Nova Drift brings Asteroids into the age of the Roguelike

Games don’t get much more formative than Asteroids. Released in 1979, the arcade hit immediately inspired dozens of clones. It’s one of the titles that created the shoot ’em up genre, and no game system is complete without at least one port. However, going back to it today, Asteroids shows its age. It’s a very simplistic game with awkward controls and little variety. You have to wonder, what would happen if someone were to modernize this classic while retaining enough elements to keep it firmly in the Asteroids family. Wonder no more, because recent Steam Early Access release Nova Drift is the answer to that question.

Nova Drift Preview | Insert coin to continue

Nova Drift

A game of Nova Drift starts off just as a game of Asteroids would. You have to blast apart space rocks while piloting a tiny ship equipped with a peashooter. After a few shots, an enemy ship flies into the fray, and you blast that down. You absorb a white orb from the enemy ship, and there’s suddenly you have an upgrade ready, enhancing your main weapon. Bigger ships keep coming and you keep firing till you explode. It’s a simple formula, but Nova Drift has a lot of appealing changes to bring it into 2019.

For one, besides the very opening bit, Nova Drift is completely procedural. You get new waves of enemies and new available upgrades on every run. There are different bosses to encounter as well, so you never know what you’ll be up against. Once you beat your first run (presumably when you run into the giant Ferris Wheel of lasers), your score feeds into an XP bar that levels you up. Levels put even more mechanics and power-ups into the game. This slowly rolls out everything Nova Drift has to offer and lets you set up your ship as you like.

Nova Drift Preview | The thrust of the issue

Nova Drift

Yes, you read that correctly. Despite this game still having the same basic control scheme as Asteroids, there are in-depth loadout options. Power-ups can drastically change the way you play, and there are already several killer “characters” among those who’ve played for hours and hours. You can be an Engineer, spewing AI controlled drones and dropping mines while occasionally releasing swarms of missiles. You can be an agile pilot with a wide spread shot that shoots incredibly fast and covers the screen. There’s even the option to be a rhino and use speed to your advantage, crashing into foes to run them out of the sky.

It all works surprisingly well given the limitations of the game’s controls. While Nova Drift would work perfectly fine as a twin stick shooter, that’s not what the developers are going for. Instead, thrusting across the screen works just as it did in the heyday of arcades. You’ve got a button to activate your engine, and you have to time your boost to position yourself well. You also have to keep moving, as upgrade spheres fade away after a brief window and you want to get as many upgrades as possible to keep up with the opposing forces.

Nova Drift Preview | Minding the x-axis

Nova Drift

However, this control setup isn’t the best, but it’s easy to appreciate what it’s going for. It’s a system based on precision and hitting your marks, and it’s easy to overshoot and crash into danger. Thankfully, it’s not instant death when you do crash, but you also don’t have invincibility frames to get yourself back to safety. You have to be on your toes and jet out of danger or else you’ll quickly find yourself floating in the vacuum of space.

Even though flying around can sometimes be just a little wonky, it was easy to survive for a good while on my first few runs. It seems like certain setups can blaze through the opening waves with little to no effort, especially those with homing missiles. This issue of balance may solve itself over the course of Nova Drift‘s Early Access period, or it could be a grace period to help build your character up. Either way, it seems a bit tedious for a game you have to play through over and over.

Nova Drift Preview | Being your own operator

Of course, this problem could also fix itself thanks to the game’s adjustable difficulty system. One of the unlocks you get by leveling up are new Challenge Modes. These are options difficulty adjustments (similar to Halo‘s Skulls) that can make your game work slightly differently. Most of them seem designed to up the difficulty, which is vital in a procedural game that people are going to learn like the back of their hand. It all reminiscent of arcade dip switches, only without the whole aura of quarter-munching surrounding it.

As you try to survive in your cruiser, you’ll only hear the sounds of space. Nova Drift has a very minimal soundtrack. It’s the type of atmosphere that links up well with space combat, as explosions and lasers mix right in with the synths and drum beats. It’s great to listen to outside of the game, but it fades a bit too much into the background during long sessions. Perhaps this just speaks to how absorbing this arcade redux is, but pumping up the atmosphere is obviously the priority.

Nova Drift Preview | Docking in the station

If you can get over the unique control scheme, you’ll find a lot to like in Nova Drift‘s Early Access release. It takes the best parts of a game like The Binding of Isaac and applies them to a wholly new type of experience. The developers pull off an impressive balancing act of keeping things so simple while you’re playing but also having so many stat boosts and new features to put into your character. It’s amazing that the game itself feels like it could be running alongside Rally-X and Galaga in some ’80s backroom. Even if you’re tired of roguelikes at this point, any fan of space shooters and shoot ’em ups will likely want to look at Nova Drift with some interest as it jets towards a full release in early 2020.

GameRevolution previewed Nova Drift on PC via Steam Early Access with a code provided by the publisher.