When it comes to intimidating video game genres, few are as imposing as the shoot ‘em up (or ‘shmup’ if you’re pressed for time). Games like Ikaruga or Mushihimesama are notorious for their high skill ceiling and even higher bullet count. It can definitely feel a little overwhelming watching these games in action, let alone actually jumping headfirst into one, but thankfully there are plenty of newcomer friendly options out there to cut your teeth on. B.ARK is one such example, and I’d even go as far as saying it’s one of the most accessible shmups you can dive into if you’re looking for an easy way in.

One of the things you’ll immediately notice when booting up B.ARK is its Saturday-morning cartoon inspired aesthetic. The developers at Tic Toc Games took great care in creating a vibrant, hand-animated art style that looks good enough to spin off into an actual Saturday-morning cartoon. The mechs you pilot are big and bright, and the anthropomorphic characters piloting them are completely adorable. The overall vibe of this game is so light-hearted and friendly that it was impossible for me to frown during my time with it. 

I also really appreciate that the art direction doesn’t clash with the gameplay in any way. With shmups, being able to spot enemies and projectiles around you is critical, and B.ARK takes this into consideration. Enemy bullets are primarily bright, red, and easy to immediately see. This makes maneuvering through and around the various bullet patterns much more satisfying as it never feels like you’re taking any unfair hits. Those big mechs you pilot seem like they would potentially be an issue at first glance (seriously, you could fit three or four Vic Vipers in one of these things), but I never really had any issues with wonky hitboxes or anything of that nature. There’s enough space around you to avoid hazards, and every hit I did take felt like my fault, which is honestly the highest praise I can give a shmup.

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Each design is distinct so you shouldn't lose sight of your character during multiplayer sessions.

Mechanically speaking, B.ARK is a fairly simple side-scrolling shooter with a few interesting hooks. There are four playable characters, each with their own unique specials and gimmicks. Of course, this means four-player co-op is an option, but I went solo during my time with this game (though the co-op has a semi-competitive element to it in the same vein as Super Mario 3D World). I found myself using Felicity the most because of their spread shot, but the other characters are just as viable. You have Marv’s homing bullets, Lucio’s exploding bullets, and Barker’s “shooting buddies” which pretty much does what it says on the tin. I like this a lot for the sake of variety, and it incentivizes replaying levels with different characters if you’re into that sort of thing. You’re also given a pretty generous lifebar on the normal difficulty, and there are checkpoints after every miniboss encounter. There’s even a dodge button for some extra defensive options. When I said that this is a perfect entry point for the shoot ‘em up genre, I wasn’t kidding.

One of my favorite mechanics in this game is the weapons leveling system. During levels, you can collect plutonium from shooting down enemies. The more you collect, the stronger your weapons become. The catch, however, is that taking damage reduces your weapon level. This makes playing defensively and utilizing your dodge all the more important if you want to remain powered up. This is especially important during the game’s boss fights. If you’ve played shmups before, you’ll immediately recognize some of these bullet patterns that bosses throw at you. Squeezing between bullets with barely any wiggle room while keeping your attacks going is just as satisfying here as it is in any other shmup, and that aforementioned dodge comes in handy if you need to get to safety. It’s definitely not as intense as something like Gradius V, and you can absolutely melt a boss’s health bar if you save your super and keep your weapon level up, but it still feels incredibly rewarding when you come out on top.

My only real negative is the game’s story, but even that isn’t completely terrible. It’s perfectly serviceable and even a little wholesome. Earth has been overtaken by the cybernetic fish armada, Dark Tide, and it’s up to you and your animal buddies to stop them as they spread throughout the solar system. Each level in the game is a planet, and that provides a decent framework for the story and the varied environmental backdrops you’ll be flying through. You can unlock optional backstory vignettes for each playable character as well, and these are mostly fine too. At the very least, it’s nice to have some downtime between the blasting, and the art direction remains excellent in these segments as you’d expect. It’s really hard for me to be nitpicky about it because it never really distracts from the core of the game.

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If you've played shmups before, some of these patterns might seem a little familiar to you.

At the end of the day, B.ARK is a breezy little shoot ‘em up that makes for a perfect introduction to the genre. Even after hitting the credits, I found myself booting it back up from time to time to play a couple of levels, try the higher difficulties, and play around with the other characters more. It’s short, mechanically sound, and incredibly addictive once you get into the zone, and I can’t recommend this one enough. Plus, it has talking animals. Who doesn’t love talking animals?