Review written November, 2001
You've never played a game more intense than Mars Matrix:
Within the vertical shooter genre, long known for hectic bullet assaults, Mars Matrix sets a new standard, even surpassing Takumi's earlier Giga Wing. The Dreamcast is such a tremendously powerful system it certainly would be able to push countless sprites around the screen at once, but there's a difference between having that power available and being able to incorporate it into a playable game (Mars Matrix was actually originally designed for older arcade hardware, but the principle remains). What developer Takumi throws at human players, expecting them to maneuver through, is audacious. Circular, cascading bullets coat the screen like bubbles in the surf washing over the beach, flowing, clumping, breaking apart, sliding through each other in all directions and speeds, leaving no space empty for long.
You'll face this chaos in one of two Mosquito-class space fighters. The ships are very similar, though they have differences in maneuverability and the spread of their main attack. In the arcade, your weaponry was controlled through a unique one-button interface. Tapping results in a steady stream of your normal attack; hitting it once after releasing fires a powerful short range piercing cannon; holding the button down initiates the mosquito attack, which makes you invincible as you suck in bullets. The Dreamcast version adds autofire on separate buttons for the piercing cannon and normal attacks. I would still use only the general purpose button - using one button allows switching weapons fastest - except having to briefly pause between taps for the piercing cannon attack limits its firing rate. The button dedicated to that attack can fire about twice as rapidly.
A refinement of GigaWing's reflect force, the mosquito attack is the versatile and intriguing key to the Mars Matrix experience. In almost any other game the ability to absorb bullets while invulnerable would completely shift the advantage to the player and remove any challenge whatsoever. In the pandemonium of Mars Matrix, this ability not only is often your only hope of survival, but also leads to challenges and techniques to master of its own.
The primarily defensive mosquito attack's utility is extended to the offensive by, once the attack is released, flinging the absorbed bullets across the screen. A gauge - the Gravity Hole Bomb gauge - regulates the maximum frequency of the attack: The longer it's active, the longer you'll have to wait before it's available again. If the attack is held until the gauge fully drains, the Gravity Hole Bomb itself - basically a full screen smart bomb - is unleashed. However, the time needed for the gauge to refill after this attack is a penalty so severe the Gravity Hole Bomb is mostly (there may be a handful of exceptions) relegated to use by novices in moments of blind panic. You may be able to use the mosquito attack to punch a hole through a wall of projectiles, but to be used effectively it must be used at the right moments, held for just the precise time needed, and you must be skilled at targeting enemies with the expelled bullets. And between mosquitoes, you must nakedly dodge a deluge of bullets.
You also need to constantly collect the gold cubes that litter the screen. Most enemies leave cubes when killed, and bullets launched from the mosquito attack become cubes when they strike enemies. Your ship begins very weak; The cubes give experience to eventually power it up. Your experience total also multiplies every point you earn. Quickly gathering cubes triggers a combo, in which consecutive cubes' values increases incrementally, but your death or a delay in collecting cubes kills the combo. So long as a combo is active, your experience and point totals increase roughly quadratically and cubicly, respectively, making these totals depend very sensitively on your performance and providing great motivation for you to keep a combo going from one end of the stage to the other. The need to generate and collect - often by darting into danger - cubes at a rapid pace makes every moment, even in less lethal early stages, crackle with a high-voltage energy.
Takumi has learned from games like Thunder Force V and Einhander - perhaps even Soul Calibur - that arcade style games' home value may be increased with options and secrets that can be earned through play.
Points earned in the game are converted to money which can then be used in Mars Matrix's shop. Amenities such as additional credits, strategy demonstrations, and gallery pictures may be purchased. Similar to (but more exciting than) Battle Garegga's super play video, Mars Matrix's strategy demonstration shows someone play through the stages in a superlative manner, proving however thick the bullets may be, there's always a way to dodge through them, and rack up a high score all the while. Of course, this player uses a lot of skill, so such feats won't be easy.
Aside from the original six stages of arcade mode, the Dreamcast version also has two Elite modes, one a mirror of the arcade mode's levels, the other with entirely new enemy patterns and attacks, essentially doubling the size of the game. Either Elite mode may be assailed with features earned in the shop, including faster Gravity Hole Bomb gauge recovery time, higher initial ship level, and faster ship speed. These options may lessen the game's difficulty somewhat, but, far more importantly, most make the game more fun to play and give you greater freedom to improvise within your strategies.
