What the hell is going on in Sine Mora? I don’t just mean the crazy 2D sidescrolling bullet hell shooting, which is mostly manageable for a dilettante like me. The genre is known as shmups, presumably because the people describing it are too busy dodging bullets to sound out the words “shoot ‘em up”. Hence, “shmup”. But what the hell is going on with these graphics? And this story? And Hungary?

After the jump, Sine Mora is apparently Latin for “yowsa!”

Sine Mora, which is Latin for without delay according to the achievements, is an arguably retro game in a decidedly non-retro graphics engine. The 2D sidescrolling is drawn with fancy 3D graphics that shows off its 3Dness as you fly from section to section. The basic concept is familiar: shoot enemies, collect powerups, avoid bullets. But the twist — and I suspect some shmup aficionado will tell me this is no twist at all because Bullet Hell Game #422 did this back in 1994 — is that each section is timed, with a countdown to your death featured top and center, measured to the tenth of a second. Shooting enemies gives you more time. Getting hit by a bullet knocks down your time.

This isn’t a gimme shooter, and there’s no option to just tear through the content to see the pretty graphics. I’d put Sine Mora in the “tough, but fair” category. It’s got reasonable difficulty settings for the story mode. But it’s mostly manageable for folks who might not normally play these kinds of games (i.e. me). At least, that’s my opinion until I try the arcade mode (see how far you can get on three lives) and scoring mode (see how many points you can get in one stage). The difficulty levels here are hard and insane, at which point the “but fair” part of “tough, but fair” goes out the window. What’s more, it’s got an insidious scaling difficulty level. The better you do, the harder it gets.

What keeps me going through these difficult bits, including some rude “gotcha” moments that sap your precious continues, is that Sine Mora is an absolutely beautiful game. But not just in the way many sidescrolling shooters are beautiful, which usually means busy and detailed and full of crazy screen-sized Japanese space monsters. Sine Mora’s very Western steampunkishness is surprisingly imaginative, beyond even the Crimson Skies style airplanes you’re flying. These varied and lushly drawn settings and memorable bosses do most of the aesthetic heavy lifting. Yeah, sure, you’ve seen spider bosses, squid bosses, train bosses, and giant robot bosses before. You’ve seen cities and canyons and factories and bug lairs. But not quite like the ones in Sine Mora, which are equal parts cartoon kitsch, serious manga, alternate history, and hi-octane-retro-punk. This is a game of vibrantly colorful beauty and astonishing imagination.

The story mode walks you through all the levels, each long enough to be challenging, but short enough not to wear out its welcome. But until you’ve gotten to Tira, the next to last stage, you haven’t seen the breadth and degree of Sine Mora’s visual splendor. And until you’ve gotten to the end of Tira, you haven’t really seen what fiendishly clever bosses it has in store. I’m sure a shmup aficionado will tell me Tira’s last boss is a copy of the boss from Bullet Hell Game #502, but it’s the first time I’ve seen that particular trick. The story mode gives you different planes and pilot weapons for each stage, with a slow-mo ability to more easily thread through bullets. But the arcade mode lets you mix up planes, pilots, and new powers to really tailor the experience.

If you bother reading the backstory between levels, you’ll find blackmail, genocide, rape, treason, patricide, and ritual suicide, all perpetrated by a talking frog, a talking bear, and a talking buffalo who wouldn’t look out of place in a Starfox game. You can tell why this game appealed to Goichi Suda’s Grasshopper Manufacturer, who helped make Sine Mora with Digital Reality, a Hungarian developer who used to make crazily detailed hardcore space strategy games called Imperium Galactica and Haegemonia. The voiceovers in the game are Hungarian, which lends them the wonderful strange sound of a language you can’t quite place. When you finish the story, you unlock an encyclopedia that shows you just how crazy detailed this world is. And I really like how the achievements are done. Basically, each achievement is a rank, and each rank has a checklist of tasks you have to complete.

I get the sense that Sine Mora was made by people who love the best of the older shmups and want to present what made them great to the merely curious like me who are never going to play old side-scrollers on the NeoGeo or Dreamcast or whatever. And one of the highest praises I can offer Sine Mora is that perhaps more than any other such game, it makes me want to get better at 2D sidescrolling shooters.

4 stars
Xbox 360