The shoot ‘em up is slowly becoming a lost art, and even more of a lost love for many people that came up with gaming during the 80’s and 90’s. Sure, Cave may release a game every couple of years—and there is always Touhou for the bullet hell needs, but gone are the days of R-Type and Gradius fighting each other for the right to be the chosen one. Thankfully one indie dev has not left these passions behind, and brought the love affair into the current era with Lil Tanks.
Mixing subtle RPG elements in with the roots of shoot ‘em up is an odd combination for the pixelated shooter, mainly as it adds an odd combination of needing to grind a level—not due to difficultly but due to needing access to better equipment or tanks—before any meaningful progress can be made. Ideally this should be balanced in such a way that it feels that the level grinding can be done in such a way that it empowers the player if they aren’t playing up to snuff, but instead it seems to be the main excuse to why progress is halted instead.
There is a plot, something about invading aliens, but it feels akin to when Shumps tried to add detailed and involved plot in their games as well—completely forgettable. Every level the player is greeted with a screen telling them why they should be concerned with saving this area from the alien invasion, instead the simpler –and more traditional, in gaming—answer would simply have to just dumped the player in and expected them to understand that this area must now be rescued.
The pixel graphics don’t add anything to the game either, as they seem to be thrown in entirely as a callback to the 90s when the genre was viable for the mass market. At times it can be charming, which seems as if it was—hopefully—intended. At other times, and those times are much of the game, it is forgettable and bland.
It isn’t that Lil Tanks isn’t a fun game, as it has some great mechanics buried inside of everything—and enjoyment can be had fairly easily with the game. The fault comes after the first several levels when the game turns into a grind-fest and never manages to find its pacing. All the good times from the start simply fall away and are replaced with a trudge to the finish that most people will probably opt to not finish instead of continue playing.
While it isn’t a bad game, in concept, and should even be commended for some of the ideas that it brings to the table for the genre in general, Lil Tanks is something that struggles to find its place in the world shortly after it starts. It is nice to see that someone is trying, and maybe another pass at this type of game will turn out better.