TL;DR: ZeroRanger

My favorite thing to happen in 2018. May you attain enlightenment.

"Hardcore" games are sometimes caught in a strange place. Embracing what die-hard devotees love the most—deep systems, punishing challenges, endless reward for endless investment—can create something impenetrable for newcomers. Go the opposite direction, focusing on simplicity and accessibility, and the result too often feels like it's had all its identifiable qualities sanded off, quirks and secrets and jank disappearing into a generic composite image.

But every hardcore fan was a novice once, drawn in by something that they never felt the need to name; some intangible spark that had them looking up hours or months or years later, pulled into a world of freak edge cases where "you have to suicide to make sure the game remains possible" somehow doesn't sound as batshit fucking crazy as it actually is.

Call it resonance, call it intrigue, call it that feeling in your chest when a huge battleship approaches fast. It's that thing that has you reaching for your quarters even in the face of abject failure—that thing that's easy to miss years later, submerged in an endless stream of mechanical minutiae. And if you were to make a game wholly out of it, one built around the feeling of discovery and conquest and cool fuckin' shit, that game would probably look an awful lot like ZeroRanger.

"Hey AJ, that's great and all, but is the game good?" Yeah. Yeah, it's fuckin' good.

ZeroRanger looks great in motion—and the helpful "off-screen enemy" warnings really pop

For novices and newcomers, ZeroRanger paces itself perfectly, layering setpieces and weapon unlocks and bosses in a way that always keeps things moving. Not a moment is wasted, the promise of neverending insane bullshit pushing you forward one screen at a time, and it culminates in a sprawling, adrenaline-fueled final stage that starts fast and never, ever stops. Every time I thought I'd have the chance to relax, ZeroRanger cranked up the pace, and every time I thought I'd seen every trick it could pull, another one showed up like magic. The difficulty curve isn't perfect, and a few sub-bosses in particular might be tricky stopping points, but the challenge always felt surmountable—and despite the game's quirky two-tone palette, hazards and enemies are always easy to see.

ZeroRanger skips bomb refills and instant continues in favor of a forgiving checkpoint system. Players of any skill level can see almost everything that the game has to offer, with a stage select feature keeping retreads to a minimum, but you have to earn every inch of progress. In moments between runs, there's a strange emotional pulse, levity and dread in equal measure; as the game loosens its grip, awarding a little extra reach for every point scored, it teases with ominous imagery and strange narration. There's always the promise of secrets, the constant impression that there's something more you haven't quite wrapped your head around.

Scoring well unlocks abundant continues—but they'll only bring you back to your last checkpoint

So, what's left when you think you've seen everything? Well, if you're like me, you'll throw yourself into pursuit of the one-credit clear—and immediately discover that ZeroRanger does not fuck around, with a rank system that can turn its well-placed popcorn enemies into laser-guided angels of death. Scoring is simple and well-balanced, rewarding clever chaining and high-risk pointblanking in equal measure, and the forgiving "bump" system makes the latter far less frustrating than I typically expect. Secret bonuses are hidden in each stage, hiding in the environment or unlocked with unorthodox boss kills, and a neverending stream of score-based extends encourages even survival-focused players to chase them down.

Without continues and stage select, ZeroRanger's smartly designed stages take on a totally different quality, demanding constant vigilance and inventive angles of approach. I haven't gotten my clear yet, but I'm not complaining: more excuses to fire up the game on a lazy night, enjoying the stellar soundtrack as the second stage kicks my teeth in.

Some large enemies will explode a second time if you keep firing, a cute visual touch that also helps extend your chain

More than anything, though, ZeroRanger's honesty is charming to me. It's not shy about its inspirations; players with good memories will find a dizzying number of hidden references and familiar-looking set-pieces, some subtle and some obvious. It's a big, beautiful two-tone pastiche: to pay homage to genre mainstays, sure, but also to throw as much cool shit as possible into a single game and see if it all works—a design approach that you can't help but feel the heart in. ZeroRanger stands easily on its own, even if you don't know Darius from DoDonPachi, but shoot-em-up historians will find a lot to smile about.

The end result is an all-star package, perfect for players of any level of experience or ability—a fantastic entry point for total newcomers, and a welcome addition to any arcade-style library. ZeroRanger is fast, fair, and never stops kicking ass.

VERDICT: FUCKING REAL

UPDATE: I got my clear. Play the game first. :]