Nippon Ichi Software America’s Viral Survival feels like a trip to an old-school arcade. It’s a throwback to when games were simple, controlled by a joystick and one button at best. The days where your biggest goals were beating your best score and getting further up the leaderboards. Viral Survival takes all of the elements of vintage arcade gaming and gives them a modern update. However, much like arcades of old, not all of Viral Survival’s 5 modes (Normal, Progressive, Horde, Zoom128, and Shooter) offer a truly satisfying experience.
All five modes are connected by a very pleasing and simple aesthetic and a small number of energetic and funky songs. The visuals are rather charming, combining simplistic sprites with surprisingly pretty (but orange) water effects. While the game may have benefited from more varied visuals, it’s hard to complain when what it contains works as well as it does.
Viral Survival’s Normal Mode plays kind of like a combination of Snake, Pac-man and even match-3 puzzlers. You play as a little piece of DNA who swims around in an odd orange liquid. You go around collecting more pieces of DNA to make a longer chain, which results in a larger point multiplier. Getting three or more of the same color of DNA in a row will also give you bonus points. However, your longer chain makes you more susceptible to attack by enemy viruses. When one of the non-leading DNA pieces in the chain is attacked, it and the DNA attached to it break free and start swimming around in random directions. These scattered DNA will swim around for 10 seconds until they disappear, switching the game’s music to a very urgent track and losing you points in the process.
The Pac-man elements of the game grow out of the various powerups that appear at random in the orange goo. There’s your syringe, which casts the screen in a semi-inverted color scheme and allows you to eat the enemy viruses for a short while. Less Pac-man-esque is the missile powerup, which simply fires out homing missiles(!) from your DNA strand that destroy enemy viruses.
Now, the viruses in the game don’t move nearly as fast as the player-controlled DNA, so the game relies on sheer numbers to make them a threat. As the viruses continue to increase their spawning rate and the DNA chain increases to over thirty units, the game starts to get challenging. Not only do you have to avoid an incredible number of viruses, you have to manage a ludicrously long chain that is constantly losing pieces that run all over the place, and find powerups that allow you to survive long enough to pick up more pieces of DNA.
This is when Viral Survival hits sensory overload. The music is urgent, your little pieces of DNA are crying out, and there are sprites all over the screen to the point where it’s hard to distinguish helpful things from harmful ones until it’s too late. That’s not always necessarily a bad thing though. Part of the fun in Viral Survival is the chaos that comes from the ludicrous number of minimally-animated colorful sprites swimming in an onscreen orange ocean, and the fight for survival that it entails!
However, despite the joy that comes from playing the game in Normal Mode, Progressive Mode is a major disappointment. Remember that odd version of snake that nobody really liked? The one where the snake was constantly moving forward, and all you could do was turn it left or right? That’s all progressive mode is. After playing this mode once, I got into the top 200 on the leaderboards (with a surprisingly low score) and had no desire to play it again. There might be some that enjoy this mode more than Normal, but with its slower pace and wonkier controls, I didn’t have nearly as much fun.
While Horde and Zoom128 are both a bit better than Progressive, they still don’t quite match up to the addictiveness and cleverness of Normal mode. Horde keeps the same powerups as the two aforementioned modes, but uses the missiles in a different way. Because you’re limited to a single piece of DNA in this mode, you only fire one missile at a time. The missiles don’t vanish after hitting a virus, but instead reappear as powerups that have a multiplier next to them. The more a powerup is used, the more it increases its multiplier. While I thought that this was an interesting experiment, chasing down previously used missiles isn’t quite as fun as it could be when there are newer powerups popping up all over the place closer to you. I’m sure that some will like the focus on enemy destruction though.
Zoom128 also retains the one-DNA mechanic of Horde mode. In this mode, the screen is zoomed in on your DNA as you attempt to collect 128 other DNA pieces. Your DNA gets bigger with each other piece of DNA it intakes, and avoiding the viruses becomes more of a matter of paying attention to the visual and audio cues that the game gives you. It’s the only mode that I’ve found to be beatable, and it’s actually kind of fun to try to beat your best score. However, while this mode is a fun diversion, it doesn’t quite have the staying power of Normal and Shooter modes.
Shooter Mode is bar-none my favorite mode in the game. Combining the gameplay of a twin stick shooter (but with one stick!) with the minimal breathing room of a bullet hell shmup, Shooter mode can be incredibly addictive. This mode has you in control of a single piece of DNA that’s shooting pills in the direction it’s facing at regular intervals. There are no extra pieces of DNA to pick up, and the enemies spawn at a much faster rate than in any other mode.
Every so often, your DNA will utter a Klonoa-like exclamation and a pill powerup will appear in the orange goo. If you get to this pill before it vanishes, your DNA will start spraying tons of pills in every direction for a limited time and your score multiplier will permanently increase. Optimally, this time is used for cutting a swath through the hundreds of enemies onscreen and perhaps picking up another pill powerup. There are few gaming moments I’ve experienced this year more satisfying than chaining four pill powerups together and eliminating more than a thousand enemies. It’s ludicrously fun, and a sight to behold when you’re tearing through the mass of enemies overcrowding the screen in ways that only sprite-layering can.
Viral Survival feels like a trip back to the roots of gaming. While not all of the game modes are perfect, all of them are enjoyable, and (in my opinion) two of them are simply fantastic. It’s a loving combination of retro score-attack focused gaming and modern visual and hardware refinements. It’s simply fun, and it’s rare nowadays that a game strives for that. It’s a worthy WiiWare effort, and it made me understand the joy of progressing higher in online leaderboards.