If you had asked me a week ago what a game named Super Killer Hornet: Resurrection might be about, I would have cast about for a while in my imagination before settling on a sequel (or remake) of a game called Super Killer Hornet, which of course was an arcade hit about a hornet that flew around picnic areas stinging people to death. Something to cash in on the whole Descent/TIE Fighter craze (movement in 3 axes!) but appealing to the Japanese demographic of wanting to play as an insect.
It turns out I wasn’t entirely wrong. It is the follow-up to a game called Super Killer Hornet and there’s kanji on the title screen. However, instead of a literal hornet, you play a metaphorical hornet and a literal spaceship shooting aliens. It’s a shmup! A shoot-em-up! A bullet hell! Is it also a hell-of-a-game (as in attaboy) or a hell-of-a-game (as in Hades)? Let’s find out.
So SKH-R (as those in the know abbreviate it) is pretty plain. It has two modes, three ships, a few difficulties, and lots of alien ships shooting bullets at you as you fly upwards toward the unflinching destruction of your Super Killer Hornet. If you’ve played any other game where you fly a ship/plane/flying bear upwards while avoiding a cavalcade of bullets from the enemies that are emerging (primarily) from the top of the screen, you’ve played SKH-R.
Oh, except, of course, for the gimmick. Everybody’s gotta have a gimmick! SKH-R has one of the stranger twists (think Signs compared to the more classic Sixth Sense) as far as games go. Here it is: you have to do math while you’re playing this game!
Math! That’s right. There are floating digits and mathematical operations that rain down like power-ups. The first will always be a digit and operator (like 2+ or 3x). Collect another digit, and you’ve formed a simple math problem: 2+5= or 3×9=. I only saw addition, subtraction, and multiplication but I also never got past the third level. I can only hope that as one gets closer to the end of the game, differential equations and integrals start appearing.
After collecting the left side of an equation, three numbers float down. One is the correct answer; snag that one and you get more firepower and a higher score multiplier! It’s like some kind of edutainment software made in the 80s for elementary school students, except that attempting to collect the correct answer while avoiding dozens of bullets and firing your weapon is…difficult. It’s not easy.
Here’s the thing. I like math. When I was a small child, I lived for math. I was really good at math and I liked numbers and I understood them. I understood them in a way that I feared I would never understand girls or football or how to dress like a cool kid. This game takes that and throws it in my face, as if to say, “Knowing how to do simple addition isn’t enough! You have to do it while dancing around lots of alien bullets and ships!”
I’m not very good at shmups, just like I wasn’t very good at wearing shirts that fit me for the first 15 years of my life. It’s an odd pairing: the math and the dodging, the multiplying and the shooting. It’s something that made me smile the first time I saw it, but made me cringe every time after that when I’d look and see the solution to my math problem – 1-8= – across the screen. Oh, -7, how I want to get over there, pick you up, show you a good time. But there’s all these wrong answers and aliens and bullets in the way.
I imagine it germinated in the mind of a 5th grade math teacher who really liked Space Invaders and wondered if he could combine the fun of video games with the tedium of learning one’s multiplication tables. The result is strange and interesting and, in the end, unsatisfying. But hey, I’m not a big shmup man to begin with. Maybe you are that teacher and SKH-R is exactly what you’ve been looking for all your life.