30 Days of Dreamcast – Day 8: Mars Matrix

Mars Matrix
Publisher: Capcom
Developer: Takumi
Genre: Bullet Hell Shoot ‘Em Up
Release Date: 04/30/2001

Oh Takumi, how I love you. You may not have been Treasure level awesome, but you gave us two Giga Wings, Night Raid, and of course Mars Matrix. Although Mars Matrix isn’t my favourite shooter on the Dreamcast (That would be Ikaruga, which long time readers should know), it is high up there. Indeed, I don’t think I have ever heard anyone say a bad word about this game, be they critic or casual gamer who doesn’t know their Radiant Silvergun from their Parodius. However, I haven’t played this game in years. It’s just kind of sat there until this feature. I guess I’ve been playing more of the Sakura Taisen, Capcom Vs. SNK, Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 and Crazy Taxi when it comes to my Dreamcast time. However, in spirit of this feature, where we look at 30 forgotten Dreamcast games, be they awesome or grody, Mars Matrix deserves its own day in the sun. Let’s take a look at why this game is not only considered one of the best Shoot ‘Em Up’s of all time, but one of the best games on the Dreamcast.

Let’s Review

1. Story/Modes

Okay, the only story in the game can be found in the manual. Blah Blah Blah. Earth colonizes Mars. Earth treats Mars likes its bitch. Earth goes crazy on Mars. Mars pulls its version of the Boston Tea Party. Earth comes to kick Mars ass. This is where you come in. Now to be honest, the game never makes it clear if you are one of the “experimental fighters” Earth is using, or if you are a Martian fighting for independence. In fact the writing in both the manual and the back of the case is so nebulous and vague that you can make a case for either. Really it doesn’t matter. I mean you could be playing as the Byrdo Empire and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference. The game is just level after level of bullet hell violence and crazy dodging until you beat the game, run out of ships, or have a seizure. The story is just the ribbon on the overall package that is Mars Matrix and if I just popped the game in your Dreamcast and had you start playing, you’d find it nigh impossible to give me any description of the story.

The Modes in Mars Matrix however are plentiful and awesome. You have Arcade Mode which is a near, but not quite, arcade perfect rendition of the game. There’s Elite Mode A where enemies are re-arranged so you can’t rely on your memory and the instincts you developed in Arcade Mode. You can also use the Special Options menu for this mode with things you bought in the Store. Elite Mode B is the same as Arcade Mode, but you can use the Special Options here.

So what can you do with Special Options? You can buy things like: Permanent speed boosts for your ship, a higher starting level for your ship, change your Charge Speed and even the background graphics for the game. These purchases for Elite Mode can all be found in the Store where you can also buy more ships and continues for any of your games. You can also buy a gallery where you can unlock artwork, and even buy two new modes named Score Challenge and Strategy. In Score Challenge you play a level of MM and well, try to set a high score for just that stage. In Strategy you get demos of the computer playing through the game so you can see how best to play the game.

Overall I am still impressed with what amounts to four different versions of the game on one disc (Collections of shooters were all but non-existent on the Dreamcast) and I love the store, even if everything is crazy overpriced. Good luck unlocking everything! There’s a lot here to run through, but if you’re not really a Shoot ‘Em Up fan you probably won’t appreciate the modes simply become everything will seem pretty much the same. ESPECIALLY if you haven’t unlocked everything.

Story and Modes Rating: Enjoyable

2. Graphics

This is easily Mars Matrix‘s worst area. The game was always considered one of the less…visually attractive shooters on the Dreamcast especially compared to the Gunbird series, Treasure titles and the like. A span of eight years really hasn’t improved matter much. In fact after all the Dreamcast games I’ve played to do this feature, I dare say Mars Matrix is the ugliest. Backgrounds appear half assed and pretty dull and nondescript, even when you monkey with them after buying edits in the Shop. Enemies and your choice of two ships are uninspired and pretty generic. Even the large bosses are pretty underwhelming even compared to shooters from a generation before the Dreamcast. Hell, make that two Generations. The TG-16 had better looking visuals for most of its shooters.

What is impressive about the visuals in Mars Matrix is the fact that the game suffers from absolutely no slowdown at any time. This is a bullet hell shooter, which means the action is amazingly frantic and no matter how good your hand to eye coordination is, you will get killed. It’s just a matter of time. The fact that there can be over a hundred bullet on the screen flying in different directions and the game doesn’t slow down at all is a testament to developers.

