2 September 2007

















































The rights and wrongs of Space Giraffe

Making the same two or three videogames over and over again for 20-odd years can lead developers in one of two directions. (Actually, three if you count the Metal Slug option of "make every game exactly the same as the last one". Or four if you go the Frogger route of simply whoring out your brand IP to anyone who gives you a cheque. But for the sake of this particular argument, we'll stick to the main two.) Choose the easier of the two paths and your games will constantly reach out to an ever-widening audience, innovating and developing the gameplay while still remaining accessible to the uninitiated - or even, in an ideal world, getting MORE accessible and popular with each successive release.

Indeed, sometimes it's even possible to make things almost TOO accessible, as in the case of the Burnout series. Criterion's high-octane racing line has evolved into something that's barely recognisable from the debut title (which, implausible as it might seem to anyone who's played the more recent versions, was actually about AVOIDING collisions), and been dumbed down so much along the way that a one-armed gorilla could clear about 60% of it just by being trained to keep his big hairy hand gripped around the accelerator trigger.

Not unrelatedly, each new Burnout sells more than the last. But if you're concerned with things more important than mere money-grubbing, taking the conceptual high ground in the name of art is fraught with danger too. In that scenario, you can all too easily end up with something like the Street Fighter or Virtua Fighter series, endlessly refined and tweaked for the benefit of insanely hardcore fans until you get a game so spectacularly impenetrable to unsuspecting newcomers that the instructions might as well be written in ancient Phoenician, full of absurd nonsense about "Z-ism" and reversed air counter-tackle returning stumble throw blocks, until normal people run away crying and you're left with an audience of about nine completely socially-dysfunctional autistic savants in Tokyo.

Most of the screenshots which will appear in this feature are hugely misleading.

Trying to reconcile the conflicting demands of the iterative sequel, then, is a difficult task, and nobody embodies the challenges of this very particular situation better than goat-loving 80s bedroom-coding poster-hippy Jeff Minter. Pretty much everything the one-man Llamasoft developer has created since 1990 has been a variant of either Defender, Centipede or Tempest, and it's a gameography which, as alert WoS viewers will already be well aware, spans the fullest possible spectrum of success and failure. At one end sit stunning triumphs like the magnificent Tempest 2000 and the superb independent release Gridrunner++, while at the other lurk wretched atrocities like Defender 2000 and Tempest 3000.

Even within the confines of a single design, therefore, we've seen that it's possible for the same person to get the formula both spectacularly right and hideously wrong. So when it was announced a year or so ago that Llamasoft was to produce "Space Giraffe", another new take on Tempest for Xbox Live Arcade, fans of the super-intense single-screen shooter series tried to calm their racing heartbeats and held their breath to see which way the space cookie would crumble. And any minute now, impatient viewers will be relieved to hear, we're going to get to the end of this seemingly-unnecessary preamble and find out.

These first two, for example, suggest a relatively easy-to-discern Tempesty game field.

Right off the bat, though, the game appears to throw a spaniel into the works by announcing in the very first line of its play instructions that "Space Giraffe is not Tempest!" and spends much of manual emphasising the various differences between the two superficially similar games. There are in fact just two major fundamental changes to the Tempest gameplay model, but they're both highly significant. The first one - directional firing - alters the basic nature of Tempest, by removing all meaning from the grid lines that separate each level's web into channels. Once dividing the playfield into discrete segments which most enemies and all bullets were unable to traverse, the channels are now mere decoration. Both the player and his enemies can shoot diagonally across the channels as well as directly down them, and almost every protagonist can and does move freely across the web.

If Space Giraffe really wanted to set itself free from the shackles of Tempest comparisons, it would have done well to dispense with the grid lines, and the only purpose of leaving them in seems to have been to draw in fans of the existing titles who might be more wary of a totally unfamiliar design. However, the other big gameplay change does perform the task which the graphic design shirks, and turns SG into something with a very distinct feel of its own by dispensing with the central danger mechanic of every previous Tempest game.

Since Dave Theurer's original 1980 arcade machine, the biggest threat to the Tempest player has been enemies who ascend to the outer rim of the web, and by doing so become practically invulnerable. With no means of shooting to the side, the player was reduced to last-resort measures like firing his Superzapper smart bomb or (in the case of T2K), scrambling to collect the "jump" powerup on each stage and then spending most of the level pogoing like a punk rock jack-in-the-box to stay away from rim-riding baddies, missing out on valuable powerups in the process and turning the game into a bit of a lottery. Tempest 3000's partially-homing shots were a badly flawed attempt at keeping things more sensible when enemies reached the upper edge of the grid, but Space Giraffe finally gets it right. 

Static images, however, do a very poor job of conveying how chaotic the game looks in play.

