While puzzles games may be the easiest genre of game to develop, resulting in hundreds of them clogging up the Marketplace, 2D shooters (aka shoot-em-ups or shmups) are pretty common as well. Simple shooters with procedurally-generated levels and generic, lifeless backgrounds are a dime a dozen. While these games are fun in small doses, it’s easy to become apathetic toward them given their sheer numbers, generic designs, and how little content they really contain. That makes Finnish developer Kajak Games’ Corona all the more impressive. It packs all the content and personality of a real arcade shoot-em-up into an exclusive Windows Phone game at a fraction of the cost.
Fly past the break to see exclusive Corona concept art and, of course, our full review.
A ring of light flares past the darkness
At the outset of Corona, players know little about the titular heroine and her mission. While the game keeps us in the dark about her reasons for wanting to take on the Demon King during an eclipse, it doesn’t hold back from witty storytelling. The tutorial is cleverly presented as if Corona is talking to herself, getting used to learning to fly and fight enemies. From then on, story sequences play out before and after each level’s boss fight(s).
Presented via large, well-drawn character stills and accompanying text, the exchanges between Corona and other characters are lively and oftentimes hilarious. One enemy berates Corona’s intellect and her flat chest, while another is embarrassingly scared of the dark (despite being an assassin). Though Corona herself is obviously good natured, her true identity and motivations aren’t revealed until late in the game. It’s refreshing to play a shooter that doesn’t rely entirely on chasing high scores to keep gamers interested.
Corona is a vertically-scrolling shooter, but it’s played in a landscape format with borders on the sides. Sliding your finger anywhere on the screen steers the magical girl; it’s easy to avoid blocking the action thanks to the widescreen borders, which make great finger spots. Corona fires her normal shots automatically. These consist of enemy-blasting hearts as well as eight different elemental weapons that she picks up along the way. She also has a limited number of screen-clearing Flash Nova charges (bombs), which are activated by a button in the bottom-left corner.
Arcade and console shoot-em-ups tend to introduce a unique mechanic to differentiate them from their brethren. Corona’s gameplay hook is the Resonance system. Defeated enemies sometimes drop one of eight colored glyphs (Asian characters), each of which represents an element and adds to the heroine’s weaponry. Sadly, the fifth element, Milla Jovovich, is nowhere to be seen. By collecting specific combinations of three or four glyphs, special effects are unleashed. The game doesn’t do a great job of explaining these effects, but unleashing a Resonance definitely awards a ton of mana (currency) for the shop.
Because there are 11 different Resonances, each made up of a unique combination of glyphs, it could potentially be tough to remember the necessary combinations to pull them off. Thankfully the game helps in a couple of ways. Corona’s most recently collected glyphs are displayed in the top-right corner of the screen. Once she only needs one more glyph to cast a Resonance, the missing glyph is displayed next to the ones she’s already got. Plus a list of each Resonance recipe is always available from the Pause menu. Oh, and Corona even receives damage boosts for each glyph that she doesn’t pick up, so concentrating on specific Resonances and ignoring the other glyphs help is a useful tactic.
Journey to the Demon King’s Citadel
Story Mode contains six varied levels, including Grasslands, Mountains, a water stage, and more. Each level has a unique and charming boss, plus Corona’s old friend Aura shows up as a mid-boss now and then. Between stages, Corona visits a shop run by an unlucky boss that she defeated early on. Here she may purchase extra lives, Flash Novas, Resonances, and elemental weapons and upgrades. Should the gamer run out of lives during a level or need to exit the game for any reason, Corona can always resume her mission from the last checkpoint reached.
Corona’s Arcade Mode allows players to jump directly into any level without the encumbrance of story scenes to slow down the action. Arcade Mode consists only of single-level playthroughs, so the shop is out. Players must rely on collecting glyphs and casting Resonances to power up Corona’s weapons rather than purchasing upgrades for them, adding to the challenge. I wish Arcade Mode games didn’t end after a single stage; it would be fun to play through the entire set of levels with Arcade rules continuously.
Difficulty and scoreboards
Corona falls into the ‘bullet hell’ subgenre of shooters, where the screen is usually filled with huge barrages of enemy fire. These games tend to be hellaciously difficult, and thus appeal to a smaller audience that enjoys stiff challenge and memorizing patterns. Thankfully though, each game mode here offers three difficulties: Novice, Intense, and Hyper. Most gamers should be able to complete Novice with minimal frustration – especially if they remember to max out their lives and bombs during each shop visit.
The replay value in shoot-em-ups usually comes from seeking higher scores in subsequent playthroughs, which can then be compared with others via leaderboards. This is one of the few areas in which Corona stumbles. The game lacks online leaderboards and players can’t even enter their names in order to differentiate who earned each score locally. Kajak does have plans to improve the leaderboard, at least.
Creative and cute
Shoot-em-ups that feature female protagonists and brightly-colored graphics are also known as cute-em-ups. Corona may originate in Finland but it could easily pass for a genuine Japanese cute-em-up with its anime-esque character designs. The large, expressive story scene character portraits perfectly match their silly dialogue. Creative touches abound during gameplay too: cow enemies moo when defeated; a giant, well-animated heart surrounds Corona during the moments of invincibility that accompany each life and bomb use; and a certain boss accidentally casts a love spell, goofily firing a batch of easily-dodged hearts at the protagonist. Speaking of bosses, their attacks are extremely unique, even for the genre. When facing off against the bubble-wand-wielding lake spirit, Corona must take refuge in giant bubbles in order to escape her attacks. During the battle with the Demon King, the plucky heroine can knock balls of light from the surroundings into the boss in order to increase her damage. It’s quite an experience.
While many supposedly big-budget Xbox Live titles contain only one or two songs, indie darling Corona features a unique and catchy tune for every single level, plus title screen music and a couple of boss tunes. I’d praise the sound as perfect if not for one major omission: sound effects. To put it simply, neither Corona’s weapons nor defeated enemies and bosses make any sounds. Sure, this puts emphasis on the stellar tuneage, but it diminishes the impact of actually shooting things. At the very least, bosses should make some kind of explosion sound or cry out when defeated. Fear not - the developer informs us that sound effects are indeed on the drawing board for a future update.
Corona is an amazing cute-em-up, easily eclipsing all other Windows Phone shooters so far. Even Xbox Live shmups like OMG: Our Manic Game can’t hold a candle to Kajak Games’ impressive effort. Just about everything - from the fantastic art, clever writing, tight gameplay, and challenging boss patterns - hits the mark. While online leaderboards would boost Corona’s replay value, the game’s still a blast to pull out every now and then. We’ve seen indie games like IonBall receive Xbox Live sequels in the past – Corona definitely deserves to graduate to the big leagues too.
Corona costs $.99 and can be downloaded here (Zune link) from the Marketplace. There is also a free version that contains a single Arcade mode level and functions as a trial – grab it here if you need a test drive before buying.