So yeah, Mars Matrix is a pretty ugly shooter; that can’t be denied. However, what’s here will satisfy fans of the genre even if everyone else turns up their nose at it.

Graphics Rating: Bad

3. Sound

I have to be honest – I don’t hear the background music for this game at all while I’m playing it. All I’m doing is paying attention to the bullets and deciding which attack to use when. In order to accurately judge the score, I had to force myself to listen to it. Of course this got me killed pretty easily compared to how I normally do on the game. I will say that the music isn’t at all distracting, which is an important aspect for any shooter. If the music is catching your attention, your progress will suffer. Of course, this also means the tracks in the game aren’t very memorable. You’ve got an acceptable set of tunes but nothing that you’ll find yourself whistling later on or every carrying about.

The sound effects are fun, but nothing special. Whether it’s a ship exploding or you firing one of your five different possible weapons in the game (Wide shot, laser shot, piercing cannon, absorption barrier and gravity hole bomb), you do get a variety of special effects noises which is a nice treat. Still, you’re not going to notice any of these things, especially if you are playing on a higher difficulty level.

When it comes to aural aspects, Mars Matrix doesn’t doing anything wrong, but it also doesn’t do anything impressive.

Sound Rating: Decent

4. Control and Gameplay

Here is where Mars Matrix really shines. You have a choice of two ships in the game and you can even switch between them after each level. Mosquito 01 gives you a wide shot, while 02 has a more powerful but narrower attack. 02 is also faster than 01 but not as maneuverable. Besides your normal shot, your secondary weapon is the Piercing Cannon. The piercing cannon is a wide but short range weapon that does more damage to the opponent the closer it is to you. You also have two special attacks that use your GHB Gauge. Holding down the A button for short periods brings up your barrier after a bit of a time delay (which is often what gets you killed in the game as there’s noticeable lag between holding the A button down and the barrier actually kicking in) This barrier, which slowly depletes the GHB absorbs bullets. When you release the button, those absorbed bullets will be shot back at enemies with twice the punch. If you hold the GHB down until the gauge is empty, you’ll also trigger the Gravity Hole Bomb, which is the equivalent of bombs in this game. It’s a nearly full screen attack that, much like the Piercing Cannon, does more damage the closer you are to your enemy. This is best used against bosses, but also is quite useful when the screen is full of enemies.

Controls are amazingly tight, and aside from the barrier activation lag, everything is as smooth here as in the original arcade version. The key here is knowing when to activate your barrier and which of your two main weapons works best against certain enemies. Mars Matrix is a solidly built game through and through and provides some of the best gameplay to be found in a shooter. Just remember not be to liberal or conservative with your barrier use!

Control and Gameplay Rating: Great

5. Replayability

Although there are four different modes in the game that all basically seem to be the same at first glance, there is enough variety here provided with through the two Elite Modes and the Shop to keep you occupied for quite some time. Everything in the shop costs a lot of money. Some things are billions or even trillions of dollars to unlock so you have a lot of Mars Matrix gaming to engage in. For example after five or six games I had enough to upgrade my ships from three to five, unlock the first Score Challenge level and raise my credits from three to six. That leaves about two dozen things to still unlock in the game. Oy vey!

You can spend days playing Mars Matrix nonstop and still not have everything unlocked. That’s crazy impressive and just part of the reason people love this game so much. Again, Elite Mode A and Arcade Mode feel quite different from each other, enough so that one feels more like the sequel to the other – just with the same bosses. There’s a lot to see and do in Mars Matrix, as long as you have the reflexes for it.

Replayability Rating: Good

6. Balance

Make no mistake about it – Mars Matrix is one of the hardest shooters you will ever play. Even if you set the difficulty to “1” (out of 8), you probably won’t get through the game your first few times playing it, even if you’re a Bullet Hell expert. The key to beating , Mars Matrix is in memorizing the arrangement of the level and knowing when to use your barrier. There are several times in each level where you will NOT be able to dodge no matter how good you are due to the massive amounts of bullets on the screen. So the barrier decides whether you live or die. Remember also, the barrier takes a but to kick in, so the real key is knowing to press the button before you actually need to. Again, the only way to pull this off is through rote memorization. Some gamers might take offense to this or cry foul, but Mars Matrix, for good or for bad, is designed to reward you for massive repeat playing, and this is just one such example of how. You can only get so far on skill and button mashing alone here.

