This game was selected as our May 2020 Reader’s Choice Review. Learn more on our Patreon page.
I bring up difficulty in a lot of reviews, but I don’t think I’ve ever talked about why a game should be difficult. Obviously games shouldn’t be difficult in ways that frustrate the player, and conversely they shouldn’t be so easy that they become tedious or boring. But ZeroRanger understands that posing a fair challenge, a steep but ultimately surmountable challenge, can give a player more inspiration to keep at it than some of the best narratives or systems. This is not an easy game, and I haven’t even seen all the ways it can challenge me, but I’ve had such a blast getting this far that I can definitely call it one of the better shmups on Steam.
The bizarre alien craft Green Orange has arrived to annihilate humanity, and only two ships remain to save what’s left. Blasting off from the ruins of civilization, your battle will take you deep beneath the planet’s surface, into outer space, and to the very heart of whatever Green Orange is. Along the way you’ll acquire new weapons to aid in your fight, as well as a powerful new ability as you close in on your target. But the path to victory is not as clear as it might first appear, and simply destroying your foes may not lead to your salvation. Only by understanding the nature of the threat and the fight you face will you reach true enlightenment here.
There’s a lot I can’t tell you about ZeroRanger, honestly. The plot very clearly takes cues from all sorts of old-school anime and aspires to be much more than a straight clash of good and evil. Ultimately your battle is not entirely what it seems, and taking new approaches to parts of the game can yield surprising results. The store page only advertises four levels which is not entirely accurate, and even though they’re quite lengthy and challenging you can expect plenty more than what you encounter there. A huge part of the game’s appeal is reaching not just the next stage of the game, but the next stage of understanding of what you’re working towards. It’s a very clever story with some genuinely emotional moments, and some fantastic payoffs for your efforts.
Getting there is going to take plenty of effort, too. As a shmup, ZeroRanger is up there with the likes of Ikaruga and Mars Matrix for how brutal it can be. The system itself is incredibly simple, just three fire buttons and a fourth for a later ability. No shields, no bombs, no gimmicks, just you versus hordes of enemies and bullets. You do have a combo meter to keep up, which can earn you extra lives very rapidly and keep you in prolonged fights, since you don’t return to the last checkpoint until you use a continue. The whole continue system is also score-based and fairly mysterious, so it’s not just the story you’ll have to work to understand.
Your foes are a wonderfully entertaining spread of ships, mechs, and squishier things, and it’s a ton of fun to see how the opposition changes as you draw closer to the source. Some of these designs are wildly creative, and are presented with fantastic flair and an incredible soundtrack to accompany them. They’re all a fair challenge, but grow steeper and steeper as you progress until you surely hit something of a brick wall. There’s no avoiding it, ZeroRanger is the kind of game you must learn and practice to improve at, because some of these fights are brutally uncompromising. On the plus side, you can start at any level you’ve reached with any ships and weapons you want, so practicing tricky parts isn’t the issue. The issue is overcoming that wall at all, which is extremely worthwhile here but not something everyone is going to be willing to do.
For my part, I’m stuck on what appears to be the true final boss who has a ridiculously challenging gimmick different from all the rest. I know I can beat it eventually, but I can’t say how long it’ll take or how frustrated I might become getting there. What I can say is that I’ve had a ton of fun getting to that point and learning the secrets of this game, and even if I never overcome him I’ll likely keep at the game anyway because it’s such an awesome spectacle. There’s a part in the fourth stage where you’ve just beaten something huge and terrifying, blasted your way into an unknown area, and this incredible song starts blasting as you speed down these enemy-filled corridors. I get an absolute thrill every time I hit that part, which is something that I hope more people can experience because ZeroRanger is definitely special in the land of shmups.