Twelve years have passed since Sky Force’s Pocket PC debut, yet the vertical shooter remains delightfully refreshing. Released at a time when almost all shmups were of the ‘bullet hell’ variety, partly thanks to Rising Star bringing such games as Deathsmiles and Under Defeat HD to the west, Sky Force dared to be different.

With PSN and the Xbox One Store rife with pretty but vacuous – and dare we say amateurish – shooters, the expertise in which this retro revamp has been designed stands out now more than ever.

It begins with a short sequence showing the protagonist’s craft at full potential, spewing bullets, lasers, and missiles. General Mantis sends your supercharged ship to the scrapyard, and so the quest begins to become an almighty force to be reckoned with once more. This is achieved one upgrade at a time, and with every improvement scores become higher and chances of achieving the 100% shot down rate for each stage increases, bagging an elusive medal in the process.

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Medals aren’t just for show – they’re used to unlock new stages. The idea is to replay past missions and aim for perfection: take no damage, rescue all survivors, and shoot down every craft. It sounds like a tall order, and on later stages it is precisely that, but with practice comes perfection. Also: satisfaction and enjoyment. Sky Force’s difficulty level is impeccable, rising gracefully.

Things start off rather pedestrian; enemies (planes, tanks, and turrets) pose minimal threat, waves of bullets are easy to dodge and attack patterns are simplistic. Over time enemies with stronger armour are introduced, as well as laser turrets with slow burning beams that require precise movements to avoid.

Rescuing all survivors during the first run of a stage is easy enough, but you’ll probably take a few hits when coming to their aid and thus miss the medal for taking no damage. Cue a second run. After replaying a stage a couple of times the attack patterns start to become familiar. Cue a third run to wipe out every foe, and so on and so forth. Given time, and additional firepower, medals once deemed impossible to acquire become easily obtainable.

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In terms of attack patterns, it’s not often that Sky Force throws a curveball your way – that’s to say, never does it raise the odds against your favour – and because of this it rarely ever frustrates. From start to finish, it’s tough but fair. Choose upgrades shrewdly and eventually you’ll prevail.

a masterclass in game design

Stage 5 is a good example of how a decent assortment of upgrades – which are permanent, we should add – can make progression smoother. See, Stage 5 stands out from the rest as your craft is rendered defenceless at the beginning, and so the rest of the mission is spent dodging bullets and enemies rather than retaliating. The medal for this stage is to pick up every star (Sky Force’s currency) instead of defeating every enemy, and so here the magnet power-up becomes even more invaluable.

Other upgrades include lasers that take down pesky bosses with ease, while homing missiles boost chances of a 100% shot down rate, bringing you one step closer to taking down General Mantis for good.

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Judging by screenshots alone, Sky Force Anniversary may seem like just another run of the mill shooter. Spend just a few minutes with it, and you’ll doubtlessly think otherwise – it’s a masterclass in game design that a lot of developers could learn from. Repetition does sink in a little towards the end – once hard mode unlocks, missions must be replayed again for extra medals – and the backdrops could be slightly more varied, but that’s about all the criticism we can muster.

Turns out there’s such a thing as ‘bullet heaven’ after all.

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