The oddly titled Sine Mora is a throwback to perhaps the most hardcore of genres, the sidescrolling shooter. Affectionately known to fans as shoot’em ups (shmups in internet-speak), the games featured some of the most challenging gameplay around.  Xevious, Gradius, R-Type, M.U.S.H.A., Ikaruga, all classics that relied on superhuman reflexes, the epitome of twitch gaming. It’s something that gamers aren’t used to doing anymore in this era of checkpoints and unlimited continues. When a single bullet can kill you, you’ve got to actually learn how to play the game. ‘Sine Mora’ features everything you’d expect- screens full of bullets, giant bosses, precise controls and a satisfying challenge. But it’s not all old, as the game comes with some gorgeous 2.5D graphics and the ability to slow down time. All the better to dodge bullets with!

When you hear that Suda 51′s Grasshopper Manufacture studio developed this it might scare some people off but this is actually the most normal game they’ve made. You don’t take a dump to save your game like in ‘No More Heroes’, there’s no phallic weaponry like in ‘Shadows of the Damned’ and you aren’t playing a split-personality assassin like in ‘Killer 7’. Perhaps it was the influence of co-developer Digital Reality that filtered out most of their trademark weirdness, but even after completing the game multiple times I can still barely tell you what the story is about. There’s a twisted, convoluted tale of revenge and time travel smashed into a steam-punk anime, told mostly through some in-game voiceover . You don’t need to know the reason to shoot things in a shmup, though. Just tape the fire button down and aim at anything that moves.

And you will have plenty of things to shoot, and many things to shoot it with! You’ll fly multiple ships over your travels, each with its own upgradeable gun. Along with the ships there are different pilots who have unique secondary attacks, from homing missiles to a laser to a concentrated explosion. You’ll only get a few shots of those so you’ll have to use them wisely- perhaps when swamped by enemies or when trying to quickly take down a boss.

Downed enemies drop pickups that can upgrade your main gun, reload your secondary, give you extra time, shields, or points. The main gun can be upgraded nine times but you have to watch out to not get hit, because the powerups fly away from you if you do. (You can get them back but in the scramble to snatch them before they disappear it’s very easy to get shot once again.)

Unlike most old-school shooters getting shot isn’t the end, though. This game’s all about time. Each segment of a level is timed and getting hit will shave a few crucial seconds off the clock. If it ever hits 0 – game over. Getting hit will also reset your combo meter and ruin your chances of a good end-game score. On the flipside, killing enemies will add time to the clock, and if you get to the end of a section your time will replenish itself. It’s a great system that forces you to get your hands dirty and kill enemies as fast as possible, increasing the tension nicely.

The level design is equally clever and keeps changing things up to keep you on your toes, whether it’s cramming you into a claustrophobic underground section, sticking you in a spinning maze, or even just flipping the camera around so that you’re flying from right to left on the screen. While there are only seven levels (and one tutorial level) to play you won’t get tired of them anytime soon.

If you do, though, you’ve got much more to try your hand at. Two harder difficulty levels, an arcade mode that lets you swap out your time-slowing ability for one that reflects bullets or lets you rewind time, a score attack mode for truly experienced players, a boss challenge mode- there’s a lot for you to try here. Achievement junkies will find one helluva challenge as nearly every achievement comes with multiple terms that have to be met before it unlocks. This kicks up the already-substantial replayability even more and gives you new goals to strive for while playing through the same old levels.

But really, ‘Sine Mora’ is at its most exhilarating when you’re facing one of the numerous massive, multiple-screen spanning bosses. Trying to find their weak spots while dodging their varied attacks is incredibly fun, blasting pieces off of them bit by bit while dancing through danger becomes nearly transcendent. It’s been awhile since a game has allowed me to get into that flow, where you become part of the controller and your moves rely on pure instinct as you find and squeeze through tiny gaps between hundreds of bullets.

This is gaming zen at its finest- casual gamers need not apply.

Rating: 9/10

‘Sine Mora’ is available exclusively for Xbox Live Arcade. The game was developed by Grasshopper Manufacture and published by Microsoft Studios. This review was based on five hours with a code provided by the publisher.

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