If I haven't mentioned it before, I'm a sucker for a good shmup. Now, I've played a few that were less than satisfying and a few that simply blew my mind away. When I was tasked with reviewing Phalanx, I honestly expected it to be a weird game that fell somewhere on the "Not So Great" list of shmups. I mean, look at the box art! What does an old country man with a banjo have to do with a space shooter? Am I shooting from a banjo? No, there's no Banjo Kablooie here. As a matter of fact, the banjo man has nothing to do with the game. It was a ploy to get people's attention, and boy, did it work! It's a good thing, too, because this game is definitely worth your attention.
I'll put it right out there at the beginning. Phalanx (full name Phalanx the Enforce Fighter A-144) is not an easy game. You actually have to do a little more planning than just sitting there and holding down the "Fire" button for two hours. It's guaranteed that you will die a few times per level, so learn how to pay attention to the level design and enemies so you won't use up all of your continues. Every enemy has a different flight and attack pattern. One thing I liked is that not only can you choose the difficulty of the game, but also you can choose how fast your ship flies. Obviously, the faster you fly, the easier it can be to dodge...or fly straight into an enemy's blast. I noticed that somehow my ship speed changed throughout my gameplay. I went from "Fast" to "Three-Legged Turtle". I'm not sure if that's supposed to happen on later levels, but it was quite frustrating since I couldn't figure out how to change it back.
The controls are pretty straightforward. Fire, switch weapons, pause, and directions (duh). Be careful! If you switch weapon type, you can't go back to what you had before. Also, I found that sometimes pressing the switch weapon button meant "Self Destruct". You gathered weapons by flying over letter boxes throughout the stages. For example, L was laser, P was power/health, and E was for extraordinarily useless energy blasts. The energy blasts were the worst because they would autofire. You held the button down to build up the energy shot and released it. I was too concerned with dodging the tiny red death pellets than I was concerned with building up a good shot and letting it fly at the right time in the right place. I'll stick with my bombs and lasers, thank you very much. Overall, the controls themselves were smooth and manageable no matter what speed setting you had your ship on.
One definition of "phalanx" is "any of the bones of the fingers or toes". Consider that.
When looking at shmups, I personally love seeing what crazy bosses the developers come up with. Phalanx did a pretty good job coming up with some relatively unique bosses. Definitely not as awesome as G Darius's fish bosses, but they're still cool. And what makes it even more unique? One entire level is dedicated to you taking down one ship. Now, that may not sound extraordinary. Lots of shmups have giant ships as their boss levels. How is this one different you ask? The ship is the ENTIRE level. As in you manually fly around the ship going through port holes and attacking its side panels and cannons. You fly into the ship itself to fight three different bosses that are somehow holding the massive structure together. All in all, it's pretty cool that you have a little bit more control over where you're going and it's not just another autoscroll level. None of the other bosses are particularly noteworthy except when it came to Mission 6. That boss was a PAIN. For one, you could only do damage at very short intervals of time to a very small moving area of damage. The second thing is that the boss shoots out an invincible ball of light that follows you and does serious damage. Defeating this boss is so difficult, it's almost unfair. I went from having eight lives to having ZERO lives in a short span of time. I was dodging the death ball while trying to line up for those precious seconds when I could do damage to the beastly boss. Fortunately, that was the only time when I got extremely frustrated with the game and wanted to give up.
A far as the art goes, it's not bad. There are a few elements that I really appreciated and some that I didn't. What I appreciated was the use of foreground. In one scene, you drive your ship through what appears to be a misty cave. The background is dark and the foreground moves as you fly through giving the whole thing a sense of dread and unease. I was just waiting for something to pop out of the shadows at me! Alas, nothing did, and I'm rather disappointed at that. It would have made the experience all the more terrifying if I wasn't sure where an enemy would pop out from the darkness. What I didn't appreciate was the fact that some obstacles weren't clear as to whether they were obstacles or not. At one time, I flew through the level dodging and weaving so as not to crash into some very obvious platforms—or so I thought. Right at the end of the platforms was a giant platform that appeared impassable. I prepared to lose some health only to find that the giant monolithic structure wouldn't do me any damage at all. I just flew right into it. What the heck! I still don't know if the previous platforms would do any damage. I might go back and find out someday. Anyway, the art of Phalanx is decent. It's nice to look at and doesn't take away from the action of the game!
As far as shmups go, I can easily say that Phalanx is one that I'll remember with fondness. I started out with low expectations and found myself pleasantly surprised by the details and the uniqueness of the game. If I had seen it on the shelf gracing its banjo man cover, it certainly would have caught my attention! Would it have been enough to buy it? Maybe. Maybe not. I do know that I really enjoyed this game and would definitely give it more playthroughs and recommendations. Maybe one day I'll beat it on Normal mode and see the actual ending.
THAT WOULD BE GREAT.