As you shoot things in Space Giraffe, you extend your "Power Zone", a brighter area of the web which extends from the player's edge of the grid down towards the bottom, and shrinks back towards the player when no enemies are being destroyed or power-ups collected. As long as the Power Zone is greater than zero, almost every type of enemy can be rammed (or "bulled", in the game's idiolect) off the rim. As well as altering the threat balance, "bulling" also changes the focus of the scoring, because if you knock a large number of enemies off the edge at once, you also increase your score multiplier up to a maximum of 9x. Not only does this revolutionise the basic character of Tempest - now enemies reaching the rim is a welcome event to be actively sought and exploited, not a deadly one - but it provides one of the most rewarding gameplay functions in recent memory.

Bulling off a huge clutch of baddies in one go, accompanied by the evocative dive-bomber scream of a Star Wars TIE Fighter and the smashed enemies spinning balletically up into the air, feels so astonishingly good that you'll deliberately play yourself into dangerous situations just to get the big narcotic adrenaline hit again, and that risk-versus-reward mechanic is at the heart of all of the best arcade games. It's a genius piece of re-imagining, and practically justifies the absurdly low purchase price of Space Giraffe by itself. 

In isolation, of course, bulling would make the game incredibly easy. Rebalancing the gameplay after such a radical modification to its core structure is no simple task, and it's here that SG first falls down a little, resorting to several rather cheap methods to counter the player's considerable new-found power. The most immediately obvious culprits, and the factor which will probably do the most to scare off new players instantly, are the graphics.

For a very considerable percentage of the time, you'll be dealing with something more like this.

Graphically, Space Giraffe is frankly terrifying. On first play, and for a considerable time afterwards, it seems simply impossible to make any sense out of what's happening on your screen. The reason for this is that the game is built on the engine of the 360's built-in music visualiser Neon (also coded by Minter), and the grid-blasting action is superimposed directly onto the visualiser in maximum psychedelic tripout mode. It's an absolute maelstrom of sensory overload which makes even the most extreme mayhem of Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved look like a faded old newspaper picture of Pong, and for a great many players the demo alone will be enough to leave them whimpering in a corner. (In which case it's probably just as well, as the later stages would be likely to cause a major psychotic episode.)

The initial onslaught on the eyeballs is frightening, but after a brief period of acclimatisation, helped by a non-compulsory but useful tutorial and some gentle opening levels on which to practice your new skills, the game starts to make sense. As soon as it does, however, it whips the rug out from under the player's feet again with some nasty tricks. The worst of the early ones - in fact, probably the worst throughout the game - is the appearance of the Flowers. On first appearance a direct steal from the Spikers in Tempest, they grow up a single channel towards the player, and can (usually) be hammered back down with bullets. If left unmolested, they either explode, sending an indestructible daisy-like head up the channel, or grow all the way past the outer edge of the web, the long green stalk presenting an impassable obstacle to the Giraffe's movement until they either explode, are destroyed with a smart bomb, or are jumped over using one of the player's single-use jump pods.

While the Flowers are inherently annoying, that's not the actual problem with them - after all, enemies are supposed to be annoying, because their entire purpose is to kill you. The clue is in the word "usually" in the previous paragraph. The trouble with Flowers is that like real flowers, they come in various types, some more dangerous than others. Some are very easy to shoot down to a manageable size with your bullets, some are much more resistant to your fire, and some are completely impervious, shrugging off even a smart-bomb attack without the slightest impediment to their growth up the web. But unlike real flowers, there are no visual differences between the numerous varieties to warn you which are the dangerous ones, and having identical-looking enemies with very significantly different characteristics is such a glaring piece of empirically terrible basic game design that it's a complete mystery how it was ever allowed to get past the playtesters and QA and make it into the finished product.   

An early wave infested with past-the-rim Flowers.

Aside from the Flowers, the game's roster of enemies is pretty well-judged, abandoning the over-complicated excesses of Tempest 3000 for a tighter line-up, although far too many of them appear with no introduction. There's no excuse for not including a couple of lines of basic info on each enemy type in the instructions, leaving the player to either try to work out some fairly arcane behavioural rules from amid the game's visual turmoil or hunt around on the internet for an FAQ. Dealing with the your adversaries is supposed to be the challenge of a videogame, not working out that (for some unexplained reason) they're invulnerable to bullets unless they're moving sideways. However, it's still better to have to figure out a couple of undocumented enemy types than remember what to do about 17 different ones.  

