Black Bird Review – Swarming Shmup

I’ve always been a fan of shoot ’em up games, and I’m always ready to devour another shmup once it hits the market. While lots of shmups tend to focus on piloting space ships and fighting off alien invaders, Onion Games have produced a wildly unique shooter that ventures into the deep, dark recesses of the imagination. The game channels strange and eccentric things you’d only see from the game’s mastermind, Yoshiro Kimura. As this is the first major title from Onion Games on traditional platforms, I was very curious how it fared – read on to find out!

Black Bird
Publisher: Onion Games
Developer: Onion Games
Platform: Windows PC, Mac, iOS, Android, Nintendo Switch (Reviewed)
Release Date: October 31st, 2018
Players: 1 Player
Price: $19.99

Black Bird is a nicely pixelated game. The various sprites of enemies, projectiles, vehicles, bosses and their different forms, and most especially the player character – the bird, all look fantastic. The game is a cavalcade of pixelated mayhem that is really something else when a lot is going on.

While playing the game docked or in handheld mode it ran perfectly and I never had issues with its performance, even when I was deliberately trying to ignite as much chaos as possible.

The game has a metric ton of stuff you can shoot and blow up throughout its levels, which are basically 2D landscapes ripe for the incoming apocalypse – instigated by you of course. The Victorian-era style found here is really well done, and really pops off your screen.

Onion Games have been making titles with a certain kind of visual charm that is unique to their pedigree. I can’t quite explain it, but if you’ve played their previous titles or this one, you’ll see a similar goofy cuteness to them.

There are even cameo throwbacks to their previous titles, like the Aspara-san from Million Onion Hotel. It’s whimsical, wholly unique, and plays to their strengths as an indie Japanese studio. It’s an overall nostalgic look and feel, but definitely stands on its own as a new product.

Black Bird is a shoot ’em up that forgoes the typical level structure for a bit of an open-world design of sorts. Each level is a 2D playground filled with things and people for you to destroy.

As this is a game set in a fictional world, there’s a whole host of crazy things to expect in each level. Enemies run, float via air balloon, fly in hovercraft, and do everything possible to stop the Black Bird. Levels feel spacious, but sometimes I did wish there was a tiny bit more to see and kill.

As you go left or right and unleash mayhem, you’ll get your bird more powerful and unleash even more energy blasts. As the game is based on one play and you get no continues, you’ll have to manage the number of life points you have.

There’s a combo system that rewards you for killing enemies as quickly as possible, and with as many together at once. Maintaining a high combo will net you more gems and more points, garnering a higher overall score. All of the game plays so tightly it’s like a very refined shoot ’em up.

The game has power-ups dropped from vases – another throwback to Onion Hotel – all of which come in the form of increased speed, bombs, and extra health points. You can only increase your damage by collecting the gems dropped by enemies you kill. It’s a risk and reward system that is really engaging and fun.

It’s worth grabbing those gems quickly as the longer they bounce on the ground, the smaller and less valuable they become. A green circle slightly appears around the bird as a reminder of how many gems you need for another damage upgrade.

The majority of levels and environmental factors are centered around a world loosely based in our industrial or steam era technology, but with obvious liberties taken. Each level has a number of towers you must destroy, after which you’ll engage the boss fight.

The bosses, in the regular mode, are somewhat of a pushover once you learn their patterns and such. Once you unlock True Mode, however, the entire game gets harder, adds new enemy types, more hazards, and more attack types from bosses too. Outside of the regular modes or leaderboards, there isn’t much else to really do in the game, so if you’re looking for more you might be disappointed.

The soundtrack in Black Bird is something else. When talking to creator Kimura about the music, he noted the composer combined numerous themes that individually sound weird, but together sound excellent. At first listen it sounds like a hodgepodge, but it’s deliberately chaotic and great.

There’s a made up language sprinkled throughout the various level themes and boss fights, only adding to the already crazy sound. Overall the musical theme perfectly matches the Victorian-era style and technology found in the game.

Sound effects are also well met, and give the right amount of audio feedback ranging from bullets, enemy deaths, regular enemy movements and boss patterns, and more. The overall sound design matches the focus on excellence seen in the gameplay.

There isn’t really much to say regarding the story in Black Bird as most of it comes via brief implied cutscenes in between levels. The story begins with an innocent girl collapsing on the street, dying, and then being ignored by passerby’s. She then gets transformed into the vengeful bird of death.

You can unlock a number of alternate endings by reaching new high scores via the True Mode. I think this game does an excellent job of thrusting you into the action while giving snippets of a story here and there. It won’t hit you over the head, but it maintains an aura of mystery.

Black Bird is an excellent shoot ’em up and a landmark release for Onion Games. As this is their first release on proper gaming platforms, it makes sense they went all out and produced an exceptional game within a shiny package. It really is a fun time, and can get legit challenging.

I commend Onion Games for delivering a game that dials right into the heart of classic shoot ’em ups, and I look forward to more from them. This is a shmup I can imagine myself playing in the golden era of the genre, only refined and distilled to a great modern product.

Black Bird was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a review copy provided by Onion Games. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s reviews/ethics policy here.

The Verdict: 9

The Good

  • Stylish and excellent pixel graphics
  • Tight, responsive controls and mechanics
  • Rewarding combo system that encourages risk management
  • True classic shoot ’em up experience, but with some twists

The Bad

  • Levels are decently big, but could be a tiny bit bigger
  • Core game length and available extras could leave you wanting more


Owner and Publisher at Niche Gamer and Nicchiban. Outlaw fighting for a better game industry.

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