Nowadays, indie games are part of the mainstream gaming consciousness. Celeste won multiple high-profile game awards in 2018, a movie about indie games came out in 2012, and there’s a section for the indie “genre” in the Steam store. And it’s easier for new developers to make games than ever, thanks to the wide variety of accessible game development engines and tools.
But indie games used to be a lot more obscure. Back in the early 2000s, a Japanese developer named Kenta Cho made some influential arcade shooters that wowed a lot of people. One of those is Titanion.
At its core, Titanion is a modern take on Galaga. What’s unusual, though, is that the game offers three separate game modes, each of which differ significantly in their rules. This stands in contrast to the modern school of game design which tells developers to focus on one core idea and do it well, and it’s an interesting window into an earlier time in indie game development where hobbyists were making whatever seemed cool to them.
So, how does a modern Galaga with three modes hold up? Let’s look at each mode.
Classic mode is the most reminiscent of Galaga. You can fire a few bullets at a time, and you can use the capture beam to suck enemies towards you and make them your allies, greatly increasing your firepower. It takes a while to charge the capture beam up, though, making the enemies you do capture quite precious.
I find that classic mode is a very sensible game mode – it’s not super chaotic, and the limited opportunities to capture enemies adds a nice tension to the game. If your allies get killed, you have a lot less firepower until you can charge up the capture beam again.
Modern mode is for people who like “bullet hell” shooters – a subgenre of top-down shooters that thrive on having dense, complex bullet patterns for players to avoid. Modern mode revels in large numbers – the firepower you have by default is comparable to the maximum firepower you can have in classic mode, and enemies shoot a lot more too.
The other major difference between modern mode and the other modes is that instead of having a capture beam, you have a provocation beam, which you can fire at an enemy to cause it to shoot even more bullets than normal. Why would you want that? Well, when a larger enemy dies, its explosion causes a chain reaction that destroys nearby bullets, and each bullet it destroys gives you more points. The provocation beam is a little finicky to use, but it does add a nice risk-reward dynamic to modern mode.
Basic mode sits awkwardly in between the rules of classic mode and modern mode, and I don’t think it’s an interesting game mode, so I’m not going to talk about it.
The overall feel
What I think is most important about a game is how it makes you feel. So how does Titanion make me feel?
First of all, I love the game’s aesthetic. Titanion has a smooth and polished vector style that’s somewhat reminiscent of Rez, one of my favorite games. Enemies explode into colorful polygons and lines, and the game has a buttery smooth sense of motion. The music is surprisingly groovy for a low budget indie game, featuring a slightly-retro electronic soundtrack with plenty of squelchy synths.
And the gameplay, to me, feels quite laid back. Which is weird to say for a fast-paced top-down arcade shooter! But I find Titanion to be a non-judgmental game. Modern competitive games require you to execute difficult tasks or face racist and sexist remarks from strangers online. Titanion gives you multiple modes to pick from, each with their own challenges you’re free to take on or not take on (and it even has some hidden variations that you can only activate with command line flags), and a local high score table with 10 slots.
Titanion is a simple game, and it's one that doesn't make a lot of demands of you. It's just cozy and cool, which I feel was a more popular game design mentality in 2006 than it is now. It's not a perfect game, nor is it a masterpiece of gaming, but it's comfortable and pleasant in a way that I wish more games were.