Ever since I first played it back in 1981, I’ve had a soft spot for Tempest. Yes, it was the first ever tunnel shooter, and yes, it was a very good one at that. But what I particularly loved about it was its aesthetic. The game’s bright, crisp, color vector graphics gave it a minimal, angular style that looked spectacular in the kind of dingy, low-lit arcades I used to frequent. Games with those kind of visuals are a fairly rare sight these days, so watching TxK boot up into a laser sharp faux-vector state was a delight.
And that delight continued when I started playing. Things start out feeling almost like an authentic version of Atari’s groundbreaking coin-op, but it quickly becomes apparent that some some modern-day niceties have been slathered over Tempest’s fundamental concept. Fortunately developer Jeff Minter has found a near Goldilocks-perfect level of balance, adding enough new things to make it feel fresh and modern – but not overdoing it so that it loses sight of what made Tempest so great. The end result is a Tempest homage that plays like the kind of thing you’d expect from an early '80s arcade designer given mid '10s tech.
TxK is simple: use your screaming-like-a-goat-in-death ship to fire into the screen at the targets coming out of it. The objective is simply to survive, and the destruction of all a level’s targets result in a quick trip to the next – plus the chance to have a brief breather and pick up some bonus points as you fly there. The key to survival is collecting the handy pickups that include an AI companion and bullet boosters – armament that gets increasingly essential as the action rapidly dials up to the kind of level that makes you remember how damn hard good old-fashioned arcade games were. But while it’s hard – or at least gets hard – TxK is also addictive, and has that classic one-more-go appeal.
A special mention definitely has to go to TxK’s audio-visuals. The game starts out looking like a 1981 color vector graphic game, but once things start getting busy, the screen becomes an eye-sizzling firebomb in a fireworks factory. Which goes perfectly with TxK’s utterly awesome, glowstick-techno-breakbeat-early-house-303-going-off soundtrack that sounds like a rediscovered 1992 rave mix. And then there are the terrific sound effects – most of which are reminiscent of late 70’s Williams pinball tables, and indeed the early Williams arcade games that co-opted their sound chips.
If I were to nitpick, and I am, I think not using the underside of the Vita as a control option is a missed opportunity. TxK’s standard option is very nicely tuned, but considering the original Tempest was a finesse shooter that used a paddle, I’d love to have the chance to play it with something a little more organic and sensitive than the sticks/pad. But other than that, I can’t really complain. TxK is a top-shelf shooter that’s been keeping my Vita recharger busier than it’s ever been. Unless you really don’t like giving your fingers a workout, it’s an absolutely essential purchase.
And let's hope that Minter continues along this vein. Defender next, perhaps?
Jeff Minter's been a fixture in my gaming life for as long as I can remember. I grew up with Attack of the Mutant Camels, Hover Bovver and Colourspace (with a U) and have kept an eye on what he's been up to ever since, even with his tendency to hang his hat on doomed platforms like the Atari Jaguar and Konix Multisystem.
I've been enjoying his iOS offerings, but simultaneously feeling rather bad for him; his occasional frustrated outbursts on Twitter made it abundantly clear that he was dissatisfied with the mobile gaming marketplace, finding it difficult to get noticed and unfulfilling to release his "pay once" games into a sea of near-identical IAP-stuffed free-to-play games.
TxK feels like Minter coming home. The Vita just feels like the right place for him to be, with the little handheld powerhouse's graphical prowess providing the potential for Minter's gloriously surreal visuals to be realized exactly as his creative mind pictures them. And Vita's growth as a champion of indie developers makes it an ideal platform for him to flourish and continue doing that which he still clearly loves with a passion -- making games.
As for TxK itself... well, it's Tempest, and given the number of times Minter has made Tempest over the years it's really hard for him to go wrong with now. But the few little twists on the basic formula work well, and Vita's accurate analog sticks and responsive buttons make it a pleasure to play. Couple that with the thumping, '90s rave-style music and you have a game that is quintessentially Minter: colorful, gaudy, loud, infused with a distinctive brand of surreal humor and, above all, fun and satisfying to play.
It's good to see you back, Yak; I hope this isn't the last time the Vita is graced with a Llamasoft offering.
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