This past spring, seemingly out of nowhere, three-man indie developer Witch Beam came back together and produced an enhanced Nintendo Switch port of their 2015 personality-packed twin stick action masterpiece Assault Android Cactus.
The “+” version adds a new second tougher campaign mode, and carries in all the extras produced for the original version of the game, including an exceptional audio commentary mode for every level.
I always meant to play through this game. I even own a copy of the original version for the PS4. I might have played through it by now if disaster hadn’t struck.
Assault Android Cactus is a tightly-designed twin stick arcade shooter that’ll take you at least a few hours to blast through. It’s a much more focused, smaller-in-scale game than Riddled Corpses EX (which I recently played and reviewed), and it has some interesting design regarding balance and difficulty.
Cactus starts strong on the presentation front, with a fully animated and voiced cutscene opening that evokes charm, high production value, and a cartoon vibe that you’ll be thrilled by. This all then sadly drops away after the first few minutes, with the rest of the well-written story relegated to on-screen text boxes. It’s a little bit disappointing that the game has such a strong start with cinematic, energetic cutscenes, only to have those vanish entirely out of the game till the last few moments.
The near-total lack of mid-game cutscenes is the only aspect that belies this game’s low budget and three man development team. Otherwise, Witch Beam has created a product that can stand proudly alongside any other arcade action game.
Core to the game design is a battery meter mechanic, functioning as a refillable stage timer. Certain enemies spawn battery powerups that allow you to increase your pool of playtime, so the whole game is a race against a clock that’s been cleverly disguised. You can die as many times as you want… as long as you still have battery. The action is fast and furious and you shouldn’t have too much difficulty just getting through it thanks to the ample battery powerups on the default stages, though mastering each level takes quite a bit of work.
Each character can switch between a primary and secondary weapon. All of the game’s characters play quite differently, and although I found that I enjoyed the machine gun and flame thrower of main protagonist Cactus the most, it’s fun to experiment with each character’s different weapons. With just three basic power ups and orbs that level up your main gun on a stage-by-stage basis, you can learn all you need to about the gameplay in the first two minutes.
The difficulty comes from the individual level designs.
Each of the game’s 25 levels is wildly different in terms of visual, audio, and encounter design, and the variety and quick pacing will easily make you forget how disappointed you are about the lack of cutscenes. I had a wonderful time playing through the game, and then immediately decided to revisit the whole game again to listen to the audio commentary.
That’s right every stage has bespoke commentary delivered by the entire development team, mixed into unique stereo channels and timed out to roughly line up with a playthrough of each stage. It’s a feature I wish every game had. The commentary offers insightful knowledge about the complex action design of the game, and is but the tip of the iceberg for extras here.
There’s a daily challenge/daily run mode. There’s an infinite challenge mode a la Geometry Wars. There’s numerous unlockable cosmetic extras and camera modes, including a first-person viewpoint. There’s full online leaderboard support. And, on the Switch, there’s the new Campaign+ mode, a brand new take on the main mode that essentially doubles the length of the game, with much tougher level designs and enemies for the truly challenge-focused players.
Tech-wise, this is one of the better ports on the Switch, all the more impressive considering its modest budget roots. It runs for the vast majority of play at 60 frames per second and at solidly high resolutions, with only a little aliasing visible if you play docked on a large TV screen. The energetic and dynamic techno music will worm its way into your head, and it’s quite easy to get sucked into the intense gameplay and high-feedback visuals, with nary a hint of input lag.
If you’re looking to play the Plus content but don’t own a Switch, then your other option is the PC version. After a period of a few months, the new features were back-ported into the PC release…which also received a slight price increase to “compensate” for the cost of making the patch. I’m not sure how I feel about that since the content was already designed and already running well on the lower powered Switch hardware, but at least it’s nice that PC players who already owned the game got the new content for free.
When I reached the end of the game, I thought that surely Witch Beam would be working on a sequel. They put out this new, awesome Switch conversion of their hit game, the ending teases a new story, and their aptitude for arcade game design is right at the top of the industry.
Unfortunately, one of the main designers left the company, and now they’re working on…Unpacking, a simplistic “zen” art game about unpacking boxes after a move.
I don’t mean to digress. I know this is supposed to be a review of Assault Android Cactus on the Switch. It’s a wonderful breathlessly-paced action game that’s totally worth its price if you want a twin-stick shooter. But I need to talk about Unpacking for a second.
This is the most personally disappointed I’ve been by a follow-up game in a very long time. It’s not a twin-stick shooter. It’s not an action game. It’s not running on the same tech. It doesn’t have the same art style. It reminds me a little bit of the “Story” series (Game Dev Story has long been a favorite of mine) except it’s about unpacking boxes. And they’ve shown so little of it that it barely seems like a thing.
I get that developers sometimes change directions. I get that teams sometimes fall apart and regroup. I get that I have no actual personal say in what anyone else does with their time and that I’m a jerk for even doing this.
But man. I feel just like I did when my favorite band broke up and then reformed to make weird “Halloween Metal” music.
I know that Witch Beam built a lot of goodwill in the gaming community with how excellent Assault Android Cactus was, and the Switch version is an incredible conversion and expansion effort from such a small team. It’s one of the better action games on the system. I’m happy that a definitive version of the game exists, and I will forever wish that we could have seen what that team would make with a larger budget and newer hardware at their disposal. Instead…they’re making a small game about unpacking boxes.
That’s fine. But I will always wonder what could have been.
Maybe they should have changed their band name…I mean team name?
Assault Android Cactus+ is $20 on both Switch and PC, and often goes on sale. The PS4 and Xbox One versions are $15 but don’t include the Plus content, and now that the team is making a weird box unpacking game, maybe they never will. Still, it’s not to be missed for fans of the genre.