More and more it seems that pixel art games are a sure-fire way for small-scale/one-man Indie developers to make a splash in the industry. Space Cortex is a game that utilizes its style to craft a tense and exciting gaming experience. Created by Jacob Pavone, Space Cortex is reminiscent of Metroid in way of art design, story and tone but with a much stronger emphasis on shooting. Being a 2000s kid that grew up on outdated 90s technology, I have a fond appreciation for eight to sixteen-bit SNES games, like the classic side-scroller Mario Bros. Breaking a game down to simple shooting or jumping mechanics can cut the fat and offer a more refined experience that relies on you developing your skills. Space Cortex is one such game. It’s not very long and can be completed in a couple of hours but in that time, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
The game sees you assume the role of a jetpacked operative sent to a distant space research station to defeat a rogue Superintelligence and its legion of security robots. You’re armed with a ray gun and can fly up/down and left to right. The map has five sectors that consist of various rooms full of enemies that must be defeated in order to progress. Most stages will have more than two doors out and you’ll have to keep an eye on your map for what room you haven’t entered yet. The goal’s quite simple: defeat each of the sectors’ bosses and collect the access cards needed to enter the Superintelligence’s domain.
The strongest aspect of Space Cortex is the gameplay. The game can either be played with the keyboard or an Xbox controller. I’d strongly suggest the latter as it’s much more satisfying and easier to control. There are only a few enemy types, but each room presents a new challenge with no one solution. Although you’re using a jetpack, there’s still cover that you can utilize and corners you can try and hide in.
Say one room throws three wall turrets and two smaller flying enemies at you. There’s limited cover and each enemy projectile can be hit by yours, this almost functions like a shield. In the early stages, your gun only fires one shot before it reloads so you must time your shots just right. I got used to this before I had an encounter where this approach wouldn’t work, the enemies had ramped up. Circling back, I explored some of the rooms I skipped and discovered upgrades that improved my reload time, rate of fire and health. This made the newer stages so much easier and more satisfying to complete.
The game rewards you for exploring and there’s rarely a straight path to those upgrades. Added to this is the fact that there’s only a finite number of save points that you must double back to, adding to the tension of dying so far in lest you have to do it all again. The enemies will respawn, meaning that you develop a strategy for each new stage.
Upgrades make the game easier, but it knows how to increase the difficulty organically and in such a way that there are no unreasonable spikes. Space Cortex is challenging without being excruciating. A room in the first sector has three turrets and two flying enemies? Well, a room in sector five has four double-barrelled turrets on both the ceiling and the floor that won’t stop firing. How do you combat against that? I’d use a shield power-up that I acquired earlier on.
There are three power-ups in the game that are all legitimately useful. The kicker is that you can only have one at a time and must change them in the save rooms. A good degree of forethought is needed to decide which power-up will be more useful in any given context. In the later stages, the enemy hellfire is endless, and the shield power-up proved tried and true. However, I died during one boss and realized that the boost power-up would help me more and, sure enough, it did. It wasn’t a necessity to defeat him, but it was so much more useful. There’s freedom there. What I like is that the game doesn’t lock off the sectors from you until you defeat that sector’s boss. You can access the harder sectors early and find upgrades and power-ups if you think you can survive in the harder stages.
Space Cortex isn’t restrictive, and I argue that that’s its strength. However, sector five requires the door hack power-up in order to access certain rooms. This is so you face what’s inside without a more combat orientated power-up. This was likely to up the difficulty, but I found myself preferring the freedom of trial and error with different tools. Also, this leads to my one major complaint.
The game’s not glitchy but the one glitch I found almost definitely impeded my progress. Two rooms that required the door hacking tool have a regular door for an exit. Clear all the enemies and the door will unlock but, in this case, the door opened but I couldn’t go through. I think this was because the door hack tool was originally required to get in. What I had to do was use the door hack tool on the locked door before defeating the enemies. One of these rooms was the boss. Luckily, you had to defeat two boss enemies at once and only one had the access card. This almost made me think it was intentional, but it just seems too random.
Despite this, each sector offers something new. Although the game tends to reuse enemies, each environment looks distinct and aesthetically pleasing. You get an idea of what these sectors are used for in the context of the story too, like a solar array and botanical labs. These also offer new challenges. Sector two has flickering walls of electricity that work as both obstacles and shields for bullets. Timing in this sector is key. Sector four has alternate routes into different rooms that might be hard to find at first and enemies that are camouflaged into the background.
The music adds greatly to the atmosphere and helps with the tone and style. The bosses vary. The first boss was obviously the easiest, but I found the second to be the hardest next to the Superintelligence fight itself. Sector four’s boss was also very easy. They did all have a degree of challenge to them and a unique way to defeat each, but I can’t say they increased in difficulty naturally.
Space Cortex is short. Having been made by one man you can’t expect the scale of a Rockstar game. It makes up for this by grading your performance at the end (I got an F because I’m impatient, charge in and die). This adds to the replayability and I did just that after I completed it. Additionally, the game’s two-player. I can’t comment on this as we only have one Xbox controller but it’s something else that’d add an extra incentive to replay the game for sure. Space Cortex is an exciting experience that challenges you whilst compensating for what could be shortcomings with intelligent game design that won’t leave you unsatisfied.