A Quick Look At Sturmwind - Dreamcast & Switch Comparison

Zero Gunner 2, Ikaruga, Gunbird 2. All games that first appeared - in the home at least - on the Dreamcast, and which have found a new audience on the Nintendo Switch. The latest game to follow this trend is Duranik's awesome horizontally and vertically scrolling shooter Sturmwind. It's actually called Sturmwind EX and has been released on PC and Xbox One too, but for the sake of consistency we'll be looking exclusively at the Nintendo Switch version here.

Sturmwind was originally released as a totally independent game back in 2013, and at the time it was lauded for its (inter)stellar visuals and thumping soundtrack, as well as adding relatively modern features not usually seen in Dreamcast games, either contemporary or ante-mortem. Things like unlocking achievements and being able to save a replay to an SD Card; or being given a code at the end of every arcade run that could be entered into a bespoke web portal to post scores to an online leaderboard.
Sturmwind...both on and in the Nintendo Switch. See?
Yes, Rush Rush Rally Racing did something similar and online leaderboards were totally a thing back in the heyday of the Dreamcast, but for an indie dev to go to such trouble was just impressive back then. As well as being an absolute tour de force of graphics, sound, inventive gameplay mechanics and boasting a ton of content, Sturmwind felt like a complete package...and it wasn't even an official Sega-sanctioned release. Oh, and and it was released 12 years after Sega effectively killed off the Dreamcast.
Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. Duranik's finest moment has now found its way to the Nintendo Switch with some lovely updated visuals and all of the features that made the Dreamcast game a treat. So, how does it play and how does it stack up against the original? Buckle up as we prepare to launch the Sturmwind craft and take the battle to the stars...

As you'd expect, most of what made the original iteration of Sturmwind is present and correct in the Switch game, although if you're familiar with the Dreamcast original you'll notice some differences upon starting the game. For starters, the menus are totally different. Gone is the downbeat (and rather tranquil) menu music, replaced by a selection of more upbeat/epic instrumentals; and the menus themselves have been totally redesigned.
Dreamcast main menu
Switch main menu
I'm not overly keen on the massive floating Kracken boss taking up the main menu background - part of the mystique of the Dreamcast original was that you didn't see it straight away, it was merely hinted at in early stages before you eventually faced off against the tentacled behemoth in all it's Cthulhu-derived slimy glory. I dunno - it's a minor gripe I know, but it just feels like a bit of a bad choice. I know it's only one of a multitude of boss enemies, but it's a bit like putting John Romero's disembodied head on the DOOM II title screen. A bit. Sort of. Anyway, here's a comparison video of the Dreamcast and Switch games:

The basics of gameplay are pretty much identical though - as you'd expect. I'm going to go out on a limb here by assuming at least a few of you reading this tripe have already played Sturmwind in the past, but for the benefit of those who haven't, I'll explain the basics. You control the space ship Sturmwind, flying through a series of stages based in space, under water, in huge foundries and refineries, and over the surface of alien worlds. As with most games in this genre, mindless waves of enemies will throw themselves at you in a kamikaze style, also occasionally lobbing the odd projectile in your general direction. Being hit by an enemy or a projectile will cause you to lose the ability to use whichever weapon system you're currently using (there are three), and once you've been hit three times, you ship is toast.

In effect, each of your weapons systems represents a 'life,' and they can also be upgraded and replenished should you lose it. This is where Sturmwind becomes quite a tactical shooter. The three weapons systems on offer all have different firing patterns and can all be fired forward or backwards and augmented with drones to enhance firepower. However, if you lose one system, collecting the correspondingly coloured power-up will reinstate it effectively giving you another chance should you be hit by an enemy. You're also equipped with a charged power shot and a powerful screen-clearing bomb, but its best to save those for the boss fights, natch. In no particular order, the systems are:
  • Lichtblitz: a blue projectile stream that arcs upwards and downwards slightly that is especially powerful in underwater scenarios
  • Nordwest: an orange projectile that can fire in a 360 degree arc around Sturmwind by letting go of the fire button
  • Rudel: a green projectile that is very strong but leaves the Sturmwind exposed from above and below
Yes, it sounds confusing but that's probably more down to my ham-fisted writing, rather than Sturmwind itself. Oh, and those weapon names are bad ass.

Enemies will come at you from all directions, so it's down to you to work out which weapon system will help you in the situation you are in. Handily you can switch weapons at the touch of a button and switch the direction of fire - forward or backwards - with a similar tap of a button. This may feel like a gimmick initially, but it becomes a large part of playing Sturmwind when you find yourself in stages which move vertically rather than horizontally and when enemies decide to start rushing you from the rear.
Environmental hazards keep things interesting throughout the various themed stages, with sunken battleships posing as much of a threat as the swarms of neon jellyfish; and robotic welding arms posing as much of a risk as the waves of aerial enemies in the foundry stage. There are multiple mid and end of level bosses too, some of which are huge and use the entire screen space (and more often than not, nipping off the screen entirely to regroup) to attack your ship. Herein lies one of the main issues I had with the Dreamcast game though - and one which remains in Sturmwind EX.

