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It's been quite a while since we've talked about shmups on Freeware Friday. It is one of our favorite genres, thanks to the replayability - even the shallowest shmups have quite a bit - combined with a basic gameplay mechanic that just works. While Varia doesn't do anything especially new or strange, it's a polished and well-designed look at several mechanics that haven't seen much action in the genre. Those that love shmups should definitely have Varia on their hard drive, and even though it is quite difficult, it has a charm that appeals beyond just the confines of the shmup fandom.
Varia has a minimal plot involving cyberspace, firewalls, and other such nonsense. We're going to skip right into the graphics and sound because that doesn't actually matter whatsoever. The graphics are very trippy. The backgrounds have a pulsating, rainbow-colored style that fits with the cyberspace-nature of the game. Conversely, the ship graphics are fairly clean vector artwork in the same style as any game in the Forever series (Warning Forever, Battleships Forever, Captain Forever). This contrast of crazy background action and smooth foreground objects makes the game extremely interesting to look at and gives it a sort of trance vibe. The sounds and music reinforce this trance-like effect.
Gameplay follows the standard level progression of a shmup. You fight through waves of enemies and sometimes a mid-boss on your way to face down some monstrous battleship. As you kill enemies, you get points and power-ups to aid you. This formula is in full form in Varia, but this isn't bad. It's a good way to show shmup progression, and there's a reason why it has been virtually untouched for years. There's no boss rushes, non-linear gameplay, or anything of that sort here. Just a pure endurance run through some very difficult levels. Power-ups take the form of a rotating group of three balls. The red increases your main gun, the green gives you a one-hit shield, and the yellow gives you another option. Power-ups that will have an effect on you will be surrounded by a circle.
The first change that Varia introduces to this standard formula is the scoring. This isn't so much of a change as a mechanic inspired by the shmup classic DoDonpachi. Scoring in Varia is done along a chaining system. The more enemies you kill of the same color in rapid succession, the more points you get for each kill. If you kill lots of enemies of all different colors, you won't get very many points, but if you are blasting away like crazy at only one color of enemy, your score will skyrocket incredibly fast. This lends more of a timing and observation element to the gameplay, as it doesn't become just about survival, but also smart chaining of enemies. Colors are clearly indicated through the enemy's lines (green, red, etc) so there should be little confusion there.
Another differing element is the addition of shot-grabbing options. These options come from yellow power-ups and serve a unique purpose: they steal the shots from enemies, which are then copied and fired from the option. This makes the game that much more strategic and enjoyable, as it doesn't just become about getting weapons and shields. You have to take calculated risks to upgrade your option's weaponry, as it will soon be outclassed by the tougher enemies in later levels. Once an option has copied a weapon, it will use it until you die or you clear the option's weaponry, at which point you will have to copy another shot to se the option. You will have to clear and acquire better weaponry as you progress, so much sure to keep an eye on it.
Enemies in Varia are relatively simple, but follow clean geometric sense and fire in predictable patterns. This is good, as several of the enemies are also modular, which means that you have to attack them quite a bit to get by. They also put out plenty of bullets, which means that your dodging skills have to be spot-on here. You can switch between a normal speed, where options follow around behind you in a snaking line, and slow mode, where options freeze in their current position and you move slower to dodge bullets easier. Normal is best for the levels themselves, while slow is best for bosses as it lets you concentrate your fire.
Varia's main issue is that it doesn't have much. It's an excellent game with lots of cool enemies, bosses, and some interesting mechanics, but it's fairly short and frustrating. There's a lack of content here, and seeing more levels or alternate modes would've been very nice. Thankfully, there are online leaderboards to fuel the addiction. Competing with other players to get the highest score is an arcade tradition that should always be preserved, and Varia keeps this spirit of competitive play intact. However, there's no boss attack, which would've been very fun in a game like this.
The other, relatively minor problems involve the graphics. The first is that Varia is borderline seizure-inducing. Rapidly pulsing colors and waving lines make this game very dangerous for anyone that has or might have photosensitive epilepsy. The second is that the user interface, and subsequently the controls involving the interface, suck. It's hard to make out your score, lines have jagged edges, and switching around the weaponry in options is a trial-and-error process. There needs to be a better interface.
The end result of all this is that Varia may not astound you with innovation, but it's a fun and pretty game. Sometimes you just want to sit down with a game to just ease the time away without thinking too much, and Varia is that game. Trippy graphics, addicting gameplay, and trance-like sound make this a solid entry into the genre, and being freeware, there's no excuse not to have it! You can download Varia from the developer's site. Make sure to check out the readme, as it will greatly help you. You can also watch the menu tutorial if you are not one for readmes.
For another look at freeware games, take a peek at Joystiq's Free Game Club weekly feature!