Iremember my first clunky space shooter in Microsoft Fury 3, a painfully slow first-person burner that excelled in 1995-era fire animations and bosses made of squares. My dad bought it, along with the then-impossible Myst, which, coupled with the fledgling internet I wasn’t allowed to use due to an incident on AOL buddy chat, left me with nothing to play but a poorly animated ship firing poorly animated missiles at bright yellow triangles. I was basically the king of cool. Almost two decades later, Paul and Enrique Dryere’s Ring Runner serves as a gentle reminder that the genre is still alive and kicking even on the most lo-fi side, recalling bits and pieces of games that range from Sinistar and Subterrania to Armored Core and Front Mission. You get your little ship – which conveniently explodes two missions in – and are left with an old clunker from the bootstrap space development days of Old Earth. From there you’re left to your own devices…and what devices they are.
“this is a game that screams simple for the advanced and advanced for the simple, only really revealing that it’s a bit of both if you put some love into it.”
Much of the gameplay is dauntingly complex on the surface, mirroring the archaic menus that populate the title and mission select screens. Customizing ships is insane without a proper understanding of how combat mechanics work under a variety of different conditions, while the endless list of unlockable parts, upgrades and missions span the stars like a great and terrible sea. In short, a lot of players will jump into Ring Runner and feel an almost instantaneous bout of NIS America syndrome, bogged down with menu after menu of weapon functions, boost options and multiplayer condition modifiers. The keybinds are also a bit out of whack and require some practice to hammer down effectively – clearly this was a game meant for a controller, which navigates the black night of the galaxy much more smoothly than re-cultivating that Guitar Hero claw.
And so, like the throngs of jaggy beetle-ships that exploded in 32-bit particle fog on my dad’s old Macintosh, confused lowbies will sputter and burn into the side of the pixelly mountain across from the pixelly sea. They aren’t the audience, anyway, so screw those guys.
Because underneath the hood of Ring Runner is something much, much deeper. The gameplay is easy enough to master with only a few minutes of practice, yet consistently surprises by throwing total game changers into the mix at a near-constant clip. Think you’ve got your missile spread down? Try a seeker pod. Or maybe a time warping bomb. You can modify your lasers to cut through ship hulls or damage shields, or opt for no lasers at all and go with an old fashioned space machine gun. You can cloak, shock, bounce rockets back at attackers and lay trip mines behind chunks of debris, all under the guise of a simple shooter with fairly simple graphics. Even though, at the end of the day, any ship battle turns into a cloud of sex-crazed mayflies, a little bit of strategy can absolutely dominate early on and leave smart players with a devastating victory. Or not. Depends on your playstyle.
That’s because this is a game that screams simple for the advanced and advanced for the simple, only really revealing that it’s a bit of both if you put some love into it. The story mode is expansive in and of itself, with a crapton of a missions and a fairly interesting story for those who care about that kind of thing. This one features an unnamed pilot and their talking brain computer, who rapidly go from escaping an exploding medical bay to the most bona fide space badasses since Lando Calrissian. It also does what many space epics fail to do – it has a massive expanded universe and explains it in a well-paced and interesting way, all while you navigate the skeletons of dead ships and blow up enemies that look like everything from WWII jet fighters to deer ticks, which you can unlock with cash and research points if you like to fly around in a big metal doughnut (I do).
Multiplayer offerings are just as ridiculous as they might seem, with combat becoming a frenzy of ridiculous looking spaceships flying into and around each other after a series of comically slow Mexican standoffs. These tend to be broken by a lone daredevil chasing people from their hidey-holes, unless it turns into a Sinistar-era “everybody run from the really strong guy” match filled with traps and funky drifting tricks. It’s wild to see a barely upgraded clunker take on a scary-looking warship and come out on top with a couple of strafing moves, while really good players usually balance out their payloads to cripple and destroy enemies within seconds. Those can, of course, be countered by innumerable combinations of other loadouts, resulting in a metagame that’s actually really fun.
“This is a game you will be playing for a very long time for a lot of very good reasons”
Speaking of really fun, Ring Runner nails the ambiance of an old fashioned space shooter perfectly. It has the off-key floaty music that screams, “it is the year 2000, and man explores the stars” without ever getting really cheesy. It’s also pretty to look at despite the relatively lo-fi graphics, with particle effects that sizzle through enemies with a satisfying pop and explosions that ripple through aggressive engagement areas as you zip past. It’s also just…fun, in a very, very old school kind of way, while still adopting a lot of the heavy customization options that make contemporary games give off that sense of pride and ownership in the experience.
If you’re looking for something that involves ships floating around a 2D grid as they blast the shit out of each other, you have lots and lots and lots of options. None, however, can equal the sheer magnitude of Ring Runner. This is a game you will be playing for a very long time for a lot of very good reasons, and even at the alpha stage, it looks like it’s ready to take the genre for all its worth. Yeah, you might bump into a lot of walls while you get the drifting mechanics down. But if Microsoft Fury 3 were here today, it would shed a little tear of joy. A little jagged tear of joy. Made of cubes. That explode.