Review: Caverns of Mars Recharged (Nintendo Switch)
Caverns of Mars Recharged is an arcade shooter for the Nintendo Switch. More accurately, it’s a reimagined version of the classic 1981 Atari title. A lot has changed in the 40+ years since the original, and this 2023 iteration does a great job of introducing itself to a whole new audience.
Full disclosure: I’ve never played the original Caverns of Mars. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of it before this review. However, thanks to the power of YouTube, I’ve seen the original’s action in all its glory.
As in the 1981 release, Recharged sees you piloting a spacecraft through, well, the caverns of Mars. Gameplay is handled vertically, as though you’re traversing deeper into the red planet. Rather than an endless run through the center of Mars, the game is divided into sections. Along the way are obstacles, from the rocky walls of the terrain itself to bombs and other enemies. The premise is simple; shoot your way through the cave until you reach the end, then move on to the next section.
Your ship moves automatically downwards, allowing you to concentrate on steering left and right to avoid whatever’s in your path—or direct your gunfire at it. Shooting slows you down, so you can control your descent, to a degree, by using gunfire. In turn, this uses more fuel, so there’s a tactical need to balance things as you gracefully plummet your way through.
Of course, this means you’ll need to keep an eye on your fuel meter. It wasn’t clear how to play at first, with two meters on display but no descriptive label. Suddenly, I would be unable to shoot, causing me to crash. It turns out you have to collect fuel on your way down in order to keep shooting, a useful tip. Once you get the hang of the mechanics, it’s easier to complete levels and rack up those points.
Yes, the main objective is chasing the highest score. This is indicated by a leaderboard, displayed when your run ends. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in the top 30 after some practice. You can compare yourself to friends or across the world, giving an incentive to replay and beat your own score or the scores of others. Other modes that add to the game’s longevity include local co-op and missions. There are 30 missions to keep you going, with objectives like using a certain weapon for the duration of the level. I’d like to see a description of the goal, but it’s still addictively fun to replay until you succeed.
Visually, Caverns of Mars Recharged presents very well. The ships and enemies all look like a modern version of their counterparts from 1981. The music is also a plus, with some great beats in the background.
One notable absence from this version is the need to escape each cavern before it explodes. In 2023, once you reach the end of the cave you simply move on to the next one. In 1981, you had limited time to fly backwards through the same level before it exploded around you. With longer and more complicated levels in today’s iteration, I can see why this component was left out. Still, it might have been interesting to try something new, like flipping everything 180 degrees and giving us control of our speed to dodge our way through a shorter stretch in order to beat the bomb. It also speaks to the narrative, of which there is very little. What is our motivation this time? Are we invading the planet or saving it? Who knows? It’s not necessarily needed, but it’s an interesting premise.
Other criticisms include the occasional slowdown while levels load. And sometimes the screen remains black for too long, making it look like it’s glitching. It always comes back to life just before I decide to reset. The user interface is a little lackluster in terms of descriptions and tutorials. It could use a little more finesse in this department to make it more user friendly, but it’s by no means a showstopper.
Overall, Caverns of Mars Recharged is a fun reimagining of 1981 Atari classic. Rather than a rehash or a simple port, a lot of effort has been put into extending the original premise and giving players more to do. This score-chaser is likely to provide arcade fans with an addictive and engaging time despite some minor interface flaws.