I've never met a deck I didn't want to build, but I don't think I've met deck-building in a shoot 'em up before. That's the offer of Dire Decks, a cute little arcade shmup which you can play for free right now in your browser on Itch.io. As you face down endless enemies, you draw and play cards representing individual attacks and power-ups, drafting new and more powerful cards as you level up. I dig it! In another time, this might have been a wee hit Flash game on Newgrounds.
There you are, a little guy, stood still at the bottom of the screen. Enemies will approach you from the top, and you'll die if they reach and hit you three times. So shoot them. You have a hand of four cards, representing different attacks and power-ups. Select the card you want to play, aim your shot, and let it go. Different attacks and power-ups (single shots, piercing shots, multi-shots, bombs, and more) cost different amounts of energy (which refreshes over time) to play, so you're trying to aim fast but choose carefully, not wasting energy on overkill. And yes, this all happens in real time, not turn-based.
Killing enemies also gives XP, levelling you up. At each level-up, you have to pick one card to remove from your deck and one to add from a random selection. At first, many of these are straightforward upgrades. Swap out a one-energy single shot for a one-energy piercing shot, or a one-energy bomb, or a zero-energy doubleshot. Swap a two-energy five-shot spray for a two-energy nine-shot spray. And power-ups which restore energy, or make shots bounce, and so on. But it gets trickier as your deck becomes quite strong, and what you want it to be, and you still need to add and cut. That's an interesting deck-building decision.
It's a tidy little arcade browser game. Daunting at first, exciting when you discover possibilities, then satisfying as you grow to understand it and push it in the direction you want. Shmup but deck-building with maybe a touch of Vampire Survivors? Fun, and free. Lovely.
The developer, Kindanice, notes, "more content coming soon!" That'll be nice. I only wish I could select cards from my hand by pressing number keys; as the enemy horde grows, selecting cards can feel a bit fumbly.
I do like deck-building a lot, having grown up playing Magic: The Gathering. I liked Magic enough that I got in too deep and needed to playing. Innumerable hours and incalculable amounts of money spent in pursuit of clever combos, neat tricks, cunning feints, and just plain ol' big monsters. So I quite like multi-genre hybrid deck-building games offering that challenge and satisfaction in controlled quantities and at a fixed price (especially if it's free). Some deck-building games don't use cards in interesting ways, and some of building doesn't offer interesting decisions, but something about honing a deck tickles me deep in the brain.
I'm now enjoying seeing the dev has made loads of other little browser-based arcade. Check out Bases Loaded, a roguelikelike wave survival baseball game? Whack a ball around, murder squares, level up, unlock perks, and try to hold out. Like Pong or Breakout but with perks and violence? Nice little game, that.
Oooh and this one is a fun bullet hell shooter, except instead of shooting, you pass through alternating timed phases of needing to dodge bullets then becoming able to deflect them back by running into them, a dance of risk and reward. Yes, must play more of these. That's my afternoon sorted.