As one might expect from a game that takes place on Planet Gamearth, Rise & Shine is a rather self-referential title. The first level alone, set in the ruined Candy Mall, is filled with references that range from Q*Bert to Wolfenstein’s William “B.J.” Blazkowicz, and the game begins with young protagonist Rise being given his quest by a dying hero who looks suspiciously like Link. But while Rise & Shine is filled with a winking respect to video-game history, the appropriately named developers at Super Awesome Hyper Dimensional Mega Team have far more on their mind than simply crafting a nostalgic side-scroller, and they use a remote-controlled-bullet mechanic to put an over-the-top spin on the classics.
Although Rise & Shine may sometimes look like a more cartoonish version of Contra, it doesn’t play like one, and early on establishes the need for a more methodical and strategic approach to battles after Rise’s protector, the massively muscled Megabadass, dies instantly after charging headlong into what ends up being a minefield. The game’s punishing difficulty urges players to tread carefully and make use of the light cover mechanics to avoid damage and engage at range. The majority of battles ultimately play out as fast-paced puzzles that test how well a player can prioritize targets and how precisely he or she can gun them down, with instant death awaiting those who accidentally target a parachute instead of the bomb it carries.
Sometimes the game’s hectic design is problematic. Hordes of foes can make it impossible to use RC bullets or explosive shells, as both require a few precious seconds of stillness to aim or charge. One zombie-filled zone is so overwrought with cheaply spawning foes that the level seems more to be making fun of the way The Walking Dead conjures zombies out of nowhere than in actually being fun itself. Thankfully, the game does a better job of focusing on the strengths of its gameplay during its terse boss encounters. These multi-phase fights require players to memorize lengthy, ever-evolving attack animations and to exploit the limited windows of vulnerability these mechanical behemoths display after exhausting their arsenals.
The quality of Rise & Shine’s 14 scenes grows a bit thin, especially the further things get from the strategic run-and-gun gameplay: There’s a particularly dismal auto-scrolling sequence in which players pilot a blocky gun boat through a wave of foes and a brief pit stop on mini-game-filled NPC Island is entirely without stakes. And because it only introduces one alternative type of ammunition (electrical) and two other firing pins (explosive and RC), the game is forced to artificially increase its difficulty by flooding the screen with foes as opposed to more elaborate puzzles. This backward step is reflected by Rise’s journey across the Retro Continent; what begins in a lush and hand-drawn environment ends in RPG City’s pixelated Odyssey Temple.
Despite its winning concept, all the comic homages, and the solidly executed gameplay, Rise & Shine goes out on a decidedly abrupt and anticlimactic note. In a way, it seems as if the developers got up and stretched but ultimately decided to go back to sleep.