Swords and bullets and vines, oh my!
PC Release: August 13, 2015
By Ian Coppock
As much as UBERMOSH & The Desktop Distortions sounds like the name of Josie and the Pussycats’ dubstep knockoff, the name actually refers to the collected works of Walter Machado, one of indie gaming’s most sublime (and underrated) developers. Putting all seven of his games into a single review is not an attempt to rush through an artist’s work, but rather a mirror of his games’ format: short, sweet, and no lesser for their furious blips of activity. Let’s start with UBERMOSH.
UBERMOSH is a game about a female cyborg who spends time in the desert killing aliens and cutting bullets in half. That premise begs—no, screams—for more detail, but UBERMOSH is frustratingly mum in that regard. The only other tidbits the game gives are that the woman is known as the Blade Saint and that her victims seek her out so that they can be ritually sacrificed (or so it’s implied). The Blade Saint can cut enemies and their bullets in half with a swing of her sword… but she can also pick up her fallen foes’ guns for a little wildfire of her own.
UBERMOSH is played from an isometric viewpoint and, as its name implies, is accompanied by some head-banging electronica that wouldn’t sound out of place at a rave. Guns sound so forceful that every shot fired is a bass drop. Additionally, the game leverages Starcraft-looking graphics in its design, going for a dark retro aesthetic that looks both beautiful and rough around the edges. The goal of UBERMOSH is simply to survive the alien horde for as long as possible; get hit once and it’s back to the main menu.
UBERMOSH runs and plays like silk. The game’s aesthetic of crunchy pixels means that its system demands are low, while its gameplay is fun, fast-paced, and easy to pick up. The base game comes with a short tutorial that lets players acquaint themselves with the basics before they jump into arena mode. The more monsters players manage to slay, the higher their spot on the leaderboards. Most rounds in UBERMOSH last only a minute, so the game is usually played in short bursts.
UBERMOSH enjoyed moderate success when it released on Steam and acquired a cult following. Six months after UBERMOSH‘s debut, Walter Machado released a new version of the game on Steam called UBERMOSH:BLACK, which includes some new visuals and a much higher difficulty level. UBERMOSH:BLACK features little new exposition on the tale of the Blade Saint but adds class mods that grant specific perks like multiple respawns. Machado was careful to leave the original UBERMOSH‘s controls and music unchanged but added a new psychic ability, Brainclap, to the Blade Saint’s arsenal.
Machado’s next release was UBERMOSH Vol.3, which adds a few more enemy types and trades in the previous two games’ hemmed-in arenas for an endless battlefield. The Blade Saint can roam as far in any direction as she chooses; it matters not, as the enemies will come spawning no matter where she runs. UBERMOSH Vol.3 also features slight tweaks to the enemies’ visuals and a morsel more story read out at the beginning of the tutorial… but not nearly enough to fully explain a cyborg who sacrifices robots to the anthem of a mosh pit.
UBERMOSH:WRAITH, the fourth title in the series, gives players the ability to unleash lightning on foes Emperor Palpatine-style. It retains the endless map of UBERMOSH Vol.3 but enemies spawn in much quicker, resulting in a harder challenge. The game also features more music to keep players’ hearts pumping as they cut down aliens left and right. Finally, UBERMOSH:WRAITH expands upon its predecessors’ penchant for class mods, letting them choose new perks at the expense of certain restrictions. For example, players can pick the ability to respawn multiple times but at the expense of being able to pick up guns.
UBERMOSH:WRAITH was marketed as the final volume of the UBERMOSH series, but Machado surprised the community by releasing UBERMOSH Vol.5 back in May. The fifth installment in the series is apparently set 1200 years after the first game and features the Blade Saint at her zenith. Players can wield two swords in UBERMOSH Vol.5, and all of the abilities introduced in the previous games, against an even more aggressive slew of foes. This time the exposition features subtitles, but it says little beyond that the Blade Saint can grant the titular Ubermosh phenomenon.
Walter Machado’s method of improving the UBERMOSH experience is unique even in an industry with endless sequels. Rather than simply rework the original game, Machado releases a new title every six months or so that incorporates feedback from the UBERMOSH community. On the surface this model makes Machado look like a Machiavellian profiteer, but each UBERMOSH game is only two dollars and owners of the previous games in the series get the next release for free.