Sometimes, there's just so much happening on screen at once, that it's actually quite difficult to see enemy projectiles and also suss out which parts of the environment can harm you and what cannot. It comes down to trial and error initially, but once you've played a stage a few times you'll get to know what will kill you and what is a harmless bit of background furniture. Still, it can be annoying if something you thought was stage dressing actually turns out to be something nefarious...and especially so if you're on your last life.
While the main point of Sturmwind's two play modes (Mission mode - all 16 levels in sequence with continues, saves etc; and Arcade mode - only 6 levels and no continues) is to make it to the final boss and vanquish it,  score multipliers are also a large part of the experience. If you manage to kill all of the enemies in a particular 'wave,' then a 'wave bonus' comes into play (only after destroying the words that appear on screen!), meaning you can effectively double or triple your score.

So what does this Switch version offer over the Dreamcast game? Well, for starters all of the assets have been lovingly redrawn by lead developer Johannes Graf, meaning that the relatively lo-resolution models of the original have been given a lush new hi-res lick of paint. Likewise, the animated backgrounds which have started to look a bit long in the tooth on the Dreamcast have also been re-done, meaning Sturmwind EX looks better than ever either on HD displays or on the Switch's built in screen. I mean, Dreamcast Sturmwind wasn't exactly a bad looking game, but through the lens of 2019, you can see how certain effects were achieved using pre-rendered effects in the backgrounds and some enemies do have a certain 'shimmer' around the edges. None of this is present in the Switch game.
Here you can see the enhanced detail in the Sturmwind model on Switch (right)
Elsewhere, there is a new 'Graphic FX' toggle in the menu which - as far as I can tell - adds some new effects such as a sort of screen blur and some extra smoke and fog effects. The achievements present in the Dreamcast game have been reworked slightly, and have been assigned different parameters (kill a certain number of enemies, beat this level etc etc), but oddly the unlockable artwork and prototype drawings appear to have been removed from the Switch game, rendering the achievements pretty pointless for any reason other than to...well...achieve them.

On Switch, Sturmwind runs at a locked 60 frames per second. The Dreamcast game targeted 60fps too, but there were occasions when a lot was happening or when complex effects were employed that the game dipped to 30fps to keep everything running well. And of course, while the Dreamcast game ran in a 4:3 ratio, the Switch runs in 16:9 such is the way of the world (or rather, TV dimensions and Switch displays) these days. One thing I found to be sorely missing was the cool intro cinematic from the Dreamcast game, but I'm told recreating the whole sequence at a higher resolution would have been more trouble than it was worth, and as Duranik was working with a publisher who had deadlines, it was deemed that putting all the effort into reworking the main game visuals took precedence over trying to upscale the older assets from the Dreamcast:

"It wasn't the same programming team for Sturmwind EX as in the Dreamcast version. On the Dreamcast we just took our time and included what we thought might be cool. For a hobby project  this is fine, but when a publisher is putting some money behind a project they have a strict timetable and control all costs. So unfortunately, some things had to go - like the FMVs. I also would have 
liked to do more on the menu with different background.

"In the end the decision was made to put the majority of development time into reworking the graphics and bringing everything to one level, and not mix parts with lower and high resolution or simply go with upscaling the old graphics and adding some scanline effects to hide it."
- Johannes Graf, Duranik

Interestingly, a large proportion of the little 'Easter eggs' present in the Dreamcast game have been totally stripped out, so gone are the references to the Atari Jaguar origins of Sturmwind (the original game was a tech demo called Native for the Jaguar CD); and likewise the blink-and-you'll-miss-it references to games like Dropzone, Pacman and Lemmings are gone. This was due to copyright issues according to Duranik, and while I can totally appreciate this, it also makes the Dreamcast version that little bit more special as it still contains all the little nods to other classic titles.
In the Dreamcast version, you will find references to Sturmwind's Atari Jaguar origins...
But in the Nintendo Switch version, many of these Easter eggs are removed.
A few other tiny little differences I noticed are that the music seems to have been slightly altered in some stages, with longer intro sections before the main theme kicks in (especially noticeable in the first stage); and due to the intro cinematics being omitted, the character portraits of the comrades chatting to you have been swapped out for generic wireframe androids. Also, the enemy projectiles are generally a little bit smaller in the Switch version. As I said, tiny things, but I noticed them so thought they were worth documenting here.

Sturmwind EX on the Nintendo Switch then, is pretty much everything you would want or expect from an update of the classic Dreamcast indie. Totally reworked visuals are married perfectly with the tried and tested gameplay and stages you will remember. There are no new gameplay modes (the Story and Arcade mades are pretty much the same), but the similar soundtrack and sound effects give it a sense of reassuring familiarity.
All in all, Sturmwind EX is a worthy update and joins the ranks of Ikaruga, Zero Gunner 2 and Gunbird 2 in bringing the gems of the Dreamcast shooter library to a whole new audience. If you enjoyed the original game then this is highly recommended, and likewise if you are new to Sturmwind this is easily the most affordable way to dip your toe in.

Sturmwind EX is developed by Duranik and published by b-alive GmbH, and is available on Nintendo Switch, Steam and Xbox One now. The original Dreamcast version was published by RedSpot Games in 2013 and re-released by Duranik in 2016 and is also available now...but beware those ridiculous eBay prices!

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1 comment:

hoogafanter said...

Glad to see the port came out so well. This is cool!