'B-ARK' Is the Co-Op Game I Didn't Know I was Looking For

Talking animals save the solar system

Key Takeaways

  • B-ARK is a deliberate homage to many of the demanding arcade shooters of the '80s and '90s, particularly the Gradius series.
  • However, its co-op focus and customizable difficulty levels make it much easier than those games ever were. It's a solid introduction to the genre.
  • It's a colorful cartoon of a game that kids ought to love.
The animals from the 'B-ARK' game

The arcade shoot-'em-up has never exactly gone out of vogue, but it's gotten increasingly niche in the last few years. It was one of the hot genres of the '80s and '90s, but as arcades vanished, "shmups" started to cater to a small audience of die-hard enthusiasts.

B-ARK, on the other hand, is low-key and accessible, bringing back the '90s in most of the best ways. Its director, Abraham Morales, told me at last month's Penny Arcade Expo Online that B-ARK is a "love letter" to the classics like Gradius and R-Type, with an all-ages hook, a Saturday-morning-cartoon art style, and a focus on cooperative play.

You can run through B-ARK solo, but I found it's probably at its worst doing so. With even one buddy, the game gets chaotic fast, but lets you team up to deal with oncoming waves of enemy robots, dangerous obstacles, and a host of murderous enemy spaceships. It's a lot of fun, although, like the shooters that inspired it, it does have a heavy focus on pattern memorization.

"I've had success jumping into it with people who ordinarily don't touch this sort of game, but thanks to help from more experienced players, they were still able to have fun."

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Our solar system has been conquered by an army of cybernetic fish, the Dark Tide. A scientist named Milla manages to escape into space with her four pets, but her ship is attacked. The pets, shoved into a Bio-Interstellar Ark, are the only ones who get away.

A year later, the pets are picked up by a resistance movement, outfitted with their own mechanized spaceships, and sent back into the Sol system to liberate Earth.

Each of the four playable characters—Barker the pug, Lucio the bear, Marv the bunny, and Felicity the cat—have different standard weapons, as well as a unique super attack. For example, Lucio's shots explode on enemy impact for area-of-effect damage, and he can trigger a shield with his super to absorb some enemy fire.

For solo play, I found Marv has a leg up on the others because his basic attack hones in on enemies. It doesn't do as much damage, but a lot of bosses like to hang out in parts of the screen where your standard shots can't hit them. Marv can focus on dodging and passively keep up the punishment in a way that the other pets can't.

Screenshot from 'B-ARK' video game.

Bullet Heck

If you're one of those die-hard shmup fans I mentioned, B-ARK might be a little easy for you. Each ship can take a few hits before being destroyed, and in co-op play, you don't lose the game unless all players' ships are destroyed at once. If you get wrecked, another player can pick you up and let you play for a bit while your ship respawns.

It still punishes mistakes fairly harshly, though. As you destroy enemies, they drop plutonium, which you can collect to power up your weapons. Every time you take a hit, however, you lose power, until you're back using the peashooter you had at the start of the level. The more damage you take, the less able you are to contribute.

Compared to the insane '80s games that B-ARK emulates, that makes it seem like a gentle stroll through the tulips. However, there is an unlockable difficulty, Insane, which brings B-ARK more in line with its inspiration. (Morales described it to me as, simply, "don't get hit.")

The emphasis for B-ARK is firmly on cooperative play, which actually makes it a great game to bust out for kids or newcomers to the genre. It's got all the bullet-dodging mayhem you expect from a shmup, but having partners softens its edges.

A screenshot from the 'B-ARK' video game.

I've had success jumping into it with people who ordinarily don't touch this sort of game, but thanks to help from more experienced players, they were still able to have fun.

There are a lot of indie releases like this on the market, where developers are trying to reproduce whatever they grew up playing. B-ARK is the rare example thereof that's using it as a launchpad. For only $10, it's a solid co-op experience and a gateway game for one of the most notoriously inaccessible genres out there.

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