Machado’s method is also a novel way to demonstrate how a game can change over time. Each iteration of UBERMOSH features a small handful of improvements, but those iterations are preserved for players to enjoy while Machado works on the next title. UBERMOSH games don’t differ that much from title to title, but the first UBERMOSH and the fifth are very different animals. Players can experience that evolution for themselves instead of seeing the original experience replaced by an update.
Mechanically, all five UBERMOSH games present the best of the fast-paced arcade era. The games’ pixelated graphics and crunchy static are deliberate callbacks to the golden era of arcade gaming. The gameplay is challenging but fair, requiring players to watch their flanks as they slice and shoot their way through hordes of alien foes. Players who make especially effective Blade Saints can see their high scores posted on leaderboards for all to fear. UBERMOSH throws defeated players back into the fray at the clip of Hotline Miami, encouraging players to keep trying for that high score.
The UBERMOSH games present smooth, fast-paced arcade experiences that everyone should try, but they all suffer from a few common issues. The first is introducing new players; each UBERMOSH title has a tutorial but it’s basically the same as the main game, albeit with reduced enemy spawning. Sure, the controls are posted in the lower left-hand corner, but the game could do with a few tips on how to stay alive longer. Contrary to what the game’s breakneck pace implies, there is a strategy to UBERMOSH: circular running.
The other facet of the UBERMOSH series’s design that could stand some polish is the story. UBERMOSH isn’t built for an in-depth narrative but a bit more exposition on this fascinating “moshpunk” universe that Machado has created would not go unmissed. The only bits of story to be found are some quick announcements at the beginnings of some of the game’s tutorials (and only the fifth game has subtitles in its tutorial). UBERMOSH games also lack an options menu, but they auto-adjust to screen resolutions and their visuals are too basic for serious problems. The games run bug-free.
In addition to the UBERMOSH series, Machado has made two additional titles with different gameplay but a similar emphasis on short bursts of activity. The first, SWARMRIDERS, is a prequel to the UBERMOSH series that follows the Blade Saint before she became the Blade Saint. Rather than cut bullets in half, players shoot at a pursuing swarm of aliens from the back of a speeding motorcycle. The Blade Saint’s gun never stops firing, so all players have to worry about is aiming at the aliens before they touch the motorcycle. One hit and it’s game over.
Like UBERMOSH, SWARMRIDERS features an aesthetic made up of crunchy pixels, but the characters and their animations are much more sophisticated. The game has music that is about as fast-paced as that of the UBERMOSH games but that’s almost exclusively driven by percussion rather than guitars and heavy electronica. It’s a challenging little gem that, like the UBERMOSH games, could do with more exposition, but provides lots of entertainment in little chunks of gameplay.
Machado’s other non-UBERMOSH title is Trip to Vinelands, a trippy (hehe) running game in which players have to escape a claustrophobic array of hedges as quickly as possible. Trip to Vinelands spawns players onto a screen of spike-covered walls that shift and collide into each other constantly. Players have as little as two seconds to spot the way out of the map, only to spawn into yet another tumble of moving hedges. Players can increase their score by quickly navigating multiple screens of deathly vineyards, but get crushed and it’s back to the main menu.
Unlike the UBERMOSH games and SWARMRIDERS, Trip to Vinelands features sickly sweet background colors and rapidly shifting environments. Though its gameplay involves escaping a collapsing room instead of killing aliens, Trip to Vinelands is no less dependent on quick reflexes than Machado’s other games. Indeed, Trip to Vinelands is even more of a reflex challenge than UBERMOSH or SWARMRIDERS, as players have to sprint long distances with only a second or two to evaluate their surroundings.
Even though Machado’s games are light on story, they’re heavy on concision. The gameplay in each of his seven Desktop Distortions—as he calls his collected works—is both fluid and frantic. Whether it’s slicing bullets fired from an alien or dodging an incoming wall of spikes, Machado’s games demand frantic attention from players, which makes them deliciously challenging.
Each of Machado’s games doesn’t suffer for having minute-long rounds… because they’re furiously fun. On top of that, each title is highly stylized with details hearkening back to the golden age of arcade gaming. Desktop Distortions is an enticing package that succeeds in delivering art in a minute. Each game in the collection is worth getting, and Machado is a developer worth watching.
You can buy Ubermosh and Desktop Distortions here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.