Ever get the chance to play seminal 1981 arcade shooter Galaga? If not, rest assured you aren’t missing much at this point – one of the first interactive titles to pit a single spaceship against hordes of incoming alien fighters, it’s looking slightly dated 26 years on.

Thankfully, that’s where dozens of catchy tributes like Star Defender 4 come in. But just because the concept – using your mouse to move a futuristic jetfighter left or right along the bottom of the screen, empty round after round into seemingly endless waves of onrushing extraterrestrials – isn’t particularly original, doesn’t mean that it can’t hold up. In fact, despite its humble origins, the game is actually one of the better offerings of its kind in recent months… Not to mention a great way to put your brain on cruise control and give that itchy trigger finger a workout.

Offering over 100 levels of fast and furious plasma-spitting action, the title revolves around a lone human hero’s attempts to defend mankind from the creepy-crawly, slavering hordes of Insectus. Doing so is as easy in theory as moving horizontally out of the way of incoming fire and blasting back with several dozens volleys of your own. Light on storyline though, heavy on action, it’ll take nerves of steel, and cobra-like reflexes, to see the adventure through.

Traveling between deadly asteroid fields and caverns filled with egg-spewing beasties and legions of winged, horned and multi-legged monstrosities, one can’t help but quickly come to a single realization as early as 10 minutes into the tale. Specifically, that it’s punishingly difficult as casual offerings go, but equally rewarding for those who dare to persevere and see the day through.

Mind you, it’s annoying how many hits it takes to kill each monster or obstacle such as organic barriers, making it hard to achieve instant gratification. (Let alone survive, for that matter, especially when the screen begins to fill with shimmering bullet- and fiery glob-spitting opponents all too happy to box you into a corner.) Nor will even experienced keyboard vets appreciate unfortunate issues with game balancing that make you near-unstoppable after collecting several power-ups, yet a sitting duck without them. (While getting hit happily won’t finish you off in one shot, it does reduce your firepower… and good luck staying alive long enough to earn your way back to fighting status, the title’s main source of challenge.) But hey, that’s the price you pay for a shot at experiencing the outing’s attractive, if unashamedly sci-fi flavored audiovisual presentation, and – more importantly – killer range of power-ups.

That’s right; special weapons save the day here, letting you furiously unload into adversaries in a variety of eye popping ways. Lava-flinging beetle just randomly materialized in front of you? Send it packing with spread shots, swarms of bees, machinegun bursts or even a handy flamethrower. Dancing rows of wasp-like opponents getting on your last nerve? Launch a batch of heat-seeking missiles their way, score the last laugh with time-delayed explosives or just throw up an impromptu shield and watch baddies crash headlong into oblivion. Showing striking range and imagination in terms of both the adversaries it throws your way (watch for pulsing globules, hovering droids and bomb-laying chiggers) and options you have for beating them back, it’s no surprise that offense proves the best defense herein.

Nonetheless, prepare yourself for a bruising, even on easy levels, and a real ego-crushing experience at higher challenge settings. Thankfully, you can set to some degree the severity of the trials you’ll face, but even seasoned joystick jabbers will attest how much skill winning takes. Hence you can imagine our surprise when we finally did manage to juice up on bonuses, and turned into a lean, mean, rocket- and homing laser-spitting machine that could literally level bosses in 20 seconds flat. Ah, schizophrenia.

Fun, frantic, but also slightly unpolished, there’s not much more to say. A hardcore outing dressed in casual game industry trappings, Star Defender 4 offers more of what you already know and love from the shoot-’em-up genre – or don’t.