I am one with my aircraft. Piloting through the mustard-colored skies, I weave a parabolic path through a seemingly endless array of bullets, bombs, and bandits. I cut my engines, let my jet plummet to the ground like a lead weight, training my sights on my prey. With a squeeze of the trigger, they explode in a spray of sprites that would make the Game Boy proud. Suddenly my jaunt is cut short by a fleet of battle cruisers unleashing their hellish fury on my tiny blip in the air. Such is the joyful frustration of Vlambeer’s Luftrausers, a 2D dogfighting game that, despite some occasional issues, is an awesome arcade experience that feels far more epic than its simple aesthetic might let on.
The game's name is complete nonsense (a grammatically incorrect mashup of the German words for “aerial” and “out”) but it’s proof that all you need for a killer game is a great idea and a ridiculous name. You play as a faceless pilot for a not-so-vaguely Germanic military force. Your mission: destroy as many of the other side’s boats, planes, and (God help you) blimps as you can before meeting your inevitable demise. Mastering Luftrauser’s physics is paramount to success, as you need to manage your aircraft’s powerful boost as well as gravity’s desire to send your plane to the ocean floor in order to outmaneuver and outgun your enemies. You also need to manage your firing tactics--your craft will only heal itself if you let off the trigger, but the only way to get the big scores is to seek out and shoot down every foe you come across. The controls are simple, but you have access to all the tools necessary for mastering the unfriendly skies--and playing Luftrausers is an exuberant joy. It’s a delicate dance through a bullet hell airscape, and once you get the hang of it, piloting becomes second nature.
There are tons of unlockable upgrades to outfit your plane with, adding more substance to what could have been a fairly rote arcade shooter. The dozen or so options include an engine that launches your plane forward with every bullet it fires behind it, a shotgun spread with a heavy kickback, and a body that drops bombs at regular intervals (or, as Luftrausers affectionately calls this combo, the “Bob Raus”). While some equipment feels a bit underwhelming (like the missiles, whose lock-on fails more often than not), most options allow for equally legitimate strategies. Because some missions include destroying a certain number of enemies or getting a specific combo count, you have plenty of incentive to constantly swap gear, all while unlocking new equipment and color schemes.
The best part about changing out your aircraft’s various implements of destruction, though, is how each part dynamically alters Luftrausers’ banging soundtrack. Dripping with heavy synths and a punchy beat, the music will amp you up before every single fight--and then the chorus kicks in. This will be your life’s new theme song. You will hum it to yourself in the shower. You will high-five people who don’t exist every time it starts playing. Luftrausers’ one song will make you feel like a god among mortals, and you won’t mind hearing it start over every single time you die.
Luftrausers gets the core arcade experience so right that it’s a shame that some aspects of its presentation feel so unpolished. If you’re playing with a controller on PC, the button prompts don’t change to reflect the proper inputs. Some missions seem buggy, rewarding you for doing things unrelated to the mission objectives. Worst of all, the action sometimes gets so hectic that it's hard to keep up with your plane. You'll occasionally watch helplessly as your plane flies outside the view of the screen, or struggle to stay focused on your aircraft as it zips around the sky amidst dozens of similar-looking enemy ships. It’s a shame these issues regularly crop up, as they mar what could have been one of the greatest arcade-style shooters of the 21st century.
What’s on offer here is the video game-equivalent of a punk rock EP. It’s loud, brash, rough--a quick shot of adrenaline directly into your heart, right when you need it. Luftrausers may go through its share of turbulence, but it’s got the gameplay chops to hang with with the best arcade games out there. The best feeling of all is that it makes you feel like a maestro of the skies--if only for a minute or two at a time.
This game was reviewed on PC.