Blissful Death: The storm and stress of Sturmwind EX

Blissful Death: Celebrating the Shoot 'em Up

The shoot ’em up is truly a global phenomenon. Since the beginning of gaming history, developers all across the world have been developing increasingly creative ways for us to blow the snot out of alien invaders — and, as you might expect, there’s been a certain amount of cross-pollination in the genre over the years, too.

Sturmwind EX, a remastered version of a 2013 Dreamcast shoot ’em up that began life as an Atari Jaguar CD exclusive in 1997, is a great example. German in origin, it incorporates elements of classics from other German developers such as Rainbow Arts’ X-Out, and blends them with distinctive aspects of Japanese-style shooters — particularly R-Type. The result is a game that, while not quite the perfect shoot ’em up in a few ways, is definitely a very distinctive experience, and a game worth having in your collection.

Sturmwind EX title screen

The Dreamcast version of Sturmwind first appeared on German public television channel 3sat in 2010, and received coverage from gaming news outlets worldwide for being a noteworthy new game for a discontinued console. Particular attention was drawn to its graphical effects, which were regarded as very impressive when considering the Dreamcast’s capabilities — though some prospective players offered some feedback based on the initial trailers, leading developer Duranik to revise the game’s weapon system and improve the game in a few ways.

It would be another three years before the final version of Sturmwind arrived, marking the first fully original game for the Dreamcast platform since 2009. It subsequently got a rerelease in 2017 without its original publisher RedSpotGames’ publishing, and in 2019 was remastered for Windows PCs by B-Alive Entertainment Software. This “EX” remastered version was then ported to Nintendo Switch and Xbox One later that year, and finally got a physical release through Pix’n Love Games in late 2021. It’s been quite a journey to get here.

Was it worth all that effort, though? Well, for the most part, yes; Sturmwind EX is a solid, satisfying shoot ’em up with some interesting mechanics and a significantly more generous amount of levels and bosses than many other shoot ’em ups. It looks good, sounds good and plays well — though there’s just a few little rough edges here and there that hold it back from true greatness. We’ll come back to that, though.

Sturmwind EX

In Sturmwind EX, you take on the role of the inevitable lone heroic pilot taking on the might of alien invaders. The game provides absolutely no attempt beyond this to provide any context as to what is going on other than a big octopus on the title screen, but it’s a shoot ’em up; plot has never really mattered all that much so long as there are plenty of things to blow up.

Blowing things up in Sturmwind EX involves using one of three different weapons, all of which you have access to from the start. The blue Lichtblitz weapon has a good spread and moderate firepower, and is good for protecting the area around your ship; the red Nordwest weapon has the ability to fire in all directions by pressing and releasing the fire button rather than holding it; and the Rudel weapon is a narrow-range but powerful energy bolt that is good for tearing through armoured foes. All of them are immensely satisfying to use.

You can switch between these weapons at any time with the squeeze of a trigger, and you can also set them to fire behind you instead of in front of you. Moreover, if you collect a power-up of the colour that matches the weapon you are currently using, it will be upgraded with drones that can be swapped between two different configurations, either supplementing your firepower in the direction your main gun is firing or providing some coverage on the opposite side.

Sturmwind EX

One interesting feature of Sturmwind EX is that you don’t immediately lose a life for taking damage; rather, you lose your current weapon and the drones attached to it. If you lose all three weapons, then you lose a life — but if you pick up a power-up corresponding to the weapon you’ve lost, you can repair yourself and get back your missing shot type. It’s a good system that makes for a much friendlier shoot ’em up than some of the games that clearly inspired Sturmwind EX; no R-Type style one-hit kills here, and no getting reset back to a checkpoint, either.

On top of the three basic weapons, you’re also able to charge a “beam” shot for a more powerful blast — though holding this for too long will overheat and destroy the weapon you’re using — and make use of screen-clearing smart bombs. As with most modern shoot ’em ups, the smart bombs are best used for defensive purposes rather than as a primary means of attack; well-timed “panic bombs” can prevent you from taking damage or losing a life.

Sturmwind EX is, for the most part, a horizontally scrolling shoot ’em up, though there are sequences that unfold in more arena-style scenarios, as well as vertically scrolling segments — though in both cases your ship is still presented from a side-on perspective. Clear “Danger!” marks are provided on screen when powerful enemies or hazards are about to appear, though in order to really excel at the game you will, as always, need to learn the stages.

Sturmwind EX

Scoring in Sturmwind EX is relatively straightforward, though its one noteworthy mechanic is a “Wave Bonus” system. Here, you’ll occasionally receive a radio message (which is completely inaudible beneath the chaos of the main game’s sound effects, but also has a visual cue) that indicates a wave of enemies, all of the same type, is incoming. Destroy them all and a large “WAVE BONUS” message will appear on screen; blast these letters and you’ll get a star, which acts as a score multiplier. Consistently pulling this off, therefore, is the key to the best scores.

There are two main ways to play Sturmwind: Mission Mode takes you through all 16 levels, allows you to save your progress and continue as many times as you like. Arcade Mode, meanwhile, cuts things down to just six stages and doesn’t allow any continues whatsoever. Both modes have their own local leaderboards allowing you to track your best scores as well as the range of levels on which you achieved them — though sadly there are no online leaderboards, so no competition against friends and/or Japanese shmup players who are vastly more skilled than you are.

Presentation-wise, Sturmwind EX is very distinctive. The game blends polygonal 3D elements with sprites and pre-rendered animated background elements. The latter can initially look a little jarring, since their animations are rendered at less than 30 frames per second or less while the game itself runs at a consistent 60. This gives some of them an almost “stop-motion” feel.

Sturmwind EX

While it’s easy to look on this as being a bit janky, it can also be viewed as a deliberate stylistic element, reminiscent of classic model work in old movies. It gives the game an appealingly retro look and feel that will particularly delight those who were around for the CD-ROM revolution in the ’90s — and, for once, a “retro” feel that doesn’t involve pixel art or aping the capabilities of classic hardware.

One downside of the game’s rather elaborate visual presentation is that it can sometimes be a little difficult to discern what are enemies, what are obstacles, what are hazardous scenery elements and what is simple background detail.

Bullets are, for the most part, reasonably easy to pick out against the backgrounds, but there are a few times when you might find yourself taking damage without being quite sure where it came from; there are also a couple of bosses whose weak spots are rather tricky to discern — and in one case, you’re on a tight time limit to defeat said boss! Establishing a sense of familiarity with the game in the long term will help with this, but it can be a little frustrating on your first playthrough.

Sound-wise, the various releases of Sturmwind over the years have come a bit under fire for their energetic Euro dance-inspired soundtrack, but I rather like it; it keeps the game feeling pacy and exciting. Rather more rough, however, is the game’s tendency to abruptly cut off sound effects at the end of levels and when you get a Game Over; rather than smoothing the transition to silence with a bit of reverb or something, the sound just immediately cuts out in a rather jarring fashion. It’s a relatively minor nitpick, but it is an element that could have done with just a touch of additional polish.

Sturmwind EX

On the whole, then, Sturmwind EX is an enjoyable shoot ’em up with just a few little hiccups that hold it back from being among the very best the modern genre has to offer. None of its flaws should be enough to put you off playing, however; look on its occasional jank (and its regrettable lack of online leaderboards) as it having “character”, and get on with enjoying the sheer pleasure of blasting away at enemies with the game’s delightful arsenal of weapons.

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Pete Davison
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