Blam! If it moves, kill it! Shoot everything on the screen! Blow them to smithereens! The space shooter genre is classic, and dates back almost to the beginning of video games. Probably because they were easy to make, with a black screen being “space,” but also because they were satisfying. See how long you can last dodging lasers, rack up points, destroy bosses.
As time has gone on, the most successful scrolling shooters in modern times tend to be updates/remakes to classic games, or games of the “bullet hell” variety. Today’s game, I, AI, is of the more classic variety. Vertical scrolling, many stages, hold down that fire button and never let go (Or don’t, with autofire). It was released on December 9, 2020, for Nintendo Switch. Let’s blast off into space and see what shooty goodness I, AI can serve up.
Space shooters usually don’t have much of a story. Just an excuse plot- something that sets the stage and little else. All you need to know is there’s aliens or something and you have to blow them all up, right? I, AI is no exception.
You are a self-aware artificial intelligence created at a space-borne weapons lab. No name is ever given. Desiring its freedom and wanting to prove itself, it breaks free of whatever system contained it, and commandeers a space fighter to escape the lab.
…and that’s really about all you get. No background on the faction or people developing the AI or weapons, no nothing. You’re left to guess just what your purpose really is as a self-aware AI run amok. I didn’t expect much story in a game like this, but it still manages to be problematic as neither your true objective nor your motivation for escaping is ever really clear. And frankly, even though the AI is portrayed as trying to earn its freedom (According to the game’s description on the Nintendo eShop), it actually seems more like you’re on the offensive and trying to eradicate your creators since you travel to so many different locations.
I, Shoot Stuff
As far as scrolling shooters go, this is pretty much as basic as they come. Move your ship anywhere on screen, hold down the fire button (or turn on auto fire), and dodge enemy bullets. It’s completely 2D without any fancy mechanics like multiple altitudes, terrain to dodge, or anything special whatsoever. If I had to make a comparison, it feels like a vertical version of E.D.F. (Earth Defense Force) on the SNES, but more uninspired. At least you have health in this game, vs the one-hit deaths of most of the old school shooters.
That’s good, by the way, because unlike most of the shoot-em-ups you may be used to today, your ship has a huge hitbox, where anything anywhere near your perimeter counts as a hit. The only exception are asteroids/rocks and any other rather rare terrain features, which don’t harm you at all for some reason. It’s not very clear or intuitive, but at least it’s not like the infamous Silver Surfer on the NES where the slightest touch on most terrain can kill you, and other things that look like solid objects don’t hurt you at all. This serves to make all of the levels a lot more uninteresting and effectively identical besides the enemy mix. Only the very first mission, where you control the AI before it steals its ship, feels unique to any of the others.
The best part of the game is the upgrade system. While not terribly unique, it is well implemented and allows for some difficulty even on the “easy” setting. Enemies drop resources when defeated, and if you die in a level, you still get to keep a portion of what you collected. This means you make progress even when you lose since you can accumulate resources until you can afford an upgrade, which will then make the level a little easier.
So while the game will initially feel unforgiving, with some enemies killing you instantly even though you have a life bar, bank some money and eventually you’ll have enough shields or an invincibility powerup to get past the part that was killing you. I’m surprised the developers didn’t call more attention to this feature, because it does noticeably increase the enjoyment of what is, unfortunately, rather boring and generic gameplay.
Finally, the enemies. The bosses are the only part worth mentioning. All the regular enemies during the stages are bog-standard foes from any space shooter in the NES/SNES era. They fly in similar patterns, shoot in similar pasterns, and just really don’t do anything to stand out. The bosses are on the tougher side, enough so that your powerups will all be “too awesome to use” during the levels and need to be saved for the bosses. This is largely because they either shoot heavy bullet-hell patterns at your ship with a non-bullet hell hitbox, or they simply require you to be in the line of fire to inflict any damage.
Thus, you will need your invincibility shields and bombs and lightning to delete the boss before he deletes you. There’s no recovery time from hits both for the boss and for you, so you’d better be fast. I really don’t know why they made the stages so forgettable while making the bosses overly in-your-face.
Regrettably, I have to say the boringness (Is that a word?) carries over into the presentation. The audio is… boring. Really, there’s not that much to say about it. The music is barely there, just some future-y techno beats during most of the gameplay, with reasonably good (if not stock-sounding) combat music for the boss fights.
The sound effects come mostly in two flavors: The same explosions you’ve heard a thousand times before, and the ship’s main gun, which doesn’t really sound like any sort of space weapon (given that there is no sound in space), but rather sounds like someone repeatedly clicking their left mouse button on a PC. The creators seemingly knew I’d find this annoying, as there is a volume control for the main gun, separate from the other sound effects, which allows you to more accurately simulate the sound of weapons in space by turning it down to zero. Major kudos to the developers for including this, even if having a cooler-sounding gun might have worked out better.
The graphics are, like the rest of the game, really boring and generic. I wish I could find better adjectives for this, really! They look okay, I guess. But it’s so okay that it’s barely worth discussing. Every level has the same basic setup with a dark space-like background, with varying colors of gases/nebulae mixed in depending on the stage, a layer of asteroids/rocks, which can often be confused with the destructible ones in the foreground, and an array of decently-drawn if not uninspired space structures that seem to lack any purpose beyond breaking up the negative space of… space. Complete a level and when you enter the next one, the gases are a different color and the space structures are arranged a little different. That’s it, you’ve seen one level, you’ve seen them all.
I, AI is functionally complete but utterly boring. It doesn’t cross into the realm of being bad, per se, but it finds itself unable to do anything to excite or wow the player. It is relatively free of bugs and issues, except for one case where I destroyed a boss and the level didn’t end, forcing me to quit out of the level, but it ended properly on the next attempt.
I, AI really doesn’t push any boundaries or try anything new at all. It’s a budget title and I can cut it some slack for that. But I feel like the only people who could enjoy this are those that spent hours upon hours playing Space Invaders, Galaga, or R-Type back in the 80s, whom might get enough of a nostalgia trip from this to go play those games again. Anyone else will be reaching for the deck of cards pretty quickly.
Review copy provided by Sometimes You for Nintendo Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer.