If there’s one genre that has seen a significant disappearance from the public eye in the past few generations of gaming, it’s the shoot-em-up. Once a staple of arcades and the consoles of sci-fi fanatics, shoot-em-ups have earned the nickname “bullet hell” for good reason. In games such, it’s not unusual to be faced with a screen full of gyrating red dots of death. Jamestown+ is no different.
Originally released in 2001, Jamestown represented an alternate re-telling of 17th century history in which British and Spanish soldiers vie for control of Mars in a decidedly steampunk fashion. Toss in indigenous martians and historical figures like John Smith and Virginia Dare and that’s Jamestown in a nutshell. It’s an off-the-wall premise to be sure, but it’s one that’s handled with the utmost love.
Jamestown+ steps in four years later to provide PlayStation 4 owners with the chance to take to the skies of Mars once more. Sporting improved graphics, an updated user interface, two new levels, a host of additional playable characters and a remastered soundtrack among other tweaks, Jamestown+ represents the title in its definitive state. It may have made its debut on the screens of computers, but it’s hard to deny that Jamestown+ has found a comfortable home in users’ living rooms.
Right from the get-go, Jamestown+ stands as a gorgeous experience both visually and aurally. Embracing a 16-bit aesthetic that evokes fond memories of titles like Axelay and Radiant Silvergun, the vertically scrolling landscapes of Jamestown+ look wonderfully crisp and are complemented by the game’s impressive soundtrack that’s up there with some of the best. From British soldiers brandishing muskets against martians, to floating mountains drifting below the player, every sprite and background looks pixel-perfect and serves to sell the game’s premise.
This is doubly important as a strong and clear art direction is essential to the success of any shoot-em-up. With so much going on on screen at any given time, it’s essential that the player be able to discern the nature of every on-screen blip at a glance. Developer Final Form Games has done a stellar job of crafting a world that invites the player to stare and take it all in, but does not act as a distraction when the bullets really start flying.
Taking place across the original game’s five levels and introducing two new additions – Mars’ dangerous moons Phobos and Deimos – the Jamestown+ experience is not particularly long should the player opt to speed through the content. This would be a disservice to the game’s beautifully-crafted levels, though. The game boasts five increasingly challenging difficulty modes that do a great job of highlighting the genre’s strengths by continually throwing curveballs at the player.
So as not to be entirely impossible once bullets begin to fill the screen, Jamestown+ boasts incredibly tight controls. Each ship comes equipped with a standard shot type and a special ability that provides the player with everything from the added utility of aimed shots to the incredible power of a deployable laser beam. This is capped off by the “Vaunt” ability that lets players expend their collected power for a temporary shield that increases their ship’s damage potential exponentially.
At no point does the game’s control feel sluggish, standing tall among its past genre contemporaries. It’s clear that Jamestown+ was meant to be played on a controller from the comfort of a couch and the experience benefits from it. From the game’s story missions to a series of maddeningly difficult challenges, Final Form Games has made a striking case for the continued development of the shoot-em-up genre, joining the likes of Super Galaxy Squadron in trying to keep it alive.
Building upon the game’s host of content, there is an in-game shop that peddles everything from Gauntlet Mode to silly subtitles. The real star of this marketplace, though, is the wealth of different ships that players can buy with their hard-earned ducats. Building upon the four ships that came stock in the original title, Jamestown+ also includes a series of Armada-class ships that allow for a dash of customization. The added customization will have players picking their favourite shot types and special abilities, clocking in at a total of 36 possible combinations.
Jamestown+‘s customizable ships and new stages act as wonderful additions to the existing package. The two new stages are presented as “what-if” scenarios starring famed adventurer John Smith and take the player to some delightfully exotic new locales. If anything, it’s too bad more stages were not added. While the narrative bits do a great job of setting the tone of each level, the story surrounding John Smith’s adventure to Mars’ moons is particularly strong, feeling and playing like an eccentric campfire tale.
It’s this warm and cozy feeling that permeates Jamestown+‘s every inch. Everything from the swelling crescendos of the game’s score to the expert use of scrolling parallax ooze with a charm and sense of careful consideration that helps set Final Form’s latest apart from its contemporaries. It’s an aesthetically tight bullet hell thrill ride that plays just as well as it looks and could very well act as the spark that’s needed to reignite interest in this aging genre.
It may be sparse on new content and require an affinity for replaying past levels to keep the adventure alive, but Jamestown+ manages to nail the feeling of adrenaline from the gaming days of yore. Whether played alone or with friends through local co-op, it’s hard to resist the urge to take to the skies for one more jaunt through Mars’ danger-filled atmosphere.
Did you play the original Jamestown? Do you think Jamestown+ has what it takes to help spark a modern resurgence of the shoot-em-up genre?
Jamestown+ is available now for the PlayStation 4. Game Rant was provided a download code for this review.