Parent Talk: The ESRB rates Mars Matrix E for everyone and lists animated violence in the warning box. Like all arcade shmups (shoot ’em ups) of the time, the action is 2D sprite-based with a mix of 3D polygons, so you’re going to see lots and lots of ships exploding…mainly yours. This is the type of game I loved when I was younger, classics like Gradius and Life Force were just as violent as Mars Matrix and I turned out just fine…depending on who talk to.
Plays Like: Mars Matrix is a vertical scrolling shoot ’em up that takes no prisoners. It’s a simple to learn, impossible to master shooter. Make no mistake about it, if you’re new to the genre DO NOT start here. This game will literally destroy you. Gameplay is simple, you have one of two projectiles you can shoot, you don’t explode when smashing into enemy ships, and you can level up your craft by collecting experience cubes. Finally there’s an absorption barrier you can use if the GHB (Gravity Hole Bomb) gauge is full, which protects you for a short period of time, and can also be used to detonate a powerful screen-clearing bomb.
Review Basis: While I’d love to say I finished the game, that would be a flat-out lie. This is an early bullet hell shmup, meaning there are literally hundreds if not thousands of bullets on the screen at any given time. Like most shooters in the sub-genre, the first level is manageable, but by level two the game hand’s you your ass. If by some miracle you make it to level three, the difficulty only increases from there. I managed to make it to the fourth boss on four stars, which is the default difficulty level. Like I do with most of these retro reviews, I only played for a short period of time to reflect on a classic gem from the past. That said, I have every intention of finish all six stages.
Excellent combat system. Here’s the rundown, you can select two different ships or Mosquitos as they’re called here. The red one has normal speed, but a wideblaster or spread-shot weapon. The blue Mosquito is faster, but has a laser shot that only shoots in a straight line. Regardless of the ship you’re using, you can fire a regular shot, rapid fire, or the piercing cannon. The piercing cannon is the most powerful weapon in your arsenal, but requires you get up close and personal with enemies, not always a great idea, although if your ship comes in contact with an enemy it doesn’t mean instant-death like virtually all other shmups out there. Finally there’s the Gravity Hole Bomb (GHB) gauge which slowly fills over time. Once maxed out you can activate an absorption barrier that will both absorb and reflect incoming enemy fire. If you hold down the button until the gauge is completely empty you can release a gravity hole bomb which clears the screen. It might sound like you’ve got enough behind you to stand a chance, but you’re outnumbered about a hundred-billion to one.
+ Combo/evolving system. Destroyed enemies typically drop gold Experience Cubes. These cubes not only gives you experience, but act as a combo multiplier. The quicker you collect Experience Cubes, the more your score will increase, but so will your craft’s level. It’s possible to raise your level to eight, and in doing so your standard regular shot will also increase in power, which perfectly ties the two systems together.
+ Heavy emphasis on strategy. While it might not appear as such at first, you can actually project where enemy fire will reflect while using the GHB system. Not only that, but you don’t always have to use the full meter and deploy a bomb. Instead you can simply reflect shots back towards enemies and let go of the button. This way the meter fills up quicker.
+ Lots of replay value. Not only will it take you a long time just to finish the Arcade Mode, but then there’s the Elite Mode, which replaces enemy positions. There’s also a Score Challenge Mode which challenges you to continuously beat your previous high score.
+ One of my favorite features of the game is the store. Everything you do in the game nets you points, and all these points are tallied together and converted to cash. While the prices might seem ridiculously high at first, you quickly realize after an hour of playing that they’re just right. Not only can you unlock the art gallery, which is awesome, but also gameplay features like additional credits (continues), strategies (actual video tutorials showing a perfect play-through of the level), and much, much more. This extends the replay value astronomically.
+ Audio visual presentation holds up surprisingly well even some 12 years after the game’s release. I played this with my VGA-to-HDMI upscaler and the game looked great. Sprites popped from the screen, there were lots of fancy special effects thrown in for good measure, and only minimal slow-down, and slight pixelation here and there. Overall, it’s one highly detailed shmup. The audio is also rocking, with great techno music and strong sound effects.
+/- While not really falling in a good or bad category, Mars Matrix is a one-credit scorer. What does that mean, it means that once you’ve used up all your lives your high-score will be registered. It is replaced the second you hit the continue or credit button. The continues basically let you progress just a bit further and practice, but for the high scores to count, you need to go back to the beginning and try all over again.
Most people will find Mars Matrix way too hard, but therein lies its charm. It forces you to keep playing in order to unlock more continues from the store. That’s just the tip of the iceberg though. The store adds new gameplay tweaks, there’s the Elite Mode to tackle, and much, much more. For a game released at the tail end of the Dreamcast’s life, it holds up supremely well. If you enjoy shmups, and are just starting to collect for the Dreamcast, this is one you need to have in your collection. It’s fantastic fun that will keep you coming back for more.
Final Score: 8.5/10