Of course, once free-play has been unlocked, literally anyone could beat the game (as you regenerate where you die). Fortunately, the price of the free-play option (or even additional credits) will prevent most gamers from seeing the ending too soon. Simply ending the game is not the ultimate accomplishment (beating it with limited credits or, better yet, playing for score is more meaningful), but at least there are two different endings, each decent enough to be rewarding however they are reached.
Items in the shop are earned at a perfect pace. When I first played Mars Matrix, I played primarily to earn items in the shop. I was rewarded frequently enough that I felt a sense of progress, and felt encouraged to earn more. Yet, enhancements were not earned so rapidly that my further progress was due to merely having, for example, more lives. My abilities and strategies naturally improved as I played, even if I played particularly to earn some new feature. There was also definite benefit to playing as well as possible, for the higher the scores you can earn, the faster you gain money for the shop.
The only shop item which was extremely time consuming to earn was the alternate background graphics, whose price is an incredible 85 percent of the combined cost of everything in the shop. By the time I earned everything else, the background graphics were so far out of reach that playing merely to earn them would have been unthinkable. But by then I was hooked, and played for the joy of the game itself, and to improve my scores. The most enjoyable way of playing Mars Matrix is to attack the stages' score challenge modes, where slightly altered rules allow for incredible combos and astronomical scores. I played these stages like an R-Type game - restarting if I'd make a mistake - and found practicing the stages one at a time, aiming for the highest score possible, to be the ideal way to improve. Once I had mastered survival, numerous tricks for higher scores were discovered. There are even sections when enemy and stage patterns may be influenced to your advantage by your actions. After I had become thoroughly competent at the game, my scores had grown high enough that I had all but earned the background graphics. Once earned, the background graphics might not seem like a reward worth all that playing time: Most alternate backgrounds are palette swaps so subtle it can be difficult to discern where changes have been made. But if they are not sufficient reward, they are a meaningful landmark: From seeing the ending video, to earning for the first time the maximum experience of 20 million, to buying the background graphics, each achievement points the way to the less-concrete goal of complete Mars Matrix mastery. Such a limit can only be reached asymptotically, for Mars Matrix is a game that always allows a player room for improvement.
The game itself is an assault on Mars. The backgrounds are of subdued ruddy and grey tones which are perfect for a representation of the red planet and the muted colors allow the overlaid bright pink and blue bullets to always be easily visible. And what bullets there are. The first stage is fairly readily manageable, but from there the game progresses until, at the final stage, the screen is so filled it looks like a pulsating mass, and at first it can take intense concentration to resolve individual bullets from that mess. In between those stages, you'll see: Geometric patterns of bullets with strange symmetries you'll have to fly through at odd angles; Bullets packed so tightly you'll have to carefully tap your way through; Straight, unbroken lines of bullets that divide the screen in two, reducing your room to maneuver; Bullets laced across the screen like a string of pearls; Bullets that form a dynamic maze to be navigated; Bullets that resemble bubbles, sprayed by enemies with a furious effervescence. After these patterns appear on their own, the game then layers them on top of each other. The action is so intense that when I first played the game my eyes would ache from staring at my ship, trying to keep track of all the bullets around it, and my thumbs would become sore, then numb, from the finessing required of them (but of course after practice the game is no longer so agonizing).
Beyond the variety of bullet patterns, Mars Matrix doesn't have a wide variety of other challenges, especially not compared to an old classic like R-Type. And, despite R-Type's less-powerful hardware and fewer onscreen sprites, its challenge may not have been rivaled by Mars Matrix. Side by side with Mars Matrix, I'm impressed by how the older game was able to do more with less.
Yet Mars Matrix doesn't merely spew bullets at you; even when the screen is saturated with bullets, I always have the feeling that each discharge was carefully placed by human hands. Mars Matrix's levels aren't merely filled with bullets; they're designed with bullets. Between the uniqueness of the mosquito attack, the various play modes, and the longevity granted by the shop, there's a lot to appreciate in Mars Matrix. But perhaps more than anything else, Mars Matrix is worth playing first to see more bullets at once than you have ever seen before, and then for the thrill of surviving them.