There is one particularly unwelcome reappearance from the cast of the Nuon game, though, in the form of the Rotor, a cheap and lazy enemy which spins the web around and effectively reverses your controls like a bad Amiga platformer from 1994. In a game where the player's beleaguered orientation perception already has to contend with webs in spiral shapes, webs with twisting corkscrew channels and webs where you're at the bottom end of a conical shape and are effectively playing "inside-out" - in addition to having to get your head around this geometry for twice as many elements as before (your directional firing as well as movement) - also having to suffer an enemy which effectively makes right left and vice versa several times in a level is a smug little prank that's barely short of cheating.

The enemies do perhaps also suffer from looking slightly too similar to each other, all being constructed from a fairly small set of elements (circles, Xs and asterisks), but there are surprisingly few instances of mistaking one for another, partly thanks to the different sounds they make but mostly due to the way you have to play the game, of which more later.

Long webs try to tempt you to go bulling riskily into unseen territory.

Yak-lovers will be pleased to hear that Space Giraffe's more iniquitous baddies are outnumbered by the good ones, however. Your reviewer's personal favourites are the laser platforms which appear somewhere around halfway through the game's 100 levels, patrolling above the web out of the player's reach and unleashing deadly beams at regular intervals, signified by an audible alarm preceding a tremendous deep, fizzing electrical hum as they fire. (Older viewers will recognise them as descendants of the laser guns in Gridrunner, an early Minter 8-bit title.) They're so fearsome it seems odd to call them a "favourite", but there's nothing wrong with having terrifying villains as long as they're also fair ones, and the clear aural signals means you'll only ever have yourself to blame for laser-induced deaths.

Sound cues are one of the areas in which SG marks a major improvement from T3K, and following them is an absolutely vital component in learning to play the game - most of the time, in fact, you'll hear enemies before you see them. (In general the game is a sonic masterpiece, with superb music in the vein of the previous Tempests backing up a liberal sprinkling of well-chosen samples and FX borrowed from the classic Eugene Jarvis coin-ops of the early 1980s in a mix that's at once cacophonous and yet never less than clear.)

Pleasingly, the levels themselves are another area where SG borrows some broken ideas from Tempest 3000 and fixes them, to excellent effect. The simple concept of making webs be different shapes and/or sizes at either end creates some incredibly striking and beautiful forms, and having them flex and move in play works on the 360's smooth high-definition display in a way that it didn't on the fuzzy, low-framerate screen of the Nuon game. There are a couple of lowpoints again encoring from T3K, such as grids which appear to be complete loops but arbitrarily aren't, but such unfair chicanery is much rarer in Space Giraffe than it was in its predecessor. (And also doesn't appear until much further into the game, so most players probably won't ever have to worry about it anyway.)

This is the first level in which you have to seriously hone the deadly art of bullet-juggling.

And that brings us to the elephant in the zookeeper's lounge where Space Giraffe is concerned, because pretty much everyone who plays this game is going to have the same initial reaction - "You can't see what's going on!" And indeed, you can't. (A disturbingly large amount of the time, it's pretty hard to even keep track of where your own Giraffe is.) In an attempt at pre-empting such criticism before the game was even released, the developer huffily insisted that every single enemy was visible and audible, and therefore nobody had any excuse for claiming that they'd been killed by something they couldn't see. However, there's a big difference between being able to see every enemy and being able to see all the enemies. Your reporter has completed almost 80% of the game at the time of writing this feature, has a moderately respectable highscore of 126 million (107th out of about 10,000 on the global leaderboard), and yet could still only claim to have accurately identified the cause of about one in ten - at the most - of his Giraffe's deaths. The idea that every single danger can be seen and identified before it kills you is technically true, but highly disingenuous.

Collective action is your adversaries' secret. Whether enemies are discernible in isolation or not, the game is so overwhelming that it just isn't humanly possibly to consciously observe or track all of them. Most of the time you'll be focused on one small part of a grid, trying to stay alive, fend off bullets or build up your Power Zone in readiness for a bit of bulling, and suddenly looking over at the other side of the web to see a Flower landing or spot a Boffin starting to fire diagonally would simply get you obliterated in a fraction of a second.

Key to your survival, then, is observing things unconsciously. Tempest players often speak of it being a "zone" game, one where you have to feel danger rather than see it, or more picturesquely of "using the Force", but what you actually have to employ in situations like those presented in SG is a mixture of subconscious reasoning and peripheral perception.

Even though you don't have time to process the game's avalanche of visual and aural information, it's still there in your brain - you simply have to trust your brain to accept it and act on it without verifying it with your conscious mind first. If you're travelling to the left, firing behind you as you go, and you hear the distinctive sound of your bullets hitting a flower, then if you're heading back to the right a couple of seconds later, your brain knows that there's a flower there somewhere, and you'll have an instinct to be cautious even if you can't actually see any peril through the pyrotechnics. As long as you don't try to overrule that instinct with your conscious mind, you're in "the zone" and you'll stop short of the danger.

