Graceful Explosion Machine is an eye-catching arcade shooter for the Nintendo Switch. It pops with bright, vivid color and lots of fast-paced action on screen. It’s 2D in design, and the game moves horizontally.
GEM, as it’s called, features levels that wrap when players reach the sides, sort of like what you’d see in Pac-Man. Its spaces are relatively small and feature alterations in terrain that makes for tight corridor shooting and dodging.
The ship players guide is equipped with four weapons. There are the standard rapid fire bullets, missiles, an energy sword and a precision beam. Each enemy you face can be killed with all weapons, but some are better at dealing damage than others.
One of, what I would say, three unique hooks with GEM is the way players have to juggle their weapons. You’ll want to use all four weapons to up your score, of course, but you need to balance between the main bullets and everything else in order to stay alive. Your bullets will overheat, and one way to rapidly cool them is to use another weapon. However, those other weapons are both stronger and require fuel. Run out of fuel, and you can only use your bullets, which run the risk of overheating when things get intense.
How do you gain fuel? By picking up the gems dropped by downed enemies. You’ll establish a rhythm of switching between weapons, killing enemies and picking up scrap as you play, and this rhythm is the game’s most addictive feature.
The other three different elements lie in ship movement. You can dash by pressing the right shoulder button. You’ll dash through enemies, but not enemy fire, so you’ll need to use this judiciously. The other crucial movement mechanic is flipping your ship. You can fly in all directions at once, but your gun can only aim left or right, depending on the orientation of your ship. Flip with the left shoulder button.
The final unique element is GEM’s charming, bizarre and sort of useless emoji system. On the bottom-left portion of the game’s HUD, you’ll see a spot for emoji. Depending on what you’re doing in game, whether it’s wrecking enemies or struggling, the emoji will change. It’s a neat idea that works well with the vibrancy and design of the game, but I found it ultimately useless as I spent all my time looking at enemy patterns instead of the emoji. I liked the idea of their presence, but I hated that they weren’t visible enough during play. Maybe that has to do with their placement, but I’m not sure.
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Perhaps, the only moment when Graceful Explosion Machine moves from tough to unfair is when battling enemies that get lost on the screen. For all its beauty and dynamic color, GEM is a game done in neon. That means that enemies, while clearly colored in bright tones, get lost in the sea of neon as well.
Now, this is mostly manageable. The enemy patterns, background and screen movement work together to feel whole. Anyone who’s played a bullet hell shooter knows the moment when they lose track of their ship visually but know where it is almost by instinct. That’s when these games are at their best, in my mind. When you feel the ship and where it is rather than see it.
In GEM, by around world three and on, I found myself encountering enemies that would get lost in the color and move unpredictably, making it almost impossible for me to monitor the level itself, the insane number of baddies on screen and these particularly tricky enemies. I’d get hit and not understand why far too often for my liking.
Frustration aside, GEM is a solid arcade shooter with a brilliant art design, decent tunes and a nice rhythm to its gameplay. For $12.99, it’s a decent addition to any Nintendo Switch owner’s software library. It can start to wear towards repetitive after a while, but lovers of the genre won’t mind given its positives.
Disclaimer: We received a code to download and review Graceful Explosion Machine from the developers.