Boss fights are actually really easy compared to the rest of the game as they only last 45 seconds. If the enemy is still alive when the clock hits zero, you get to move on anyway. If you kill it before hand, more’s the better. The bosses follow really obvious patterns and it’s hard to take any of them seriously. After the sometimes hellish cruelty unleashed on you in the actual levels, boss fights are kind of a gift of kindess to you from the developers.

Yes, Mars Matrix can be crazy hard, especially with the limited continues at the start of the game, but that’s a great simulation of the actual arcade experience. If you want to take the wimpy way out and play with unlimited continues to where you can play the game without any skill and then beat the title, declaring it “too easy,” then you, my friend, are going to have to EARN those unlimited continues. With a little memorization and a lot of repeat playing, Mars Matrix does lighten up, but it still remains one of the toughest bullet hell shooters out there.

Balance Rating: Above Average

7. Originality

Mars Matrix was the first real shooter with a shop and this many unlockable options. It also gave us some neat remixed options from the original Arcade Mode. The bosses are fairly uninspired and the enemies are generic, but there are very few shooters out there that let you customize gameplay as much as this. I can’t think of another game that lets you change the speed of your ship permanently or give you a higher starting level via unlockable options. That’s a really nice touch and the sheer amount of unlockables are impressive so, now imagine how most of us felt when we were playing this game at the beginning of the decade.

Sure, Mars Matrix is an ugly game without any real visual innovation, but it more than makes up for that with its engine and the unlockables.

Originality Rating: Above Average

8. Addictiveness

Each game of Mars Matrix will be really short, simply due to the nature of shooters. You don’t spend more than thirty minutes or an hour on one, even if you beat the game. They’re short but high impact experiences. With the Mars Matrix being harder than your average shooter, you’ll probably spend many a game just trying to advance to a new level, especially with the limited continues. The irony is that by the time you can afford unlimited continues, you should be able to beat the game with the credits and ships you’ve already accrued. Well, at least you’re helping your friends out, right?

The desire to upgrade your ship or unlock more credits and extra ships per game can make it extremely hard to pull yourself away from the game. It gets even harder when you’re engaging in two player mode as you and your friend kick some human/Martian but together while also competing for a higher score. The game is MUCH easier with two people playing it as you watch the screen more and have less enemies to worry about. It also makes it easier to memorize the game for when you’re playing by yourself.

Mars Matrix is a hard game for any shooter fan to put down, and with the ability to earn experience points to upgrade your ship and the unlockables store makes MM a treat even for people who don’t normally play Bullet Hell titles.

Addictiveness Rating: Good

9. Appeal Factor

Shoot ‘Em Ups haven’t been a popular genre in the states since the 16-bit era, which is a crying shame. Mars Matrix really is designed to help gamers, regardless of their skill level, master the fundamentals of Bullet Hell shooter and rewards you for doing so with upgrades to your ship or extra lives and continues. This makes what is almost universally considered the hardest sub-genre in the hardest genre in gaming a lot more accessible to the average yokel and it might even help them to become a shooter fan in their own right. Of course, the vast majority of gamers will still run screaming from this game after they can’t get past the first level or two in their first few attempts. Their loss.

Appeal Factor: Mediocre

10. Miscellaneous

Mars Matrix is one of the most intense games you will ever play, even if you’re a long-time Bullet Hell aficionado. It’s definitely Takumi’s greatest creation and the sheer level of options and unlockables have managed to make this game one of the Dreamcast’s most beloved, even if most younger gamers have never heard of it. Eight years later, Mars Matrix is as impressive as it is ugly, as hard as it is memorable and remains another gold star in Capcom’s litany of must own games for the Dreamcast that have sadly never seen the light of day off the system. XBLA and PSN this please?

Miscellaneous Rating: Good

The Scores
Story/Modes: Enjoyable
Graphics: Bad
Sound: Decent
Control and Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Good
Balance: Above Average
Originality: Above Average
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Good
FINAL SCORE: ABOVE AVERAGE GAME!

Short Attention Span Summary
Although Mars Matrix‘s visuals have not aged well at all, and the game was ugly compared to other Dreamcast shooters to begin with, the amazing gameplay still holds up making it one of it my favourite shooters for the Dreamcast. Although I consider Ikaruga and Bangai-O to be the two best shooters on the Dreamcast and actually prefer Gunbird 2 to this due to the story, graphics and unparalleled multi-player experience, Mars Matrix is still one of the best shooters for the system and easily the most intense game for the Dreamcast. With a whole store of unlockables, two player action and lot of firepower, Mars Matrix is a game that deserves a re-release, if not a remake.

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