Level 64 (which this is) can only be played in "the zone".

Regular viewers of WoS might be mildly surprised to hear this reviewer defending a game in which 90% of deaths are of unknown origin, but the fact is that Tempest and similar games have always been about that kind of gameplay - even if you don't know exactly what killed you, you know why you got killed. And it's interesting to note that despite the substantial alterations to the central ruleset and the protestations of the developer, the longer you play Space Giraffe the more like Tempest it gets. By the time you're in the later levels, you're far too busy trying to stay alive in the spinning, pulsing, distorted, kaleidoscopic webs to be worrying about cultivating bulling opportunities to boost your multiplier, and the game reverts to a frantic blast-them-before-they-blast-you contest more akin to its ancestors.

Tallying a good score, then, becomes about maximising your harvest in earlier stages, using the inventive save system. As long as you finish a level with at least three lives, you can "save" your score, which becomes the starting bonus if you subsequently start a new game by clearing the next level. (It makes sense in practice, honest.) At any time, you can go back and try to improve your score on any level, and if it's better than the saved one it becomes the new start bonus for the next. As insignificant as this sounds, it's actually one of the most intriguing design features of Space Giraffe, and one which provides the game with considerably more depth for the less-skilled player than it at first appears to have.

Real hardcore players are catered for, appropriately enough, by the "Hardcore" leaderboard, which only records scores from games starting all the way back at the first level. (And they can also unlock an even harder "Super Ox" mode too.) Gamers of more moderate ability can still garner an impressive-looking score for the "Overall" rankings by repeating levels over and over until they've racked up as many points as possible, then using them as starting points to do the same on the next level until they've maxed their way more meekly to the end. And the klutzish can still get value for their money and a sense of achievement by simply bludgeoning their way through the levels one at a time, by judgement or luck, until they've beaten all 100. If you beat a level with fewer than three lives remaining you'll be starting from 0 points each time even when you're continuing from Level 99, so your score will be pitiful but you'll still feel like you've bravely overcome a tough challenge, and you will have.

Rainbow Ripple would be a great flavour of ice cream.

Unquestionably, despite the above this isn't a game for everyone. Space Giraffe is so unlike almost everything else currently in existence that it will unfeelingly steamroller the average teenage Xbox owner from Bumhole, Idaho in two minutes flat. But the developers deserve a lot of kudos for offering a multiplicity of approaches to the game which ensure that anyone who plucks up the nerve to tackle what at first seems horrifying and impossible will get something out of it. It's a shame that that consideration didn't extend as far as a Beginner mode where the most extreme graphical excesses were turned off, so that players could get a feel for the actual game mechanics before taking on the full experience, but that's probably the price you have to pay in 2007 for a game that's basically one person's sole and heartfelt artistic vision, untainted by the malign influence of focus groups and marketing clowns.

Final among the game's praiseworthy features are the Achievements. In too many Live Arcade games these are handed out so casually that you won't even be aware of earning them, but SG makes you work for every point with a varied and testing collection of challenges which add even more to the breadth of ways you have to play the game. For example, one Achievement requires you to beat 16 levels in a row without losing a single life (actually monstrously difficult), while others ask you to keep a single Flower alive throughout a level, or boost your multiplier to 9x in a single bull run. Almost all of the Achievements require very different approaches and styles of play, and whether you want to play Space Giraffe for five minutes or five hours, there's a mode in there somewhere for you.

We haven't even touched on the blizzard of jokes and cross-cultural meta-references.

At the end of the day, the truth is that SG is an unmissable experience for anyone with a 360. The price is so ridiculously tiny (3.40 in UK money, falling to as little as about 2.60 if you take advantage of current exchange rates and buy your MS Points from the US via eBay) that even if you only use it to freak out people who come to your house or make your drunk friends throw up after the pub, you'll get your money's worth. But that's damning it with faint praise. If you're prepared to open your mind and learn a new way of playing, this is simply a brilliant game in its own right regardless of the price. It's easy to hate it on sight, and it's easy to give up after an hour. And if you're unfortunate enough to have encountered them, it's easy to be put off by the people who made it. But the game itself doesn't deserve that fate.

Xbox Live Arcade has been a revelation for fans of (what's rather short-sightedly and inaccurately called) old-school gaming. As well as a lot of retro shovelware, it's hosted some fantastic brand-new games in styles that wouldn't have been economically viable any other way. Space Giraffe belongs right up at the top of that list alongside Jetpac Refuelled and Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, but in fact it even transcends that. Despite a few irritating, thoughtless and needless flaws, this is one of the best games released this year at any price, and for the sake of all of us, you owe it a chance.

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