So here’s the thing: I suck at video games. I don’t play games to win or do well at them, because 1) it’s not going to happen, and 2) even if I put in the amount of time to get better at them, I would find myself depressed that I’d wasted my time getting good at a video game instead of, say, clarinet. As such, I usually avoid games that are purely skill-based and opt toward experiential, arty bullshit instead. Once in a while, though, playing a game of skill can really scratch an itch.
Luftrausers is $10 on Steam, so essentially, if I had gotten a couple hours of fun out of playing it, I’d be satisfied (I use going to the movies as my price of entertainment per hour, roughly). I did in fact get a couple of hours out of it and had a really good time. I might even go back for more.
The game is dead simple, not just in its faux-Commodore-64 appearance, but also its gameplay. You pilot a 2D plane, which involves a throttle and rotating the plane, and gravity pulls you down. There’s a single shoot button, and that’s it. It’s deceptively elegant, and quickly leads to you doing things like soaring into the air, flipping 180 degrees, shooting behind you, and then flipping back as you dive into the water and then boost out. If you’re old enough, you might recognize some of its DNA from the old game Joust. Only unlike that game, Luftrausers fills the screen with a million enemies in the sky and on the ocean, bullets and missiles flying everywhere, and it’s complete chaos. In the good way. The average “game” only lasts around a minute.
To keep the game from growing stale, there are three components to your plane, each with associated challenges (e.g. blow up x number of boats, ram x number of enemies). When you complete those challenges, it unlocks more options for that given component, like different types of guns or water-friendly engines, as well as more challenges to unlock. So rather than simply playing to kill as many enemies as possible, and/or stay alive as long as possible, I often found myself working toward these sub-goals instead. Not only did it vary the gameplay, but it also made me try all the parts on the ship; in most games, I just find the one thing that works best and forget about the other options, but I couldn’t do that here.
As always with skill games, I hit the limitations of my abilities and found the game’s progression ground to a halt after a few hours. But by then I had really enjoyed the basic mechanics of the game, the nuanced control of the ship paired with shooting down enemies, and I felt I’d gotten plenty out of a game that cost me less than a dinner at a restaurant.