Genetos is a shmup which celebrates the history of its genre from its humble beginnings to the modern era. The aesthetics evolve along with the enemies and even your own ship in this journey through the ages. With many difficulty levels to choose from and different evolutionary paths for your ship based on your actions, Genetos is a game which can vary as much as the genre itself.
This is a vertical shmup, but describing how it actually plays is a bit trickier than usual because so much about the game changes as it evolves. Generally speaking, the goal of each level is to kill enemies and collect the green objects they drop to fill up a giant meter at the bottom of the screen. Once the meter reaches 800 out of 1000 energy the level immediately ends and the boss appears. You initially can’t deal too much damage to each boss, but every boss has normal enemies which appear alongside it which can be killed to finish filling the bar all the way up, at which point both your ship and the boss evolve into forms where you can deal substantially more damage to the boss and the boss for its part gains entirely new, more dangerous attacks.
Genetos goes all out when it comes to the evolution mechanics. The very first level resembles Space Invaders and consists of a single screen where several rows of aliens shoot down at your ship while drifting left and right and bobbing up and down. Meanwhile, your starting ship is nothing more than a semicircle with a single turret which can slowly shoot upward and it can only move left and right. Thankfully, you don’t remain in this pitiful form for long as it only takes a few seconds to kill enough aliens to trigger the boss fight and from there evolve into a ship from the early arcade or NES era. This second ship gets a much better, rapid-fire weapon and the ability to move anywhere in the lower half of the screen rather than being limited to purely horizontal movement. In this way, the evolution is interestingly staggered as your ship is capable of evolving to the next era slightly before arriving in the level which matches it. The third ship, which belongs to the early 3D era, gains access to a bomb ability and can move anywhere on the screen, the fourth ship belongs to the early 2000’s with the addition of a subweapon and the ability to focus fire by slowing down, and the final ship provides two helper ships and an upgrade for your weapon and subweapon and at last arrives in the modern era (or modern by the standards of 2009 when Genetos was fully released at any rate).
Though each form of the ship looks the same on every playthrough, the actual combination of abilities you end up with can vary a lot and this is partly where the particularly high replay value of this game comes from. You always get a weapon, a bomb, and a subweapon, but there are five possibilities for each of these based on meeting certain conditions while playing. By default you end up with a rapid-fire forward shot, a large, circular explosion bomb, and the ability to lock on to enemies while focus firing and then release a barrage of lasers at them when you let go of the button. Of the remaining four possibilities for each category, you can only see the requirements for the first in each set under the History submenu, but the requirements for later ones become visible as you obtain previous ones; you can always get these abilities even if the requirement isn’t visible so yo never have to outright unlock them.
Some of these abilities are easy to get, such as the cross-shaped bomb which your default bomb turns into after reaching your fourth form just by using up all of your bombs. On the other hand, others can be virtually impossible to get unless you’re specifically aiming for them, such as the ‘Slow’ based weapon which sacrifices the rapid-fire attack in exchange for a barrage of spinning shurikens which slowly launch forward from both sides of the ship. In order to acquire this particular weapon, you must either complete the third level without wasting a single bullet or defeat the second boss while remaining in your second form. Some abilities also require you to find a green DNA pickup in a specific level, which seems to always be dropped by a specific enemy within that level. Though you can always evolve from the default ability in a set to one of the other four, you can’t exchange the other ones so making sure to avoid the criteria for what you don’t want is just as important as hitting the goals you’re aiming for. It’s particularly important to be careful with subweapons as their capabilities are rather varied and include a time slow and a damaging dash, but even so you better make sure to move around a decent amount if you’re not looking to get the Graze weapon while not moving too much unless you plan to use the Burning bomb.
With only five levels, most of which take less than two minutes to complete, Genetos is short even for a shmup, yet the experience as a whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. Each level doesn’t just resemble an era aesthetically, it feels like it belongs to that era. For example, the second level as an early arcade or NES tribute has enemies which tend to fly in for a few seconds before shooting and flying away alongside metal slabs which are nearly impossible to destroy and get in the way of your shots. On the other hand, the third level has tougher ships and minibosses appear periodically alongside fast swarms of smaller enemies which never stop moving and the fourth level plays with depth by having background enemies which can only be hit by subweapons and bombs and a segment where you descend down a tunnel and enemies fly in from the background rather than from the edges of the screen. However, the final level is by far my favorite because, while it doesn’t differ too much from the fourth level in terms of gameplay, it is a bit more cinematic than usual and is themed around the evolution of life itself as you start by punching through molten rock and rapidly progress through time until you’re dealing with birds and street sign barriers in a modern city.
Its difficulty balance is one area where Genetos runs into a bit of a snag, though not a major one. Namely, every boss other than the final boss is rather simplistic and most of them barely put up a fight on anything other than the highest of difficulty settings. The brevity of the boss fights allows for better pacing overall as you flow from one era to the next, but I think this is a questionable trade at best in a game which seeks to celebrate vertical shmups, a genre where the bosses are so often the main attractions.
On the other hand, the actual difficulty curve from level to level is handled well enough that each level feels more challenging than the previous one without ever being too large of a leap. The differences between each of its five difficulty modes are also significant enough that anyone of virtually any skill level should be able to clear the game and get a satisfying challenge out of it. Genetos doesn’t give you any continues, but it is very generous with extra lives and the easiest ‘Beginner’ setting starts you out with a whopping 20 lives and puts you up against enemies which barely fire a shot while the hardest ‘Creator’ setting gives you only seven lives to start with and you’ll need every extra life you can get as it makes even the very first level with its cheerful rows of aliens into a fiendishly difficult nonstop bullet barrage. Certain enemy types also only appear on later difficulty settings, so the changes between settings are definitely substantial enough to warrant multiple replays. On top of all of this, you have access to a Free Play mode where you can set any combination of abilities for your ship (as long as you’ve found them in the main game) and not only set the difficulty, but set your ship to any stage of evolution in any level, choose if you want to only fight the boss, remove the movement restrictions on the first two ships, modify your ship’s power and speed, and quite a few other things as well. All things considered, the issue of disappointing boss fights really is a minor one when measured up against the replayability of the main campaign and the ridiculous flexibility of Free Mode.
With its incredible variety and its wordless, yet clearly felt, passion for the vertical shmup genre, Genetos is one history lesson which you won’t want to skip out on and one which you will almost inevitably revisit again and again.