spoilers as to why this happens. Basically these entail a number of smaller fights with a shoot ’em up premise at their core, usually with a lot of dodging, as players try to deal with the game’s final boss. There may even be a reference to Undertale in all of that. They’re very challenging and very interesting, but also make for a nice change of pace from other games in the genre.
Hopping into a game of ZeroRangers, players have a couple of ships to choose from that play a little bit different from one another. Also, at the end of each stage, they will have the choice of two special weapons to equip on their vessel. These include a lightning spread shot, homing lasers, and a powerful, concentrated shot among others. As a result, there are a lot of ways that one can tackle the game. Each weapon behaves very differently, so can lead to a number of combinations to try out during playthroughs.
Visually, the game goes for a very stripped down retro look. It skips along the periphery of what might be considered an 8-bit aesthetic. The ship designs and environments have designs and levels of detail comparable to games of that era. However, the color palette is kept to a far more minimalist level. Green, orange, and black are the dominant colors on screen at any given time. It helps give ZeroRanger its personality and the game jokes around with its choice of colors from time to time. One certainly gets the impression that its developers are rather fond of orange.
Over the years, a decent number of shoot ’em ups have made their way to the PC. ZeroRanger is a very nice addition to that library. The way it takes so much of what made shmups from other eras good and combines it with solid controls, challenging bosses, and a nice, minimalist visual style makes for a very satisfying experience. ZeroRanger would be right at home in anybody’s shoot ’em up collection.