TxK (Vita) Review

There’s a litmus test I have with arcade styled games like TxK. If I’m into them enough to use their daft created terminology while talking about techniques and elements of the game to others or simply in my running internal monologue as I play, then that’s a positive indicator. Even better is when there is no such fictional lexicon, and I have to create one of my own. With TxK, I’d be playing and thinking ‘I have a net life gain on this stage and only need a 50,000 average to catch my highscore, but need to be careful about pecking the Minotaurs and doing an efficient sweep for the Electrobastards’. That, chums, is a good sign.

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Where Jeff Minter’s extremely divisive 2007 XBLA release Space Giraffe contained an (appropriately) bullish tutorial essay that shouted ‘this isn’t Tempest‘ (it looked a lot like Tempest, though, and the differences were poorly communicated) TxK is more upfront about bloody well being Tempest, just this time without Atari’s trademark attached. There’s a fear in fact that many will miss TxK thanks to a title that only vaguely alludes to its past (Minter’s arguably finest and most famous (if hardly populist) work, Tempest 2000 is fondly referred to by fans as T2K, and its sequel, the even more obscure Nuon based 3000 similarly) and its presence on Sony’s struggling handheld indie game machine. As much of a shame as choice of format restricting a Tempest game’s audience again (T2K was the killer app for Jaguar) may be, TxK sees Tempest find its ideal format on the Vita.

For the uninitiated, the 1981 arcade original was a pseudo 3D shooter using vectors to present a tube made up of lanes. Your claw shaped space-ship-thing patrolled the outer edge of the cylinder as enemies progressed toward you in typical early 80′s impending space doom fashion, and you shot them until they were gone and you moved onto a differently shaped tube to do it all again. Minter reimagined the game in 1994, giving it a healthy dab of psychedelia in its visuals and music, as well as adding power ups and extras to make T2K, and two decades on, that’s pretty much the experience you have here, in mirror sheen form.

Warp triangles are a welcome sight, offering the much needed relaxing break of  tunnel or ring flying minigames.

Warp triangles are a welcome sight, offering the much needed relaxing break of tunnel or ring flying minigames.

Tempest, like all arcade greats, is about the knife-edge of risk versus reward, and Minter’s additions to Dave Theurer’s template only build on that. As enemies creep toward you through the tunnel, inevitably the numbers game will catch up to you, and your foes will reach the same outer edge you’re on, ‘walking’ toward you until they snatch your claw ship in their, um, claws and drag you into the abyss. While the original Tempest had you time precise shots to blast the enemies mid step, Minter’s spin gave the added ability, via a power up, to jump providing the distance needed to disperse the crowds. The twist is, any enemy you shoot mid jump won’t contribute to your score, rewarding precise play while making things accessible. You also have one smart bomb per level, whether you use it or not. Trigger it (slightly irritatingly via the touch screen; those with adult thumbs and a slim Vita will trigger bombs with an excited flick of the stick by mistake. The same issue pops up in the pause menu where select instantly quits the game and is easily mashed into), and every enemy explodes into pixels, netting you double points, bringing a wonderful layer of tension to proceedings, as it behooves you to wait until things get as busy and as dangerous as they can possibly become before triggering your life saver.

As simple as its core concept may be, TxK has mechanical depth and complexity that yields great rewards for people who put the time in. Enemy design becomes ever more fiendish the further you go, with enemies able to blow you away even in your ‘safe zone’ mid jump, bull headed creatures that lose their horns as you blast them, their appendages zooming toward your craft, and evil, evil yellow beasts that periodically electrify the lane they sit on, requiring the aforementioned well timed bullet ‘sweep’ of multiple lanes before they come into play.

While Space Giraffe required a better tutorial than it gave, TxK is smart with giving the player just enough fundamental information before letting the player figure things out for themselves. Much as with Housemarque’s Resogun in fact, you’ll be able to have a decent enough time playing blind so to speak, but those who choose to invest longer are justly rewarded with high scores and more endorphins. They’re still consistently pushed as well, especially when later levels see the screen twist and warp as you move, causing mild nausea (we’re fine now, thanks).

