Blissful Death: the competitive mayhem of Rival Megagun

Blissful Death: Celebrating the Shoot 'em Up

Rival Megagun is a competitive shoot ’em up, which makes it immediately stand out amid its many peers in the genre.

Shoot ’em ups are typically solitary or cooperative affairs; they tend to be about lone (or duos of) heroes fending off seemingly insurmountable odds using an improbably small spacecraft, after all. But over the years, there have been just a few competitive affairs, demonstrating that it is eminently possible to make a convincing and compelling versus game from traditional blaster mechanics.

Interestingly, these “versus shooters” from over the years have rarely been directly competitive in nature — you tend not to be directly shooting at one another, in other words. Rather, each player focuses on their own individual shoot ’em up gameplay, and in doing so affords themselves the opportunity to make life inconvenient for their rival. In this sense, these games often take as many cues from competitive puzzle games as they do conventional shoot ’em ups.

Rival Megagun title screen

Rival Megagun doesn’t deviate strongly from the formula set from its spiritual precursors such as Taito’s Space Invaders DX and and ADK’s Twinkle Star Sprites, but it does give us an experience with a strong sense of style, some challenging and customisable gameplay — and plenty of longevity, particularly if you have people with whom you can compete regularly.

In Rival Megagun, the setup is that in the year 2000, Earth was dominated by the mysterious “Harvester” forces, which surrounded the planet, consuming any materials in their path and converting it into weaponry. In order to placate this unknown threat, Earth began offloading its landfill and junk into space in the hope that it would keep the Harvesters from descending to the planet below and consuming everything in their path.

Two decades later, the Earth is running out of rubbish to send the Harvesters’ way — or, more accurately, the Harvester forces are expanding at such a rate that the Earth isn’t producing enough crap to keep up with them. As such, it is determined that the only appropriate solution is to send a lone pilot through the portal that the Harvesters came from in order to take care of them once and for all.

Rival Megagun

But who to send? The powers that be decide to make a competition out of it. Prospective heroes blast into space, shoot their way through the Harvester forces and, by competing against one another, demonstrate their capability to see the mission through to its completion. Sure, a few good people might die along the way, but what are a couple of deaths on the path to potentially saving billions?

Rival Megagun’s competition unfolds as a split-screen vertically scrolling shooter. The two rivals are faced with incoming waves of Harvester enemies and must shoot their way through them while avoiding incoming bullets; in a twist on the usual shoot ’em up formula, both combatants can take two hits before their ship is destroyed.

As each combatant blasts enemies, they add to a combo counter, and as this counter rises, portals open on their opponent’s side of the battlefield. When the combo expires, these portals shoot out “drones” that will attack alongside the Harvester forces. And as each combatant builds up their combo, they also build up an attack meter which can be used for two purposes: it can either fire off a charged shot which directly attacks their opponent in some way, or once completely full, it allows the player to transform into a “boss” enemy in an attempt to assert their dominance once and for all.

Rival Megagun

There are several characters to play as in Rival Megagun, each of whom has their own basic attack pattern and boss transformation. As you play the game more, you unlock additional customisation options, including items that affect the way the character performs, alternative weapons to use with the charged shot and drones to fire out of the portals. There’s actually an impressive amount of control you can take over the various characters’ loadouts once you’ve unlocked some of what Rival Megagun offers — though wisely the game doesn’t overwhelm players with these options immediately. Rather, they’re provided as a reward for continually and repeatedly engaging with the game’s mechanics, gradually improving your skills in the process.

Rival Megagun is a very enjoyable game from a variety of perspectives. Its 32-bit-style pixel art is pleasing on the eye, and the action is fast, furious and consistently smooth. The music strikes a good balance between modernity and a retro feel with its heavy use of square wave synths, and the sound effects are crunchy and satisfying. More than anything, the overall structure and design of the game is very sound; the “versus” formula works extremely well, and matches can often be enjoyably unpredictable.

Notably, a player building up enough power to transform into their “boss” form is by no means a guarantee that they will win that round. Shots can be dodged; bombs can be fired; bosses can be defeated. And in this way, battles between experienced players can become delightfully intense as each tries to outwit the other. That said, at the other end of the spectrum, if you’re just getting started, the Easy difficulty in Rival Megagun’s arcade mode is such that pretty much anyone will be able to one-credit clear the game without too much trouble.

Rival Megagun

The only aspect of the game that gives me a certain amount of pause is that the dialogue in the aforementioned story mode is… not great. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with it on a technical level, but the humour that the script attempts to inject into the experience feels somewhat out of place amid the relatively serious narrative. On top of that, none of the characters are particularly likeable, the “twist” towards the end of the narrative is handled with a complete lack of grace, subtlety and sense of dramatic build-up — and the whole thing just comes across a little bit like it’s trying too hard while simultaneously feeling kind of half-arsed.

That said, very few people come to a shoot ’em up for its plot, and in Rival Megagun’s arcade mode, the dialogue sequences are kept mercifully brief — perhaps best considered as being akin to the weird things Japanese puzzle game characters bellow at one another before a match. In the game’s versus mode — which can be played either against a human or computer opponent — the dialogue is completely absent and thus once you’re done with arcade mode, you can forget all about this side of things.

I don’t wish to dwell on this side of things too much because it really is a minor part of the whole experience — not to mention the fact that tone and humour are inherently subjective things, so your mileage may well vary when it comes to this aspect of Rival Megagun — but it was noteworthy enough to be worthy of at least brief comment.

Rival Megagun

You shouldn’t let dodgy dialogue put you off playing Rival Megagun, though, because the game’s main reason for existence — its competitive versus blasting — really is exceedingly good. No two battles are quite alike, and the different characters and loadouts provide plenty of opportunity for further variation. Plus the fact that you can compete against a computer opponent, a friend who’s sitting next to you or a far-off opponent through the online mode means that you’re never far away from a thrilling blastathon battle any time you’re in the mood for it.

So what are you waiting for? The Earth needs saving… again.

Rival Megagun is available for PC via Steam, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. Physical versions are available for PS4 and Switch via First Press Games.

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Pete Davison
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