No matter how advanced technology becomes, the ways of old often prevail. WiFi down? Time to grab a book or dust off the Game Boy. Car won’t start? Either drag the bike out of the shed or start walking. Avid canine aviator Horgihugh finds himself in a similar predicament – after aliens frazzle the world’s technology, Horgi and his feline friend Figaro dash to their trusty bi-planes to save the day.
This 16-bit style horizontal shooter comes from Japanese studio PiXEL, which appears to be partly formed of veterans – the developers have worked on various classic Konami and Capcom properties over the years, along with titles for the NeoGeo.
It plays quite similarly to Konami’s Parodius – the parody of Gradius that’s long overdue a comeback – with a focus on letting players become delightfully overpowered before taking that power away after one hit. While the enemy assortment isn’t anything too peculiar, the bosses definitely are – including a giant twirling robotic ballet dancer.
Horgi can grab power-ups duly laid out on the path ahead. They’re of the alternating variety, giving chance to nab prefer projectile types – once you’ve memorised the corresponding icons and experimented with the dozen or so spread shots, searing lasers, and homing missiles available. Flying shops appear a few times per stage, giving the chance to purchase more weapons, an extra life, and speed adjusters. Horgi’s bulldog chum also appears periodically to chuck a random power-up onto the playing field, so whenever you revert back to default weaponry, it’s never for very long.
The top of the screen also features two gauges, both of which refill quickly. The blue gauge is used to perform a somersault, bestowing invincibility for a few precious seconds, while the yellow gauge can be used to escape death. Handy, considering the one-hit system. That’s once you’re aware of this mechanic’s existence, at least. There’s no tutorial or prompt for this lifesaving mechanic at all – it’s simply mentioned in the ‘how to play’ section.
As such, I wonder if some players – younger ones, especially – will play Horighugh and Friends without even being aware of the ability to cheat death. Its execution isn’t exactly intuitive either (although that’s perhaps to prevent it from being heavily relied on) requiring the analogue stick to be wiggled before Horgi nosedives off-screen.
Once the slower-paced opening stage is out of the way, you’re going to need to master this system quickly. There are no checkpoints, and during the boss battles it’s very easy to blitz through your stash of lives. And while there are unlimited continues, they set you back to the beginning of the stage – even if you died during a boss fight.
After a stage has been beaten, it’s possible to continue or replay past stages from the main menu. It’s also here that you’ll find a single-screen, pixel art, town to rebuild using the in-game currency. Eventually, two shops unlock that grant permanent upgrades, forging a newfound path to success. Failing that, the number of starting lives can be cranked up to a generous eight. While the town is a nice, surprise, addition it would have benefitted from being more interactive.
Despite the cutesy visuals, it can be quite challenging in places. The second boss, in particular, gave us a pasting, taking around half-a-dozen attempts. It would perhaps help if there was a visual indicator, or a health bar, to indicate damage dealt to a boss. Even now, I’m unsure whether bosses have weak points or if they can be defeated by mindless blasting.
The third stage takes a few minutes to adjust to as well, with its bustling city backdrop absorbing the action. Throwing another spanner in the works, stage seven – the penultimate stage, taking the form of a boss rush – glitched whenever certain load-outs were used, reducing the framerate to single digits. Ditching the trusty spread shot seems to be the resolve.
It should be clear by now that Horgihugh and Friends isn’t exactly a masterclass in shoot’em up game design, occasionally being tricky for the wrong reasons. Yet, it remains approachable and enjoyable thanks to its bevy of options and permanent upgrades that give it the flexibility not always associated with the genre. The appeal of the tidily drawn pixel art, and its heroic canine lead, go a long way too. Not essential, but worth bearing in mind whenever you get that shoot’em up itch.
Horgihugh and Friends is developed by PiXEL Co. and published by Aksys. Available now on Switch.