TxK sits in a strange spot in time in many ways, and enjoyment levels may have to be adjusted depending on whether your internal debate is framed as an updated remake of T2/3K on a new platform, or an all out sequel. It adds little to the framework of what Llamasoft created for Tempest 20 years ago perhaps, neither mechanically (not a bad thing at all) nor socially, which is a slight miss; for such a score focused game, mere online leaderboards isn’t quite enough. I greatly appreciate score chases shoved in my face as much as possible, and would have loved target scores, daily challenges, or more detailed rankings.

The experienced will soon plow through these early stages. Get through the first third of the game's 100, and you'll be faced with a fast moving swarm, to the point of occasional dropped frames.

The experienced will soon plow through these early stages. Get through the first third of the game’s 100, and you’ll be faced with a fast moving swarm, to the point of occasional dropped frames. It’s the kind of slowdown bullet hell fans appreciate though, offering moderate thinking time rather than technical frustration.

Rather, the most obvious improvement in TxK is presentational. Tempest 2000 in the mid 90s was a technical marvel in a way, Tempest being taken to a 1994 vision of the year 2000. TxK is far more modern, but still with a retro edge, almost as if it’s the same 1994 vision but of the year 2014. Its colour warping, score pop ups and text based non-sequiturs (only Jeff Minter could, in a 2014 release on a major platform, reference British darts based Jim Bowen vehicle Bullseye), once distracting to point of death, are now more subtle, and despite so much happening at once, your goals and obstacles are always clear; yes, play enough (and you likely will) and your head will swim with spinning tunnels when you close your eyes, but the psychedelia doesn’t impact negatively on the play experience, and it’s an easier to focus on game than ][Game’s Dyad for instance. Sonically meanwhile, everything’s firmly retro, mid 90′s trance underneath synthesized robotic calls of ‘HEAVEN’, a jump sound effect apparently taken directly from Pitfall and the ever-present bleats and moos Minter fans demand.

So why the earlier claim that the Vita is the ideal home for Tempest? The reintroduction of analogue controls, present in the arcade machine’s dial and absent from Minter’s prior updates adds a little; you can ‘sneak’ up on enemies to an extent, and you’ll need the precision for the game’s two ‘warp zone’ mini games that are essentially chilled out chances to breathe between the sessions of freneticism. That’s something that would be present in any Tempest made today though. No, it’s canny handling of progression that makes TxK a near essential part of any Vita library.

TxK players are grouped into three leaderboards, but in essence this amounts to two modes of play; survival and pure/classic. In survival, you have three lives, with no extras or bonus stages. All very upfront. Pure, however, is more clever. You’re playing for as long as you can of course from the start, looking for fat scores, but as you do, your best performances up to the end of each individual stage are being saved. You can then go into classic mode to start off at any of those previously beaten levels. Unlike prior outings with set continuation points with a fixed score to start with, this opens up possibilities for repeated or continued play. If I make it to level 45 with one life left in pure, then croak, I can try to make it through on that same last life to see more of the game, or go back to level 31 where a slump saw me fall from eleven lives to six, and play from there, almost grinding to improve later chances. In this way, you can choose to either play for points (you can only start pure or survival mode from stage one, so this is where the competition lies), or progression.

It suits the handheld format perfectly. This kind of experiential arcade thrill always appeals on Vita, and TxK allows you to either play for a solid hour in pure to improve your standings, or use small public transport based sessions to see more of the game. The nostalgic pang of excitement at seeing a new level remains a convincing drive, and being able to do so without endless repetition of earlier stages is a real delight, and at the same time, playing for points is still a simple pleasure.

Yes TxK is, decidedly Tempest. Little more but certainly no less, and odd bit of slow down here and there notwithstanding, the best version of Tempest you can find. An exercise in addiction that has the potential to appeal to both devotees and those looking for a quick fix, TxK provides fun, visceral thrills, and lasers. Lasers everywhere.

KAIJU VERDICT:

3 Pops out of 4: “Exceptional.¬†A¬†significant cut above the crowd. Though flawed or otherwise not necessarily for everyone, it does things other games in the genre do not, or tries something new with a great deal of success.”
Review code supplied by Llamasoft in advance of the game’s February 11th US release

About The Author

Gamer, Educator, Writer of Stuff, wrestler of professionals (sometimes)