How low can you go? As low as 1-bit, it seems. This twin-stick shooter prides itself of being as low-fi as possible, resembling a cross between a CGA PC game circa 1983 and an over-ambitious Atari 2600 arcade conversion, jagged edges and all.
Due to the chunky sprites, only a handful of enemies are on screen at once. It’s a far cry from something like Geometry Wars or the more recent Debris Infinity. It’s harder than it sounds, thankfully, feeling very different from those two examples. The pace is faster, enemies have attack patterns that work harmoniously – with some firing bullets horizontally and others vertically – and stages last around a minute, each having a boss battle.
There’s a gimmick here, too – the nondescript spacecraft can ‘drift’ through bullets and enemies, destroying smaller foes instantly. The monstrous, and slightly unnerving, bosses emit solid rings and other impassable projectiles, making it essential to drift to stay alive.
Permanent upgrades can be purchased using coins dropped by enemies. These come thick and fast, increasing starting firepower, speed, and amount of health points. At the outset, only a couple of hits can be withstood. After just thirty minutes of play, the angular spacecraft goes from being sluggish to supercharged, with every upgrade increasing chances of staying alive longer.
It’s also possible to spend cash on ‘one-off’ bonuses, such as increasing the number of power-ups on the next retry. This is a nice, modern, touch. Through progression different colour patterns unlock too, some of which have amusing names such as ‘crispy bacon’ for the two-tone brown scheme. The default ‘skins’ are all rather hazy, recalling the days of CRT screens, so it came as a relief to eventually unlock a razor-sharp filter.
The music, meanwhile, is something of an acquired taste, starting slow and plodding and becoming more upbeat over time. It suits the hellish tone quite well, though – Null Drifter is more morbid than most retro shooters.
While Null Drifter has been designed with replay value in mind – there’s a ton of stuff to purchase and unlock, and progress is tracked – it shows its full hand far too soon. Just thirty minutes of play is all it takes to unlock every achievement, which in turn gives it a cheap and throwaway feel. I never felt like I had become more adept at the game, but rather it made things easier. It was always going to provide the upgrades required to see everything on offer, regardless of my shooting proficiency.
In fairness, the later stages are challenging – the speed increases to a point where there are only split-seconds to react. Problem is, it dishes out so many upgrades in quick succession that the sense of progression feels rather illusionary, ultimately making it feel far from satisfying.
Null Drifter may be cheap, but even at five bucks, it fails to provide much bang.