Over the years, the side-scrolling shooter has gone from being a workhorse to a clotheshorse. Once occupying the most reliable and mainstream space in the action genre, it’s now often the equivalent of niche installation art. The side-scroller has become a place for designers to revel in unlikely mechanics taken to their least-forgiving excesses, a place to muddle sound and colour together until the two become indistinguishable – a place, ultimately, to explore and abstract. Leave Home is the perfect embodiment of this idea: lithe, pretty, and quietly mysterious, it exhibits all the best elements of avant-garde coding, and, as an Indie Games title, it foregrounds the better aspects of bedroom design, too. It’s ad-libbed, but still feels lovingly handcrafted; it’s pared-down, yet surprisingly spacious.
The idea is very simple: you slide through a fixed-time gauntlet of dainty levels filled with glowing bursts of death. While your lives are infinite, the game’s dynamic difficulty means that it adjusts itself to how well you’re playing, slotting in a range of different sequences depending on your score and behaviour, and ensuring that you can never be certain which challenges you’re going to face next. The variety is hardly limitless, but the result exists in an almost ideal sweet spot between familiarity and surprise, and the real pleasure comes from the seamless way the game stitches its segments together. Starting, always, with a headlong rush through the collectable blue chips that power up your scoring ability, it feels like you’re being injected into the designer’s imagination. Once inside, you’re faced with an intriguing mixture of the organic and the glossily plastic, as you fight your way through arrangements of the kind of LED-and-cellophane knick-knacks you might find lurking in the bargain bin at Habitat.
Some sections scroll forwards, others twist, turn and slowly spin, while the very best wriggle ever outwards as you pick a path around a maze of obstacles. The ability to split your shots, arcing them back over your craft until you’re firing almost directly behind you, allows the game to throw some truly bizarre shapes together, while a smart lift from the Geometry Wars series means that scoring is as much about collecting the chips flung off from dying foes as killing them in the first place. This means you have to be proficient in two skills rather than just one: twitchy enough to blast the enemy without being hit, while sufficiently daring to swoop in on the shimmering rewards afterwards. Meanwhile, the game throws up new surprises when it feels like you can take them, suggesting you will never really be able to rely on rote memory alone to get you through its levels and bosses.
Hermitgames’ Matt James has worked on shooters before – most famously, perhaps, with the geometrical madhouse Fren-Ze (but you may also remember his work on Super Mario Pac) – so the level of polish here should not be entirely unexpected in a marketplace that is fairly heavily populated with lopsided duds. Experience alone can’t entirely explain just how much energy his latest game creates, however. With its neon shapes blooming beneath a Vaseline smear, and its C64 loading bursts creating transitions between chunky plastic urban sprawl and queasy – almost gynaecological – chicanes, Leave Home is not just another clever shooter: it’s a place you may find yourself returning to far more than you initially expected – to see what’s changed and what has remained the same.