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Astro Duel 2 (NS)

Astro Duel 2 (NS) - Review

by Evan Norris , posted on 06 April 2024 / 7,351 Views

Gamers, and people in general, seem to be more isolated these days. Whether because of the loss of physical common spaces or the rise of digital, online-only interactions, we seem to be lonelier than ever before. For video game fans, a time-tested way to mitigate these effects is to bring together a group of like-minded friends for an afternoon or evening of in-person gaming. Such is the dream of Astro Duel 2, a throwback local multiplayer game that recalls the days of pumping quarters into Turtles in Time at the local arcade, surrounded by onlookers, or playing Mario Party until three in the morning at a sleepover.

A follow-up to the 2014 space shooter Astro Duel, and its subsequent Switch port Astro Duel Deluxe, Astro Duel 2 retains the shoot-'em-up gameplay of the original and enhances it with improved art direction, new modes, more interesting maps, and most critically, brand new 2D platforming mechanics. As a result, the game is essentially, in the words of developer Rusty Moyher, "a mix between Smash Bros. and Asteroids".

Moyher's comparison is an apt one. The space phase of the game controls a lot like an advanced form of Asteroids. Players will steer their ships through each two-dimensional side-view level, adjusting for momentum & zero gravity, while attempting to aim and shoot at rival combatants. If the ship is destroyed, the pilot will be ejected and vulnerable. Wait a few (painfully long) seconds and your ship will reform around you, allowing you to rejoin the fight. If you're shot or run over while in pilot form, though, it's lights out.

New to the world of Astro Duel are gravity-based action-platforming zones — the Smash Bros. part of the equation. Embedded in certain levels, they're contiguous with the space sections of the map, but with separate rules. Any ship that enters these zones immediately reverts to a pilot, and projectile attacks (with rare exceptions) can't penetrate the border. So, you could retreat to a platforming area after losing your ship, or enter one voluntarily, looking for power-ups or to fight the other pilots inside. This adds a lot of spice and variability to the action, as players transform back and forth between ship and pilot, looking for the upper hand.

Unfortunately, the look and feel of combat in these platforming areas isn't quite as satisfying as the dogfights in zero-g. The tiny pixelated pilots are just a touch too small and the movement mechanics are looser and lighter than needed. As a result, fighting in these contained spaces has a flailing, chaotic vibe to it. It compares unfavorably to the action in space, which is more tactical and balanced, and benefits from a higher time-to-kill (thanks to those ejectable pilots).

Not only does Astro Duel 2 introduce novel mechanics, but also a new "adventure" mode called Bounty. For those who want a break from the PvP action, Bounty allows one to three players to take jobs across the star system, either fighting off waves of enemies, conducting heists, or experimenting with weapon power-ups. As you complete these bounties, you'll earn cold, hard cash to unlock new ships, maps, and modifiers. While a very nice overture to folks looking to play solo or cooperatively, Bounty mode falls flat. It's a fine diversion for a time, but it gets old and repetitive rather quickly. It's just not a substitute for a proper campaign. 

Unexpectedly, it's actually much more rewarding to play solo in Versus mode, against bots. Versus is really where the game shines, either on your own or with up to six players total. For starters, there are several entertaining game types, including standards like team battle and free-for-all deathmatch, but also fun novelties like "Cash Grab". A team-based heist mode, Cash Grab separates each team into bandits and guards. In between rounds, each player can use accumulated cash to buy different ships and power-ups. The only thing missing from the list of modes is a last-man-standing deathmatch variant — something akin to "You Only Live Twice" from GoldenEye 007.

In addition to several modes, Versus offers many different level layouts. Some are set solely in space or only in gravity zones, while the best feature a little bit of both. The highlights include half-underwater stages from the Sunken Temple and dangerous maps from Flare Watch. Watch out: if you don't pay attention here, you'll be engulfed in a solar flare.

Finally, Versus allows a good deal of customization. You can set the kill and win limits, of course, but also tweak autobalance, friendly fire, and a host of ship, item, and arena rules. Moreover, you have the option to play with as many or as few computer-controlled bots as you like, on either easy or hard settings. And if you've seen enough AI enemies, you can invite five friends over and kick it old school with some frenetic couch multiplayer.

How often you return to battle friends and bots will ultimately dictate how much value you get from Astro Duel 2. Players can obtain most of the purchasable content in Bounty mode, and unlock the secret maps, characters, and items in Versus mode after only a couple of hours, so the true source of the game's longevity comes from the endless matchmaking of Versus mode.

Astro Duel 2 improves upon its predecessor in several ways, but perhaps the most immediate, obvious area involves graphics. Where the first Astro Duel was a tad stark, this sequel is brighter, more layered, and far more decorative, thanks to fetching pixel art and detailed backgrounds from Jeff Fillion. The only downside: sometimes tiny pilots can get lost among the pixels.

As for music, it's futuristic and spacey — an ideal complement to the action onscreen. Composed by Matthew Grimm and Matt Meyer, the game's soundtrack is sneakily one of the best of the year so far. "Cosmic Dance", with its clapping beats and electronic staccato, is perhaps the standout track. Heck, even the credits music is great.

Astro Duel 2 won't suddenly make the world a less alienating, lonely place, but by embracing local multiplayer gameplay for up to six players at a time, it can bring a group of friends a little joy, one space battle at a time. Despite some flaws, including a lackluster single-player adventure mode and 2D action-platforming that pales in comparison to space-bound combat, it's a fairly good multiplayer title ideal for parties. Consider picking this one up, particularly if you have a reliable group of friends nearby.

VGChartz Verdict


This review is based on a digital copy of Astro Duel 2 for the NS, provided by the publisher.

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