Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a cursed squid that can shoot enemies to the beat of a siren song? Me neither, but you can do just that in Radio Squid! Developed by Pixel Teriyaki and published by Ratalaika Games, Radio Squid is an arcade retro-style shmup with a couple of unique twists.
Shmups have to be one of the most commonly made genres around for indie developers, making it hard to stand out from the crowd. So, does Radio Squid sink or swim?
So as with any shmup, you control a character who is surrounded by enemies that attack whilst trying to dodge all of the projectiles and dish out your own carnage. It would be unfair to not talk about what makes this Squid stand out in the ocean of this very populated genre. Firstly, you can’t attack at any time.
Your goal in the game is to rebuild the Siren’s song, collecting musical notes that give you the power to attack the enemies. However, this mechanic is actually quite interesting as it adds a tactical edge to the game that differs from others in the genre. You see, you can’t attack until you pick up a note, yet the enemies are all trying to take you out as you frantically dodge all the projectiles with no way to defend yourself. It means you have to try and plan your approach and prepare yourself for when you pick it up as once you grab it, that’s when the chaos begins.
If you haven’t planned properly, you can get yourself into a real muddle because of the other reason this game is rather unique: you can damage yourself with your own projectiles!
The projectiles you fire actually rebound off walls and can come back and hurt you, which is incredibly challenging to handle when you’re also being fired at from multiple directions. I like that they’ve tried something different in Radio Squid but the execution adds too much frustration instead of fun. The arenas are so narrow that if your execution isn’t perfect from the get-go, you’re likely to be damaging yourself a lot more than you would think and your health quickly declines.
However, as there’s not much room to move around, it’s pretty much inevitable you’re going to get damaged – I personally don’t think that shmups should feel like this as it slows down the flow as you cautiously attack. I prefer shmups which are skilful, leaving you fully in control, with deaths being your mistake or the result of an attack you can remember and learn how to avoid next time. Unfortunately, most deaths in Radio Squid are unavoidable and due to bad luck or friendly fire.
To tackle this problem, you either need to try and plan the fight properly or learn to use the wall wraps effectively. It’s almost impossible to plan each fight properly though because you’re constantly coming up against new enemy types that you don’t yet understand. Some enemies, for example, only attack when you’re right in front of them – so you’ll most likely die figuring out their strategy. It’s like the game is at odds with itself sometimes and that’s why it’s so frustrating.
The wall wraps can help a great deal but again, they can also do more harm than good. You can fire through them so, for example, you can shoot through the wall on the right side of the screen so the projectile appears in the left side and hits something, but it hinders you just as much in the same way – you can think you’re safe until a random projectile you fired accidentally at an enemy rebounds off the wall behind it and finishes you off.
It’s made even more frustrating by the fact you can’t stop firing, only change the direction of your attacks to up, down, left or right. You’re forced to fire to the beat of the song that’s playing, so you can be firing super slow one second then spray lots of projectiles the next, making it even harder to dodge your own shots. There’s no real way to get around it, once you’ve hit the siren’s note, it’s go time!
You must finish the fight or you’ll die, having to spend your hard-earned coins to continue. Thankfully, there are ample chances to retrieve coins if you use your head a little as you play.
Coins are dropped from every enemy that you defeat but the easier way to retrieve coins is with your bomb ability. The bomb you have removes all projectiles on the screen (even your own) and converts them all into coins. Of course, you only have a few uses of this in each world so you have to use them smartly. This is my favourite mechanic in the game, as it’s the only mechanic that actually feels fair. The self-damage and the wall-wraps just feel at odds with each other so the bomb is a very welcome addition.
However, you lose approx 80% of your coins upon each death, which is a huge amount.
Between each world, you can spend your coins on upgrades and items to prepare you for the next world. That’s all well and good but again, it’s at odds with itself. Why? Because at the end of each world you face a formidable boss, with some attacks that you will literally not be able to dodge meaning you die, a lot. Obviously the more you die the more coins you lose, and it’s not exactly easy to recoup those coins against a boss as they don’t fire projectiles everywhere, mostly they just charge at you.
Thanks to dying a lot, every time I moved on to a new world I didn’t have enough coins to buy any items, which made it feel pointless to even have them. Maybe I’m just not great at the game or it’s meant for multiple playthroughs, but it’s just not a game that grips me to want to play through it again and get better. I should be having fun while I’m learning, and I wasn’t.
The game holds a nice monochrome pixel art-style aesthetic that looks pretty if a little bit lacking in detail. It reminds me of games I played back on my original Game Boy, which shows how retro it looks but it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just a little basic with some very simple animation that makes reading enemies’ attacks quite difficult. There’s a decent variety of enemy types as you get further into the game, making them stand out from each other in terms of appearance, but they’re still very simple 2D designs.
The bosses are all unique looking if again a bit simple but it doesn’t detract from the experience in any way.
Although, Radio Squid rightfully has a really funky soundtrack, one of my favourites in the genre even. It’s very catchy and retro and I found myself humming along without even realising. This squid knows a good siren’s song when it hears one. It’s almost like electro-jazz, it’s bizarre but fun and unfortunately probably my favourite aspect of the game.
Radio Squid is a game with conflicting ideas that makes it partially enjoyable but equally just as frustrating. The bomb power is useful and a feature that feels fair and challenging whereas the ability to hurt yourself just feels the opposite. The claustrophobic arenas make the trek to reach the note to start your attack all the more pointlessly dangerous, meaning you will likely take cheap hits before you even start attacking yourself. Then, the wall wraps mean you have way too many things to keep track of, including your own projectiles. It all adds up to an experience that feels unfair and a bit bland.
You’ll find yourself hoarding coins because of how many stupid ways you can get hit, making the process of even having coins feel pointless. The boss fights are basically a penny pusher machine that eats your spare change and makes you wish you never went to the arcade and played Radio Squid anyway.
It has a couple of nice ideas but ultimately, they don’t make up for its downfalls. Buy it if you want an easy platinum trophy, but don’t expect to find yourself wanting to play more once you’ve unlocked it. I’m not gaga for this Radio Squid.