People often question why the cover for the early SNES shooter Phalanx featured a banjo-playing elderly gent. The answer lies within the question, more or less – a peculiar cover was chosen to make it stand out from the countless other space shooters out there. Any cover that raises questions is likely unforgettable. Rick Henderson follows suit, being a 16-bit style space shooter called…Rick Henderson.
Turns out Rick Henderson – named after one of three selectable pilots – didn’t need a quirky name to stand out, being remarkably different to its peers. This is an endless randomised score chaser, with each stage providing one of four perks – from score multipliers to damage boosters, some of which encourage taking a risk. Dare you go kamikaze? Events such as asteroid belts, meteor showers, and minefields occur randomly and while bosses appear in the same order, they have different attack patterns from one try to the next. One, for instance, occasionally summons a ring of asteroids to provide extra armour.
Adding to this, the shooting mechanics have a gimmick too. You’re armed with three different projectile attacks, each useful against different enemy types – be it armoured or shielded. Swiftly switching between them is key to success. New weapons are drip-fed, at around one per stage, and it takes a while to experiment with each.
The variety is impressive, ranging from homing missile barrages to searing lasers. Some even edge towards experimental, such as small ‘bubble’ projectiles that float across the screen. Two hours in, we were still discovering new types.
We aren’t done with gimmicks just yet. ‘Grazing’ past enemy projectiles fills a gauge that can summon a hologram decoy or off-screen artillery. Each of the three selectable pilots also has different stats, sacrificing speed for stronger shields, et al. Slower craft can be brought up to speed by choosing certain perks, however.
Several hits can be withstood, which is fortunate as incoming attacks and enemy formations can be chaotic at times, such as enemies emerging from the top of the screen without warning. It does a better job warning of foes that spawn straight into the middle of the battlefield. Projectiles are often large and relatively easy to avoid – that’s to say, this isn’t a ‘bullet hell’ shooter – although it’s common for score-boosting gems and rank-up tokens to be partly smothered by bullets.
A slower pace makes for a more deliberate and manageable experience. It’s the bosses that pose the biggest challenge – here, there’s not just one attack pattern to learn, but several. If fortune has smiled upon you and doled out one of the more heavy-hitting weapons, chances of overcoming a boss vastly increase.
One life is all that’s provided per run – upon death, the only options are to restart and view your placing on the online leaderboard. A hard mode and a boss rush are also available. The options list is modest, restricted to reducing bloom and screen shudder, or adding a CRT filter.
If you become hooked on score chasing, perhaps making your goal to enter the top ten, then Rick Henderson will serve you well. It has an addictive quality that some shooters lack, luring you back in with the prospect of acquiring overpowered weapons and perks that align in your favour. The soundtrack – which also plays on shuffle, in keeping with the randomised theme – is often upbeat, and while the backgrounds aren’t particularly varied, they feature well-drawn pixel-art.
Rick Henderson is an easy recommendation, being not too intimidating for genre newcomers and challenging enough within its later stages for veterans. The unique, randomised, premise makes it stand out from similar games, so if you are looking for a side-scrolling shooter offering something new, this will fit the bill.
Years from now, we may not be questioning why a game called Rick Henderson was released in 2022, but you may be able to fondly recall the time you spent chasing high scores while aiming to become the new leaderboard champ.
Rick Henderson is out 31st August on consoles for $7.99 / €7.99. Published by eastasiasoft.