Nintendo Switch is only a month old and already it’s becoming a fantastic place to enjoy Indie games. Part of the appeal, at least for me, is that many Indie games are perfect to play in handheld mode for short bursts. Many of them also feature stylized graphics that don’t take any type of graphical hit when displayed on the Switch’s screen. Because of this, I’ve found myself quickly making my Switch my primary Indie games machine, and so far I’m absolutely loving it. Speaking of loving things, Graceful Explosion Machine (GEM) is definitely a game that should be living on your Switch’s internal memory from now until eternity.
At first glance, GEM looks confusing and it wasn’t until I was actually able to play it for myself that it all clicked. At its core, GEM is a high-octane space shooter that encourages you to lure swarms of enemies together to take them out in one fell swoop. By continuously killing enemies your combo counter will grow, giving you more points for each successful explosion. At a high level, the game’s levels instantly reminded me of the arcade classic, Defender. That’s because they share a similar map structure, where the levels wrap around onto themselves. In other words, if you keep flying your ship to the right, you’ll eventually end up right you began. There’s a small radar screen showing the course and red dots signifying enemy positions.
The game starts off with a couple of tutorial levels to get you acquainted with the controls and the game mechanics. It quickly introduces you to your four primary weapons: Blaster, Energy Sword, Sniper Beam, and Missiles. Your Blaster is a short-range energy gun that shoots out small blasts of destruction. It’s the weakest of your weapons, but it also has unlimited ammunition, with only an energy bar that has to refill. It’s best to not deplete the energy down to zero otherwise you won’t be able to use the gun for a few seconds.
When enemies close in and surround you, it’s the perfect time to unleash the Energy Sword. This 360-degree attack will wipe out any alien scum that’s near your ship. It’s quite powerful and will quickly become a weapon you’ll be using on a regular basis. You can’t just spam Y button though! Each time you use this attack, it will drain a portion of your special weapon energy bar. If that reaches zero, you’ll be out of luck for all of your specials until it slowly recharges to half strength. Luckily, every time you shoot down a foe they’ll leave behind small yellow diamonds of energy goodness. Flying over them will replenish your special weapon cache so you can once again wreak havoc.
The Sniper Beam is a concentrated energy beam that will destroy the toughest of foes. Its armor-piercing destruction will make short work of your enemies, but it comes at a high cost of draining your special weapon bar even faster. You can hold the A button down as long as you like for a constant stream of death and destruction, but only until your ship runs out of juice. I used this one sparingly and only when I absolutely needed to since the cost of using it was so great. But, man is it satisfying to burn through clusters of enemies with this gun!
Missiles are the last power-up for your ship and they really do pack a wallop. Similar to the Energy Sword, these are fantastic to use when there are simply too many enemies on the screen to count. Unleash a wave of missiles to clear the field and even the score. These do tend to take a bunch of energy to deploy, so don’t go to hog-wild on spamming the X button, but they can really come in handy when there’s little hope of survival.
The rest of the controls become second nature after only a few minutes playing. The ZL button allows you to change your ship’s shooting direction from right to left and vice versa. The ZR button really comes in handy as it gives your ship the ability to boost a short distance across the screen. The really cool part is that you can actually zoom through enemies! Once you get the hang of this essential gameplay maneuver, you’ll be sliding in and out of danger at the tap of a button. Like everything else in the game, there is a small gauge that will need to refill before you can boost again. Hey, no one ever said killing aliens would be easy.
GEM features four worlds to explore, each with nine stages. One nice feature is that you don’t necessarily have to complete each world to dabble in the next. Worlds unlock after a certain amount of stages are beaten, but this is always before the world you’re exploring is finished, allowing you to move on if you get stuck on a specific level. There are more things to unlock as you progress, like a time attack mode. Each stage allows you to upload your score to the servers so you can see how you rank compared to others who have played the game. You can change the criteria so you can compare yourself to the World, Nearby, or people on your Friends list.
The game’s visuals are quite impressive and colorful. Even with a bunch of enemies on the screen at the same time the graphics never hitched or slowed down. There are tons of explosions (hey it’s in the name), projectiles, and enemy ships cluttering the field, so at times it can get very hectic. I’ll admit that more than once I lost track of some enemies because of the chaos and took damage. This is normal of games like this, but the graphic style kid of exasperated the issue because many times the enemies are of similar color to the background walls, and with all the colorful explosions it becomes hard to detect where they are some of the time. Still, I do really like the colors and the satisfying explosions when blowing up the ships. It looks fantastic on the TV as well as on the Switch screen.
The soundtrack is one of those that will get your blood pumping and matches the frenetic action on-screen perfectly. I like how some of the music takes cues and melodies from the title screen track, giving the whole game a sort of aural cohesiveness to it. These types of games often require a good soundtrack to keep the momentum going, and it more than gets the job done. Having said that, I didn’t notice any great surround sound mix when playing on my home theatre setup. There aren’t any other special frills, like voices to propel the audio experience even higher. These are minor quibbles though, and I believe most will be happy with the soundtrack that’s provided.
GEM is one of those games that the more you play it, the better you get. Before long you’ll find yourself purposely boosting into an enemy cluster to unleash a devastating Energy Sword attack for higher score combos. Assigning each weapon to an individual face button the Switch was a genius move as you have instant access to your arsenal with a press of a button. Alternating between different weapons is half the fun, and the strategy to increasing your combos and score. Really the only thing missing here is perhaps a two-player co-op mode, but given that the game doesn’t auto-scroll it would require a split-screen option, which probably wasn’t ideal. Still, I suppose an online co-op mode would have been fun, but in the end probably unnecessary. I had a complete blast playing GEM and it should definitely be on your to-buy list. At only $12.99 this game has more than enough content to keep you busy for hours on end. It’s one of those few games that after going through some of the later stages I laughed at my low score count in the first world. Replaying those levels and blowing away my old scores was half the fun!