I was about halfway through the third stage of Matterfall when I finally remembered what game it was reminding me of. The long, multi-directional stages, the near-endless waves of enemies, the heart-pounding music and the cool bosses all remind me of the classic Turrican series.
That’s probably intentional, too. After all, this is Housemarque, and they’ve built a solid collection of games that modernise classic genres for the current generation. Super Stardust HD, Resogun, Alienation and Nex Machina all feel like modern takes on classic games, easy to imagine with 16-bit colour palettes. Although a Megadrive might struggle a lot to handle the sheer amount of stuff going on.
For a start, there’s Housemarque’s patented ‘blocks of debris going everywhere’ style of blowing stuff up. It adds a layer of chaos to the action without actually blocking much of what’s going on, and looks great. The enemy designs are kept relatively simple to make their behaviour easy to understand, and the game’s background details are gorgeous.
On the other hand, Matterfall’s control scheme takes a lot of getting used to. There’s nothing wrong with it in terms of responsiveness, it’s just that they’ve made some interesting choices regarding buttons. The one that takes the most getting used to is the R1 button being jump. Even deep into the game, I still found myself occasionally tapping X in the hope it would jump and forgetting about R1.
The logic behind this choice is due to Housemarque’s commitment to making Matterfall a twin-stick shooter. The right stick is the sole way of firing the main weapon— there’s no fire button at all— and the game wants you to be able to fire at all times, even while jumping. That means being able to press a jump button without taking your thumb off the right stick, and the only real option for that is the shoulder buttons. It makes sense but still requires a lot of adjustment to get the hang of.
If you can get the hang of the control scheme, then it works very much to your advantage. The mobility options enable almost non-stop movement while shooting, allowing the game to maintain its pace throughout.
The level design is overall pretty solid. Stages are lengthy with lots of little hidden areas to keep things interesting. They aren’t exactly huge exploration-fests, of course, because this isn’t that kind of game. There’s also a number of fairly short anti-gravity sections that turn the game into something more akin to a side-scrolling shooter. These offer a nice mix up (and a rest for your jump finger) to the levels. The biggest problem with the levels is Matterfall’s miserly approach to checkpointing. There are multiple checkpoints in each level, but they’re spaced quite far apart, which can sometimes repeating multiple difficult sections over and over until the next checkpoint is reached. Housemarque could definitely have been more generous here.
Boss battles are also a bit of a letdown. They’re not especially difficult, and the game counters this lack of difficulty by drawing them out with patterns that require waiting for enemies to spawn or the boss itself to become vulnerable. The end result is that, while they look pretty cool, they tend to be the least fun aspect of Matterfall overall.
Musically, the game has yet another belting soundtrack from Housemarque’s go-to composer, Ari Pulkkinen. It’s great to have two of his soundtracks released in just a few months of each other (the other being Nex Machina). Once again he dusts off his 1980s sensibilities and combines them with modern techniques to provide a pumping underline to the on-screen action.
I feel like Matterfall is most going to appeal to people who like the aforementioned Turrican, or other games of its ilk. If you grew up on Mega Man or even Metal Slug you might find a lot to like here as well, even if this game isn’t quite as platform heavy as the former, or as arcade-y as the latter. Like Nex Machina, it does suffer a little in the depth department— if you loved Alienation then you may want to look elsewhere for your Housemarque fix, but then again, that game stands as something of an anomaly in the studio’s catalogue.
Overall, then, Matterfall feels like a tentative step into some new territory for Housemarque. It’s great to see them branching out beyond their top-down games (although Resogun did use a side view, it was essentially just Defender with the power of a PS4 behind it), and they’ve mostly nailed the side-scrolling run-and-gun on their first attempt.
If you can get your head (and hands) around the control setup, and prepare yourself for some frustrating moments, you’ll find that Matterfall is a great modern successor to those run-and-gun games from your childhood, or just a great all-around 2D action game in general.
Housemarque transition their twin-stick shooter approach to a side-scroller
Massive levels with lots to shoot
Difficult control scheme that can't be changed.
Dull boss fights