It's not often that I buy a games system for one game. In fact, I don't know if I've ever done it before. Possibly with the Sega Saturn, which I may have bought because of Sega Rally... I can't remember for sure, though. But generally speaking, I wait a while, sum up a system, figure out which one offers the most to me and then make my careful purchase.
However, I bought a PS Vita just for TxK.
Don't get me wrong, I knew there were plenty of great games available for the Vita before I bought it. I still did all my research. But when I knew that Llamasoft were making a new Tempest game exclusively for the Vita, it made me want one. And so, two weeks ago, I bought one.
It could have backfired on me. TxK could have been more Space Giraffe than Tempest 2000. I did enjoy Space Giraffe, but it never quite clicked with me properly. I didn't get into that all important "Zone" with it, which was a shame... I'd watched other people play it, people who clicked with its audio and visual cues and could play it masterfully. I knew they were getting everything out of that game. I never got the hang of it fully, and so it was more of a struggle to play for me. I still try to this day, but I can't get past around level 32.
I clicked with TxK on my first game.
To be fair, it's almost impossible not to. Everything is judged and balanced perfectly to make sure the player has the best time possible. The game leads you in gently, with relatively placid enemies and handholding "tutorial tags" in the initial stages. Once it's given you enough to get the hang of it, the onslaught begins in earnest.
TxK has three modes: Pure, in which you start every game at Level 1 with a score of 0; Classic, where you can start at any previously-reached level; and Survival, in which you're given three lives to get on with it, and that's yer lot. Oh, and if you don't know what this or other Tempest-style games are about, I'll briefly enlighten you... you pilot a craft around the outside of a series of webs in deep space, and shoot everything. The webs get more intricate and the enemies become deadlier until you collapse in a sobbing heap, before pressing start for yet another go. Simple.
Classic mode is a brilliant idea, and one which has become a staple of Llamasoft games. The idea is that the game saves your best score at the end of every level, and so when you choose to start playing from any level it will always be with the best score you've ever had at that point. If you're the kind of person that gets bored with playing through the easy levels in a game time and time again, then this is the perfect mode for you. I'm amazed that more games don't do it, although I suppose there aren't that many high score games around these days... *sniff*
For me, though, Survival mode is where it's at. It dispenses with the likes of bonus rounds and extra lives and pits your skills against the core game. You're constantly on edge as you know that any mistake is particularly costly. This is the kind of gaming I love... just you versus the enemy with nothing to get in the way. It's proper Zone gaming and an absolute adrenaline rush to play.
One aspect that I feel I must mention which is seemingly overlooked in most reviews is the game's 'lean' mechanic. I believe that it is newly-introduced in TxK, and it's another stroke of genius, in my opinion. Previously, if enemies reached the top of the web and you had no jump, AI droid or superzapper, you were dead. The enemy would grab you and drag you into oblivion. Now, though, you can lean into adjacent lanes and blast the bad guys before they can grab you. It's a small touch, but one that proves the programmer is thinking about the player. If you don't panic, with this, you have a way out of most situations. IF you don't panic...
I should also mention the game's audio and visual delights. You already know that it looks fantastic. You can see that from the screenshots here, although they don't do it justice. Although the game doesn't use true vectors, they pay the best homage to that style that you could imagine, whilst adding their own ultra-modern touch. In this game, I haven't once fallen foul of hidden enemies or bullets. It's all so clear, it's a real treat for the eyes. And when you complete a level and it collapses into a shower of polygons... it's stunning.
As for the sound... I saw one review which docked a mark because it felt the game's tunes weren't memorable. I find that particularly harsh because, to me at least, most gaming music isn't memorable. So many games employ orchestral sounds in an attempt to be epic and grandiose, but to me they sound generic and bland. I can barely remember a game tune from the last twenty years, in all honesty. My head is filled with Commodore 64 and SEGA tunes from bygone days.
To me, it's not whether a game has a memorable soundtrack that matters, it's whether it works with the game. TxK has a pulse-pounding soundtrack... its own heartbeat, almost. The music throbs and pounds and spurs you on... it fits perfectly with the action. You hear it, you feel it, but it's never a distraction, and always an enhancement. It's not the sort of music I would ever listen to, so I can't comment on its quality from that point of view. All I know is it's yet more icing on one of the best cakes ever. And if you do happen to love this kind of music, a soundtrack album is imminent...
If luck and justice prevail, today's gamer will pick this up and realise that a game doesn't have to have a 30-hour storyline, big hard-men characters, microtransactions, unlockables and a whole load of achievements or trophies to make it worthwhile. All it has to have is gameplay, sweet, beautiful gameplay. TxK has it by the lorryload.
Jeff Minter has had a long career in games programming. From quintessentially British titles such as Hovver Bovver through to arcade-inspired blasters like Llamatron and then actual licenced arcade sequels like Tempest 2000, it seems that all roads have led to this point. He's drawn on everything he's learned so far, for good and bad, and delivered the purest distillation of his skills, experience and ethos to date. TxK is a straight shot of perfect arcade gaming. Get your hit now.