TxK is the culmination of various celebrity aspects of gaming’s myriad history. We can plot this weaving path from Space Invaders through the vector graphics of Atari’s Asteroids via Dave Theurer’s Tempest to Jeff Minter’s Jaguar-bound Tempest 2000 reimagining - where no mutant camels or space giraffes can be seen - all the way to this latest triumph, namely the PlayStation Vita’s TxK; or portable Tempest, basically.
What is TxK then? It’s an old school shmup. A tunnel shooter with a vector-graphics aesthetic. It’s a mind-blowing cacophony of action right from level one, with a difficulty curve that keeps on moving ever-upwards with a few vertical (both directions) spikes along the way. It’s a beautiful experience that can last from ten seconds to ten minutes to ten hours depending on your engagement, skills and availability at a given moment in time. It’s a score-attack, leaderboard-centric portable pick up and play game that’s ever so moreish thanks to the fabulously coded and varied challenges - environmental and NPC alike - which encourages you to believe in the failure being your own and one that can be overcome given the right focus. It’s all of this and more at once. It’s an excellent game, fundamentally. But it might take a while for things to click.
When you first load up TxK you’re greeted by a pulsating triangle in space suggestive of your movement through the emptiness along the Z-axis. This is accompanied by a series of Tecno beats which seem immediately hard and loud but very quickly have you nodding away in partnership, clearly taken by this first experience of TxK’s gathering of sounds. This is all before you've even started the game. Things are looking promising. You have a choice of game mode to kick off with - Pure Mode or Survival Mode. They’re the same game, but in Survival you have three lives and three lives only. Pure Mode provides 1-ups along the way to skilled shooters but that of course is too easy. Survival Mode, whilst exhilarating in challenge, is unlikely to be something desirable until after Pure Mode is defeated; the early levels are simplistic and although engaging become very old very quickly. Having to repeat those more than a few times will surely result in a Vita flung across the room when Survival Mode is not survived for the umpteenth time.
The apparent boredom of the early levels was foreseen by Llamasoft here. It makes sense that in a game such as this, once you’re scaling heady heights the flat plains provide little or no excitement. So within Pure Mode they implemented the option of Restart Best Level, which when executed leads to the third game mode, Classic. Pure Mode is the normal way to play the game. All power-ups are available and you go from level nought all the way to one-hundred if you can get there. When you die at level twelve, or twenty-three, the game notes down your score and number of lives when you began that final failed flight of fancy. This is your Restart Best. So next time, pick a Restart Best from those on offer (the game recalls each fail point) and continue from that level with the one or two lives you had remaining.
When you hit level twenty-something is where it’s likely to click. It doesn’t take long to get there, the opening levels providing only a rudimentary challenge but soon enough things start to go a little crazy. Couple this with Restart Best and you have the perfect pick-up-and-play title that is great for commuters and session gamers-alike. The enemies become more varied, the tunnels move around changing the layout and you find yourself dying within seconds on a peak of difficulty and charging through five levels in five minutes another time. Glorious.
The levels all provide feelings of familiarity. You pilot a yellow spaceship which appears as an angled U with each ‘leg’ moving with you and allowing for some leaning when depressing the left shoulder button. You are in space and within space is a plain of some kind, where the shape varies from level to level. This plain extends through the Z-axis, hence the tunnel shooter description. You can move around the rim of that plain, which in reality is a combination of the X and Y axis or at times, just one of them. It really depends on the tunnel’s shape - it could be a simple horizontal line or a square, or later a Moebius strip. You can move in both directions and your leading leg is where you shoot bullets from, by depressing X. Enemies come at you from out of the screen, that is towards you along the Z-axis, or tunnel. Each enemy type has a specific character of movement and attack. Some just move up to the rim and roll over in both directions; others send an electric bolt up at you and others zig-zag back and forth in a seemingly random pattern. Learning what each enemy does is integral to the game if success is desired. The variation in enemies and tunnel layouts is what keeps things fresh throughout the hundred levels.
The aim of each level is to score lots and lots of points and you do so by killing the enemies, obviously. You kinda want to stop them getting to the rim of the tunnel, too. However all is not lost if they do! This is where subtlety of movement comes into play, as by slowing down your horizontal traversings and pressing the left shoulder button (not always essential) the enemies might roll into your attack. If you collect your power-ups along the way - a challenge in and of itself given there’s so much going on onscreen that although you can spot them easily enough, getting there safely is something else - you add bullets to your arsenal, an AI droid and a jump ability. Jumping, plus sensible use of your smart bomb (one per level) is key to success. If you get caught with nowhere to go and you have a your smart bomb you can kill everything even if you’ve just been caught. You might not need it to save you though, in which case time its use well as you get two-times the score when an enemy is destroyed by the smart bomb (or Supertapper). A jump allows you to leave the rim and rain fire upon anything at the top or bottom of the tunnel, whilst you find that safe landing spot. There is always a lot going on and especially so as you near the end of a given level. Enemies, bullets, droids, power-ups and more fill the space and combined with the latest Tecno sounds you find yourself rhythmically moving along with things, with it always threatening to get too much for the senses. But it never happens. Everything is tempered such that even if you’re struggling to develop the strategy to succeed - or missing that bit of luck - you never feel overwhelmed. You try again and eventually you’ll move on.
The visuals and sounds on this game are perhaps some of the finest yet delivered through the Vita. As Jeff Minter himself says on his blog when writing about this game’s genesis, the graphics have pretty much nailed true vectors (something that can’t really be done on modern display technology). The whole thing is a swirl of colour from the start, the screen filling with more different things second by second until you complete the level and everything becomes one great big swirl of split pixels. At that point, the calm before the next storm, you wish you could just sit and experience it forever. But no, you fly through open space, aiming for more points by tilting your Vita to keep your ship in the centre as you travel to the next tunnel. Disgustingly - for other devs - the wonderful graphics are topped by the insanely brilliant music tracks generated by a glut of musical artists specifically for this game. Each track fills your head within seconds and is reason enough to keep playing the game long after every other sense indicates you should stop.
Whilst it might take a while to click, once it does, nothing can stop TxK taking over your life. It’s a wonderful effect whereby the closer to having played the game you are the more you want to play again. Sure if you avoid it for a few hours you might be able to keep avoiding it but there’ll always be that nagging sensation telling you to try and get past that one level that keeps telling you you’re a cooked electric omelette when you die, or maybe you need to beat your friend’s latest leaderboard-topping score. Once you pick it up again the desire becomes stronger once more and the cycle repeats. Now excuse as we get back to it and aim at becoming impecabull.