Review – Squad 51 vs. the Flying Saucers (Switch)

The idea of mixing bullet hell shooters and aesthetics from the 40s and 50s isn’t entirely unheard of (Capcom has made quite a buck with its 1942 series, after all), but I can’t say I have ever played a bullet hell shooter meant to look and feel like a B-movie from the same era. Hell, I don’t think I have ever played a video game in general that featured said visual style. When I heard of Squad 51 vs. the Flying Saucers, I had to give it a try, if only for the sheer lunacy of its premise. Not only was it meant to look like a trashy movie Ed Wood would have made, but it even featured tons of FMV sequences with real-life actors performing the same kind of campy schtick you’d want to see in said project. A bullet hell/FMV hybrid. The hype was real.

Squad 51 Issues

I love these visuals, but notice how there’s an enemy basically hiding in plain sight because of the explosions. Touch it, and you’re dead.

Booting Squad 51 vs. the Flying Saucers for the first time was something else. The developers went out of their way to make this feel like a legit lost movie filmed back in the early 50s, with the same budget I’d get for my arts and crafts classes in kindergarten. It also sounds like a crappy movie of its era, complete with cheesy voice acting and lo-fi horns. The fact an actual movie studio was hired to shoot these scenes just makes things even more enjoyable. Long, cheesy cutscenes kickstart this game. To make things even better, once the proper game begins, you can clearly see some of the assets and effects are pieces of FMV as well. But then the gameplay kicks in, and problems show up almost immediately.

Squad 51 vs. the Flying Saucers is, at its core, a bullet hell shooter. It’s a very traditional game where you control a fighter plane and your objective is to shoot everything that shows up in front or behind you, all while avoiding enemy gunfire, as you’re monstrously fragile. A couple of shots will down your ship, and touching a damn saucer will end you in an instant. You know, par for the course stuff. The formula hasn’t changed since the 90s, and you can clearly see it surviving to this day, with the sheer amount of top-down and side-scrolling shooters coming out almost every single month. But it just doesn’t work as intended in this case.

Squad 51 FMV

It looks, sounds, and feels like some cheesy crap Ed Wood would have given birth to back in the 50s. Love it.

I’m not saying the game plays terribly, because, to be fair, the controls are responsive, the sensation of shooting down a saucer and witnessing it become an FMV ball of fire is delightful, and, as previously mentioned, the presentation is the bomb. But the game’s presentation is what makes it one of the most infuriating bullet hell shooters I’ve played in years. What makes it unique is also what makes it annoying.

It all boils down to the 1950s visual style. It’s almost too well-done, which results in contrast and lighting issues. Small ships just blend with the background. Shot particles look exactly like explosions and also blend in with the rest of the background. It also doesn’t help that your plane is quite big onscreen, and somewhat slow. You’re an easy target. Avoiding shots isn’t an issue, but avoiding physical tackles with saucers is easier said than done. If you lose your lives, it’s back to the beginning. That also means you’re forced to endure some stupendously long loading times. Remember, the game is basically a playable FMV, meaning there’s a ton of assets to be loaded into the Nintendo Switch’s RAM whenever a new round is up.

Squad 51

Your ship is way too big, and the playfield is way too small for a bullet hell shooter.

Even though Squad 51 vs. the Flying Saucers is beyond frustrating, I didn’t think it was that disappointing. It’s still very unique and completely bonkers. Its premise is set, and needs no improvements. Its gameplay design choices render it annoying to deal with right now, but I honestly think a second attempt, with a smaller playable character and better balancing, would result in one of the best bullet hell shooters in years. As of now, this is a fun diversion, but a flawed one.

Graphics: 8.5

On one hand, the visuals are absolutely fantastic. On the other hand, these same visuals are what make this game so frustratingly difficult in the first place.

Gameplay: 7.0

It plays well enough, but the 1950’s aesthetic hides away enemies in plain sight. The game is a lot more frustrating than most bullet hell shooters out on the market, despite featuring a fraction of the particle effects onscreen.

Sound: 9.5

It sounds like a 1950’s film. Its voice acting is as cheesy as a 1950’s film. I have no complaints here, this is some good stuff.

Fun Factor: 6.0

Squad 51 vs. the Flying Saucers is a fun novelty, a fantastic concept. As a game, on the other hand, it suffers from some blatant design issues.

Final Verdict: 7.0

Squad 51 vs. the Flying Saucers is available now on PC and Nintendo Switch.

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.

A copy of Squad 51 vs. the Flying Saucers was provided by the publisher.