Despite gaming’s current nosedive into the uncanny valley, where the visual line between digital and actual skin has become seamlessly narrow, Luftrausers isn’t much to look at. It’s artistic design is a series of negative images zipping to and fro angst a manila horizon and its planes, ships and submarines have about as much detail as the cardboard cutouts you’d find in a grade school shadow puppet show. It’s gameplay is a throwback to 1980’s paddle controllers, your only objective is to gun down as many enemies as possible to reach the highest score you can, and you are just as likely to taste the flavor of victory as you are defeat as you start each suicidal sortie. So why, with all these abrasive features assaulting my watering eyes and stiffening fingers, did I find myself glued to Luftrausers for hours and days?
There are a lot of different (and increasingly subjective) definitions for the phrase “style of over substance”. Some think it’s the specific disregard of logic in lieu of showmanship, while others believe that it’s a distractive technique, or a feint, to make an audience think something is good when it’s actually bad. I don’t know if I agree with either or none of these descriptions, but whichever it is I know it when I see it, and Luftrausers is one of those times. Now that doesn’t automatically make it bad in my eyes. There are times when maybe I want something that’s all flash without the burden of “complexity” to weigh it down. But in a gaming world growing more and more full with hollow time-sinks, just like eating a meal made of empty carbs, when I’m done I feel full without the satisfaction to show for it.
From the moment you begin Luftrausers you are thrown into chaos. Enemy planes, projectiles, and missiles immediately swarm you like an angry horde of insects, gnawing away at your aircrafts precious armor before you know what it is or how to gauge it. Up is forward, left and right spin you instead of turning you, and if your finger leaves the throttle gravity will snatch you down faster than a bully yanking your underwear. If you’re able to grasp these controls before your fighter is shredded into confetti, you’ll probably feel the very understandable desire to punish those who made your introduction into this vertigo laden world so particularly heinous, and that’s where the fun will start. Maybe.
Because all of this game’s objects exist in the same visual dimension, its only the camera being centered on your fighter that allows you to distinguish it from everything else. Whether you’re moving across the screen or the screen is moving around you is entirely subjective figuring out how to use that to your advantage is key. Remembering where enemies are and firing off screen is more than tactically wise, it’s a necessity for survival. Since this game is more about when you’re defeated than if, to see any of what Luftrausers has hidden in its lederhosen this is something you’ll need to get the hang of right away.
In the way of content, what Luftrausers calls missions would more colloquially be described as objectives, and completing these is what unlocks new parts for your fighter to change the way it performs in combat. From a heavily armored body to a searing laser cannon, hitting high scores and maxing out your multiplier will keep you interested as you try and find combinations which will fit your style and improve your performance. Luftrausers boasts a large variety of these different modifications, and the extent these alter how your fighter performs will surprise you. Swapping this gun for another and this engine for that one can peel away the layers of frustration this shooter aims to build, and thus keep you interested until the difficulty scales to match and you find yourself back in the shop looking for that next winning combination. But even after all the time this game sucked me in, I always found myself asking the question: “Am I really having fun?”
Luftrausers is a game that plays very heavily on the most fundamental element of gamer obsession: The primal, gaming, “ID”. The idea of conquering yourself as well as the game’s more obvious obstacles in the pursuit of total victory. But in doing so, Luftrausers feels like a game that commits a lot of crimes without doing anything wrong. The controls handle extremely well, but they’re also the most basic in gaming history. The frame rates are flawless, but there’s nothing happening in them. Luftrausers is in almost every way a 30-year-old game being played on a flat-panel screen, and I can’t tell if enjoying that is sentimental or masochistic.