Reviewed: February 15, 2005
Released: December 21, 2004
Trial Version Download
When our Editor first proposed that I review the shareware title Back to Earth 2, he baited me with the very apt description of “a mix of Asteroids and Galaxian…with boss battles”. Knowing that I am pushing my mid-thirties, he was sure that his old-school arcade comparison would catch my attention. Well, he was right on all counts – Back to Earth 2 is very much a mix of Asteroids and Galaxian…with boss battles thrown in, and the thought of having these two 80’s classics combined into a single game had me dusting off my parachute pants in excitement.
Alawar Entertainment is one of the Internet’s largest distributors of shareware games and software. With a wide variety of Araknoid, Pacman, DigDug and other arcade classic knockoffs, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Alawar is pumping out a top-down scrolling shooter as well. What is a surprise is when said scrolling shooter not only includes the sweeping bug-like alien attacks of Galaxian (or Galaga), but also has waves of polygonal asteroids tumbling towards your ship which split and separate when blasted much like the arcade classic Asteroids.
Sadly, while Back to Earth 2 captures (and even improves upon) some of the best aspects of the titles it borrows so heavily from, a lack of overall polish renders it a heartless effigy of days past.
No surprises here: in classic Space Invades top-down fashion, you are either shooting alien ships or asteroids – and lots of each – so many in fact, that the screen is often filled beyond comprehension with the onslaught of enemies and shootables. Every now and again, blasting one of these objects will unleash one or another valuable health pickups or power-ups.
While your ship is always pinned in the “up” direction, it is allowed full X/Y, corner-to-corner movement about the screen. Your ship comes stock with two side-mounted machine guns, which you continuously fire when holding down the button – and in this game you may as well tape the button down because you are not afforded even a moment’s rest from the constant onslaught. While having double the firepower may seem like a treat, the fact that the two guns are wing mounted on opposite sides of the ship means the your ship’s main fuselage is left vulnerable to head-on attack. The result is that you will nearly go batty as you not only have to keep your ship out of the way of the oncoming obstacles, but also have to keep the ship in a constant shifting motion to protect the main hull. And believe me – after ten minutes or so of the screen being completely filled with asteroids, ships, power-ups and gunfire, the mental strain makes Back to Earth 2 more of a chore than anything else.
However, as frenzied as the game gets, there is a bright side - as you frenetically zigzag out of the way of oncoming enemy fire and the asteroid showers, you will quickly build up a cache of Time Warp Crystals, which allow you to slow down the motion onscreen – “Bullet Time” if you will. This Bullet Time effect is essential in defeating the bosses that confront you at the end of each segment.
Right from the get-go, these bosses are difficult and don’t seem to have a set pattern of attack other than to fire incessantly as you approach anywhere within their range. Thankfully, the Time Warp will permit you to track between the shifting lines of fire emanating from the bosses’ weaponry and slowly plug away at their at their fuselages. Problem is, the Time Warp effect only lasts as long as the Warp meter has energy, and once it’s gone you are pretty much guaranteed to be dead…even with the “easy” bosses. It took three hour-long sittings before I was able to destroy even the first boss – and to be honest, I would have given up on long before had it not been for this review. When you fight a boss like this, with no pattern to memorize, it becomes an exercise in aggravation – when you need to fight said boss for three hours, well…let’s just say I almost threw my laptop out the window. It was so taxing in fact, that when I finally did finish him off, I did not even feel any relief, any enjoyment, any feelings of accomplishment, any anything – I was just too mentally spent.
The game defaults to mouse input, but keyboard or joystick can be selected from the options menu – which, given the unresponsive feel of the mouse sounded like a good plan. Strangely, nowhere in the game could I find an explanation of the keyboard layout. Now maybe it was just my laptop, but Back to Earth 2 did not seem to use any of the expected keys (arrows and/or spacebar), which left me frantically pecking away for some response as the enemies quickly decimated my ship. I did notice that the lower the graphics resolution I chose during loading, the better the mouse synched up to the on-screen action in play.
The screen resolution also seemed to have an adverse affect on the collision detection. Higher screen resolutions required a higher level of precision – or at least a hell of a lot more bullets – to achieve what could be done easily on the lower screen resolutions. Obviously, I don’t think this was planned – it is just the consequence of squeezing the pixels down – but it was frustrating to say the least.
Back to Earth 2 is far from a graphical treat, but for a top-down shooter it gets the job done. Static backgrounds, asteroids, ships and fire – that’s it. In twenty-five years, that is all we have ever asked of the top-down shooter genre, and that’s what they deliver.
Really, the only issue I had was that there is the weird mix of 2D and 3D models used throughout the game which make absolutely no sense; while the asteroids themselves are well-animated, fully textured 3D polygons with full rotation as they tumble down the screen, the ships (yours and the enemy’s) are simply just flat-colored sprites with little-or-no shading to give even a semblance of depth or a feeling that they belong in this world. This bizarre mix of modeling only serves to make the game look like a series of superimposed layers that don’t quite fit together.
Still, the explosions are well designed – especially when you kick on the Time Warp, where the screen suddenly zooms in and the on-screen objects take on a special motion blur effect. It’s really the high point of the game graphically; it’s only too bad the ships look so silly.
And as I mentioned earlier, there are the issues with the screen resolution and how it affects the gameplay. I have a one month old, high-end laptop and I was having issues with collision detection at the higher resolutions – this shouldn’t be the case for a top-down shooter.
Aurally, Back to Earth 2 is downright sad. Again, we don’t expect much from our top-down shooters, but this is definitely an area where Back to Earth 2 could step into the 21st century.
If the irritating MIDI-sounding background music doesn’t send you to the looney bin – then the constant gunfire pecking away at your skull will. Maybe if they would have used a greater library of sound effects, and used something more current than the fluffy spacey 80’s arcade ditty you hear over and over, Back to Earth 2 may have been a bit less dull. As it is, I had a hard time keeping focus on the game.
I have always been a firm supporter of the shareware and freeware industry. Oh hell, who am I kidding – I’ve never given a dime to shareware developers and I use shareware all the time. Still, I would like to think that if I put my mind to it I would send a shareware developer some money to thank them for their efforts. And, knowing that only a fraction of the people who use shareware actually pay for shareware – the developers have set the price of Back to Earth 2 at twenty dollars.
The problem is, even with the best of intentions, twenty dollars is a lot to spend for a shareware shooter that really isn’t all that good. With all the great shooters already available through download, flash, java, emulation – and most of them for free or cheap – it’s really hard to justify twenty dollars for Back to Earth 2. Maybe five, maybe even ten – but definitely not twenty dollars.
The nice thing about shareware is that you can go to over to Alawar Entertainment and demo the game for yourself. Still, with all of the online freebies (see: Alien Homonid) there’s not much reason to shell out twenty dollars for Back to Earth 2.
Really, Back to Earth 2 isn’t all that bad – but it’s just not all that good, either. At least not twenty dollars good. And while I would always urge gamers to support the independent game developers – I feel I would be negligent if I were to have you spend your twenty dollars on Back to Earth 2 versus some of the better shareware titles out there.
I was hoping Back to Earth 2 might rekindle some of those old school fires inside of me, but all it really did was remind me how much I like to play the more current generation of 2D shooters like Einhander, R-Type and Metal Slug. Still, head on over to Alawar’s website and give Back to Earth 2 a try – you just might find something you like.