Taito's arcade classic, Space Invaders, has been redone many times over the years. Its classic alien designs represent some of the greatest icons of gaming culture, and Taito has regularly done interesting, unusual, yet clearly recognizable things with its iconic 80-pixel creations. A few years ago, this meant the Nintendo DS shooter classics, Space Invaders Extreme and Extreme 2, which combined elements of Rez, the PC version of the game from the '90s, the classic creature designs and an awesome soundtrack. This time around, the HD consoles get their turn with Space Invaders Infinity Gene, and rather than try to make a cheapskate HD version of the classic, Taito chose to reconstruct things.
You start play and immediately find yourself in classic Space Invaders. There's the mother ship, and there's one bullet firing at a time ... for about 10 seconds. Then, the screen blacks out and is replaced with a Darwin quote, static … and computer sounds from the '80s. Then the gameplay begins to evolve.
Initially, you only have the classic side-to-side motion and a single bullet on-screen at a time. If you complete any level, your score goes toward filling a blue "gene" gauge. Fill it, and an unlock related to that level pops into place, evolving your gameplay in one fashion or another. This unlock could be a different ship with a new bullet type, a bonus level set, a new ability or mechanic — i.e., firing rapidly or moving in all directions — or even an expansion to the options menu.
These evolutions are going to be important because every level (named for a term related to evolution or biology) is more difficult than the last, and it ramps up rather quickly. The velocity quickly gets up there, and doling out evolutions will help you out … somewhat. It's challenging, but the results are very rewarding in many ways, and the game can be addictive in all the right ways.
Part of what makes the gameplay work is its persistent sense of art style. Expect lots of vector graphics and simple 3-D representations. Do not expect any color beyond shades of gray, except in the backgrounds, which range from uniform black to trippy battle patterns. The combination is somehow both retro and modern at the same time, taking full advantage of the high-definition era's power to maintain a wide screen at perfect 60 frames per second to heighten the manic gameplay. While your interactions are strictly on a flat plane, enemies — either the classic raster versions or new, vector-based ship designs — move above and below the screen. Foes don't attack you unless they're on the same plane, though.
The game's retro-futuristic feel is heightened by the soundscape. The sound effects could've all come from a 1980s synthesizer chip. They are combined on a trippy music track, and the set of sounds helps you keep track of what's occurring on-screen. For example, mother ships only sound when destroyed; it sounds useless until you realize that they alone drop the multicolored power-ups, so one blowing up is a cue to watch for a boost to grab. Similarly, enemy fire is warned with a classic "drop" sound straight out of ancient gaming. While the individual sounds are from the '80s, the collective soundscape is very modern, with an expertly engineered soundtrack that matches the feel of the surrounding stage. There's even a nightmarish single-sound track for the occasional boss at the end of a set of levels.
Through graphics, play, and the entire gameplay package, the overall effect of Infinity Gene is that of evolution over a series of levels. As the enemies grow more complex, so does the player and the environment. The game's pattern of unlocks only promotes this further, encouraging players to replay old levels to get points for unlocking more of the game's vast array of bonuses. As the visualization for stage selection and unlocks implies, you play to produce more branches in the evolutionary tree and become better able to adapt to the increasingly challenging environments provided you.
It would be perfectly accurate to call Space Invaders Infinity Gene amazing, strangely mind-opening, and vastly superior to previous evolutions on the first-generation shooter. Taito has easily produced one of the best downloadables of the holiday season and a worthy expansion to any gamer's digital library.
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