Release Date: August 22, 2007
Jeff Minter is a name known to many old-school gamer types. Almost anyone in the UK who grew up with an Atari ST will at the very least know of Llamatron, a psychedelic re-envisioning of Robotron, and I suspect that most will be nodding their heads in fond reminiscence. Others — those outside the UK included, and PC and Jaguar owners particularly (do the latter exist?) — will know Tempest 2000. For those of us in either of these camps, Space Giraffe, Minter's latest, has been a long time coming, and I can happily announce that it was worth the wait. Probably. I'll get to that.
At first glance, Space Giraffe on the Xbox Live Arcade is Tempest. Again. Your avatar, a continually firing giraffe, is placed at one end of a grid, while enemies move toward you from the other end. If they reach your side, they begin moving horizontally along it in an attempt to destroy you. Sound familiar? Right. It's not. In practice, this game is very much the mirror image of Tempest; if you want a bonus multiplier or a high score, then you absolutely have to let them get to your end of the grid before you kill them. The entire grid is a power gauge of sorts which builds up as you shoot things, pick up power-ups or use them. If the grid has any charge in it whatsoever, you can ram enemies in the vicinity to get extra points and add to your multiplier, as well as direct your fire with the right analog stick. It's a simple enough concept, albeit one that takes some getting used to if you played Tempest, and the tutorial does a more than adequate job of filling you in.
Shortly afterwards, the entire game goes insane.
As you play, the background to the grid is a flowing, multi-colored image, akin to a music visualizer (which is unsurprising, as the game code is apparently based upon the Neon engine, which powers the X360 visualizer — which Minter also programmed). Enemies are neon-colored, lights flash, things explode and accumulated points float up the screen as multi-colored text. It's extraordinarily pretty but more than a little distracting. Before long, though, you adjust, and it ceases to be distracting because you know exactly what you're looking for.
As the grid shapes get more varied and the backgrounds get more and more psychedelic, even the enemies start joining in the fun, with some later ones creating bright flashes as you shoot them. Flowers grow up the grid, firing off their heads when they reach the end and temporarily creating impassable barriers if you don't destroy them. Enemies you can't kill by ramming ("bulling," in the game's parlance) start moving up the grid; the neon flashes become more and more frequent, more psychedelic, more distracting and the idle spectator won't have a clue what's going on. Then you reach level 64, and it gets even crazier.
It's extremely confusing at first, but as I said, you adjust, and part of this is because it links together sound and visuals in a way that almost — but not quite — matches the heights of the Dreamcast/PS2 classic, Rez. You're not making music or influencing the sound with your gameplay, but an extremely well done soundtrack augments the visuals. Every situation that can occur on the screen has a very distinct sound effect, and before long, you'll know exactly what's spawning, what's reached your end of the grid, and what you're shooting, based solely upon the sound effects.
Space Giraffe is, in short, the closest games have ever gotten to synaesthesia, combining color and sound to assist your play experience. There are many more little twists with the game — the shape of the grids and your interaction with the grids, in particular — that crop up on occasional levels, but I really don't want to spoil them. Suffice it to say that there are constant surprises, and every time you think you've seen everything, something new comes along.
These surprises, combined with the occasionally baffling visuals, may confuse some players, particularly as the tutorial doesn't explain everything, which I rather like. I reiterate that there are some genuine surprises in the gameplay, and if you're not paying attention, you will die. The tutorial tells you how the game works and gives you some pointers but leaves you to figure out a lot for yourself, particularly with regards to strategy. Things you might expect to be explained in a manual aren't. For example, you will have to work out what enemies do and how they react to your fire for yourself. This, to my mind, is a good thing, but some may not see it that way, so be warned.
Considering how difficult it can be, it's probably a good thing that Space Giraffe, in what may very well be a first for arcade shoot 'em ups, includes an automatic save feature. You can restart your game at any level you've reached, with the highest score you've ever had when starting that level. This means that rather than having to get a perfect run to top the high-score boards, you can do it one level at a time, completely perfecting one before starting on the next.
Best of all, because it's on XBLA, it has a free trial, so you can try it for yourself. I do recommend spending 15 minutes with it to pick it up and get used to it, though, because it will take some time to click. I'm just sad that the title was released in the same week as Bioshock, as I doubt many people will give it the time it needs.
I've been rather more conservative than I want to be with this review, and that's because Space Giraffe is a game that will, without doubt, divide people, so fair warning is required. As much as I personally love it, there are plenty of people out there who will outright loathe it. Many won't manage to see past the colors and will simply be unable to play the game. It can also be deeply unforgiving, and while there are concessions in the form of the automatic save, you'll usually advance two or three levels and then hit an absolute brick wall of a stage that will take multiple tries to finish. Some of these stopping points are simply due to a new type of enemy that you're unsure of how to deal with, or a variance in the level, but the occasional stage overwhelms you with a dreadful camera angle and a huge swarm of enemies, and these quickly become so controller-breakingly frustrating that they mar the experience. Despite all of this, I adore Space Giraffe. It plays like few other games do, and it really is something rather different on XBLA.
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