The side-scrolling shooter genre, so prominent in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, gradually began its demise with the advent of 3D. The newfangled technology rendered the format passé, before refining its DNA into its spiritual successor, the first-person shooter. Those forerunners, however, tested lightning reflexes and memory skills, offering supreme playability across a variety of titles: Sanxion, Salamander, Raiden, Xenon II: Megablast, Axelay, Ikaruga, Panzer Dragoon Orta, and, now, a bona fide candidate for the best of modern times, Sine Mora. Indeed, the PlayStation Vita game is in esteemed company, and will go down as a triumph to anyone that experiences its charms.
What made the aforementioned luminaries classics was their combination of stylised graphics, satisfying weaponry, memorable audio, and precise, balletic shooting mechanics. Grasshopper Manufacture and Digital Reality have blended those ingredients effortlessly in this definitive release.
The title is a visual tour-de-force on the Vita's OLED screen, enhanced by a mature narrative with anthropomorphic, Hungarian-speaking characters, an original, haunting soundtrack from renowned Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka, and some of the best shooter dynamics of this generation.
With an often bewilderingly complex, yet consistently eloquent narrative involving kidnap, time-travel, and genocide, the story adds real character to the playing experience. Once the campaign has been duly dispatched on normal difficulty, the title's value is enhanced with an alternative ending offered as a reward for completing the harder difficulty settings.
Graphics are consistently breathtaking throughout the seven sprawling and varied levels; land, air, and sea stages are littered with incidental detail in high-definition, interspersed with brief, in-game cutscenes in story mode. Top-notch animation combines with the game's beguiling 2.5D perspective; the camera pans and rotates regularly throughout levels to highlight the title's robust engine. Meanwhile, enemy crafts enter the screen in the background, before darting into the fore to reinforce the layered effect.
Your ships feel nimble but powerful; the primary weapon, upgradable to a factor of 9, is a sight to behold at maximum capacity, but is still perfectly serviceable should you lose all of your power-ups. The collision detection is also satisfyingly exact, meaning that the game never feels unfair.
Elsewhere, the audio is suitably imaginative, with a 70s electro funk main score and haunting title screen track adding to the otherworldly nature of the universe. Its level of immersion is more pronounced with a decent pair of headphones, providing an engaging soundscape packed with low-key instrumentals and rousing motifs to rival those in classics gone by.
Controls adhere to basic shooter scripture: the left analogue stick handles movement, the X button operates your primary weapon, while the Circle input is reserved for secondary attacks such as homing missiles. The genre-staple health bar is eschewed for a constantly depleting clock, which denotes game over upon reaching zero. It's impacted by the number of hits your ship takes, making the title's slow-down mechanic invaluable during boss encounters, as their bullet patterns fill the entire screen in a manner that's reminiscent of Cave's more recent efforts.
The overall game length is extended by the additional pilots and ships selectable in the arcade mode, the aforementioned alternative ending, and achieving high scores on the leaderboards. In addition, there is some exclusive concept art to unlock from renowned anime artist Mahido Maede of The Animatrix and Kill Bill fame.
One aspect that is slightly disappointing, however, is the fact that the game is not particularly challenging on the normal difficulty setting. The levels are quite short – a few minutes apart – and the bosses are fairly easily conquered. While the swift stages are a perfect fit for the handheld format, a more robust challenge awaits in the higher difficulty tiers, which should really be the game's default setting. This is only a minor criticism, though, and does not affect the overall value of the game.
Sine Mora is Latin for 'without delay', which is a fitting recommendation for one of the finest side-scrolling shooters of the generation. This a compelling tribute to a bygone era, and a must-have if you're a fan of the genre.