Graceful Explosion Machine is the videogame equivalent of that sugar rush you get when you guzzle down an entire bag of skittles. It’s bright, colourful, appealing to the senses, and consuming it will be the most fun thing you’ll do that day. But once you’ve had too much, it all starts to taste the same, the sweetness becomes the new normal, and the fun gets taken out of it and your mouth becomes numb and okay this metaphor is running away from me. But that really is a perfect summation of the emotional baseline of Graceful Explosion Machine.
It’s a gorgeous and silky smooth shmup that lets you make things explode as long as you play it, and then completely disappears from your mind.
It isn’t hard to spot Graceful Explosion Machine‘s inspirations within your first few minutes with it. It takes obvious cues from classics like Defender as well as more modern takes on the genre like Geometry Wars and Resogun. Almost every single one of its 36 stages is a side-scrolling field that wraps around itself much like the levels in OdinSphere. Your object is to go from deftly maneuver around levels while blasting enemies and… not much else, really. It’s not exactly unprecedented for a game that calls itself Graceful Explosion Machine. To that end, you have four weapons, each mapped to one of the four face buttons. Your primary method of dealing death is a mid-range automatic blaster that doesn’t use power but overheats with overuse. Your other weapons are where things get really fun. You have a short ranged energy sword that attacks enemies in a small circle around you for two rotations, a long range sniper beam that deals massive damage but can reach the end of the screen and uses a ton of power, and lock-on missiles that can be fired in short bursts or screen-filling flurries if you hold the button until your power runs out. Power is regained by collecting the yellow gems that enemies drop when they explode. Then you have to ability to flip your ship by 180 degrees and quick dash through enemies (but not through bullets, those need to be cut with your sword).
This might seem like too many variables to keep track of – which it kind of is – but very early in the game you’ll get into a comfortable rhythm of using one of your three power weapons and then using the blaster to collect power gems, and it’s a gameplay loop that doesn’t really get old.
Graceful Explosion Machine uses subtle and clever audiovisual cues to always make sure you have enough information to make snap decisions when you pay attention. There is never a moment where you feel like a death of loss of streak was your fault. Your ship’s animations let you know when the blaster is overheating (your bullets change colour accordingly) and the beeping sound you hear when your power meter runs low makes sure you never really have to look at the HUD if you don’t want to. It is, however, a very delicate balance that requires a high degree of precision if you want to chase leaderboards and get the best ratings. Enemies surround you in overwhelming numbers almost all the time, though very few of them use bullets so crowd control is usually very doable. If you don’t kill anything for too long or get hit, you lose your score streak. Three hits and you die, though if you stay alive long enough sooner or later, an enemy will drop a health gem.
As you go through this gameplay loop, Graceful Explosion Machine drowns you in its colourful, candy-coated aesthetic. Everything is filled with bright, pastel colours and enemies explode in cascading diamond patterns, and adorable emoticons pop on the screen when you land score streaks. The overall angular look combined with the soft pastel colours makes this game look like Steven Universe which really isn’t a bad thing to resemble, visually. The clean, colourful visuals are aided by a silky smooth framerate and a plinky synthwave soundtrack that meshes perfectly with the frenetic ebb and flow of your battles.
All of that is fantastic and the only ‘problem’ I can say Graceful Explosion Machine has is that all of the above is really all there is to it.
You never gain new weapons or upgrade your ship, or unlock new moves. There’s no story and no player progression beyond ratings and leaderboards, and not much to do once you finish the 36 levels divided across four planets. For every planet you finish, you unlock challenge levels and an a score attack run that plays all the levels from a planet one after the other with your score streaks carrying over, which is great if you’re like me and love yourself some high score numbers. Personally, I don’t mind. Not every game needs to be a deep RPG with multi-faceted character progression and a story. Graceful Explosion Machine is simply a pure gameplay experience, and to fault it for being that would be to completely misjudge it. And as a pure gameplay experience, I think the game does a fantastic job. Besides, it’s clearly meant to be played on the go in short bursts rather than powered through in one sitting, and based on that, the amount of content on offer here feels more than enough. The Nintendo Switch is many things, but it’s definitely a handheld, too, so it’s great that it has a game of this type that I can quickly whip out while waiting for the bus to arrive.
Graceful Explosion Machine was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a copy purchased by the reviewer.