by Jed Pressgrove
The arena fights in the new Doom are often preceded by an opportunity for preparation and scouting, decreasing the chances of the combat intimidating you. Outside of a tutorial stage, you will not find similar complacency in Assault Android Cactus. The hundreds upon hundreds of enemies for each arena fight in Assault Android Cactus, along with the need to recharge one’s battery in order to survive, bring greater pressure than what you will experience in Doom, and with that comes greater elation when you finally obliterate the opposing forces and hear that dizzying melody that kicks off the stage-clear theme.
You would be hard-pressed to name a better twin-stick shooter than Assault Android Cactus. Developer Witch Beam channels the oddball joy of classic works by Treasure (Gunstar Heroes, Dynamite Headdy) and, more importantly, establishes a compelling set of rules to assist and concern players during the mayhem-filled fights. Each character has a primary standard weapon and a secondary power weapon that has to recharge after each use. In most cases with the latter, the character will perform a dodge before and after the shot is fired — a quirky update to 1942’s innovation in bullet evasion. The majority of the characters have the firepower (e.g., seeker missiles, shotgun, etc.) that you would associate with a “shooter protagonist.” But a couple of the heroes fall well outside of such expectations, such as the woman whose primary weapon is a boomerang and whose secondary weapon is a black hole, creating what feels like an iconoclast’s take on the twin-stick shooter framework.
Assault Android Cactus is also a race against time. Each protagonist is powered by a battery that decreases over the course of battle; taking hits from enemies depletes the battery as well. The trick is killing enough enemies to attain a battery power-up before time runs out. You can gain boosts to speed and firepower and paralyze enemies via other power-ups, but such effects must take a backseat in moments during which your battery meter is flashing red in a crowded arena. The new Doom does not have anything like the suspense of the battery, instead encouraging players to engage in “Glory Kills,” which drop health and ammo for you. In Assault Android Cactus, none of your kills carry any sort of pretense of pride like Glory Kills, yet carrying out a streak of 150 consecutive kills is far more pleasurable, not to mention more eye-catching and varied, than Doom’s mini cutscenes of enemy destruction.
The arena design in Assault Android Cactus exposes most levels in twin-stick shooters as lazy and boring. In some cases, it’s not even accurate to call the battlegrounds “arenas.” In one level, you move through corridors as enemies try to push you back. In another level, the floor and walls collapse and come into place based on where you move. Even when a level is more like an arena, there can still be strange things to account for, such as a deadly laser that routinely sweeps through the entire level, forcing you to hide behind crates or enemies at the right time.
Given this constant intensity, it’s not shocking when you go through Assault Android Cactus’ final boss, which involves enough transformations to rival the concluding multi-stage battle in Treasure’s Sin and Punishment: Star Successor. But truth be told, no action game has ever so surprisingly registered as pure camp as Assault Android Cactus. When your battery runs out, you hear an auto-tune voice woefully sing, “I’m just another android, and my battery’s running low.” The synths of this tune recall the ominous keys of A Clockwork Orange, bringing an undeniable gravity to what would otherwise be interpreted as an easy joke. After the entire song, after you hear the android singer proclaim “can’t feel my feelings,” the tone is more sensitive than humorous, more resonant than smart-assed. It’s difficult to imagine bolder expression upon defeat in a well-tread shooter subgenre.