REAP THE WILD WIND
The most beautiful game in the world.

Since the advent of MSN Messenger and similar online chat programs, freelance journalists have lived in a sort of virtual office. No longer isolated from the rest of humanity with nothing but pizza boxes and bottles of Vanilla Coke for company, the well-connected hack is only a line of typing away from sharing in real-time conversation and banter with friends and colleagues (with file-transferred MP3s serving as the office stereo, and no arguments about who's turn it is to make the tea/get some vile allegedly-blackcurrant-flavoured beverage from the drinks machine).

It was during such a conversation that your reporter got to talking to a chum about the the strange chronology of videogames journalism. Far more so than other cultures, games mags and websites are utterly focused on the future (when did you last see a new album repeatedly previewed for two years in a music paper?), concentrating almost all of their coverage on games which aren't out yet and which, in many cases, the journalists have never so much as glimpsed in action. Hype is built up for months and years, reaching a fever pitch when the game's about to come out. And then when it does, it gets a review that's shorter than any of the preview features, and is never ever spoken of again. What's that all about?

Partly, of course, it's to do with the way games are sold compared to other media. While you can easily buy 20-year-old movies and records in any High Street store, buying a game released more than six months ago is a near-impossible task. It's easy, then, to understand why magazines drop new games like a hot potato the minute they're actually available - once you've factored in the mag's lead times, talking about a game more than one issue after the review is a largely pointless exercise, since the chances are your readers won't be able to go out and buy it any more. In this way, videogames magazine readers are left constantly dissatisfied, endlessly told by the balance of coverage that the stuff they can't play yet - won't be able to play for anything up to two or three years, in fact -is where it's at, and therefore logically the games that are out and available to buy right now are worthless rubbish.

The games industry likes this state of affairs just fine, of course. For one thing, it frees them of the responsibility to have to maintain large back catalogues and the support networks they entail. For another, it keeps customers salivating like Pavlov's dogs for the very latest 40 new releases - and when something depreciates in value as head-spinningly fast as a new videogame does (how many times have you seen shelves of previously red-hot games being dumped by game stores at 25% or even 50% discounts just a few weeks after their initial release?), you need to have the punters buying it straight away.

But for anyone who actually cares about games, it's a messed-up, arse-backwards way of doing things. A game's real qualities often don't become fully apparent until you've been playing the finished article for weeks, and by then there's simply no outlet for talking about it any more. (Indeed, a magazine running a post-review feature about a game and raising previously-unmentioned interesting points and observations about it would tend to be seen by most editors as undermining the authority of their original "definitive" judgement. And with games magazines still almost universally defining themselves primarily by their reviews, that's a potentially suicidal move.)

Even the tiny handful of magazines and websites that attempt a slightly more sophisticated and intelligent form of games journalism than "EXCLUSIVE! FIRST PREVIEW SHOTS INSIDE!!!" rarely go back and write about a game with the benefit of a few months' hindsight. Once in a blue moon you might be lucky enough to get a sort of round-up (of the sort pioneered by Spectrum games mag Crash in the 1980s) looking back at a few reviews and changing the scores by a few percent here or there with maybe a few lines of discussion/justification, but writers almost never get to go back and talk at length about a game - indeed, chances are they never got to talk about the finished, production version at length at all.

(The chum your correspondent was talking to about the subject was a writer for Edge, where even the biggest allocation of review space will do well to stretch beyond 800 words (and for reference, that's how long this piece has been wibbling on for already, and we haven't even got to the basic point yet) and everything that makes a game good or bad will more often have to be communicated to the paying reader in somewhere closer to 200, which is barely the length of one of this reporter's paragraphs. To any games journalist who wants to do their job properly for its own sake, rather than just hurry up and get a nice job in PR as soon as humanly possible, it's a frustrating and dispiriting state of affairs.)

The luxury of a website like World Of Stuart, then, is that none of the above applies. With no publishers setting the editorial agenda, no physical limitation on how many words you can fit on a page, and no obligation to be obsessed with the present and future in order to placate advertisers who only want you to talk about what they're hawking this minute and next month, the opportunity exists to talk about any game at any length, until either you've said everything you want to say about it or everyone's dead. So let's take advantage of that opportunity, and talk about Tempest X3.

Tempest X3 is one of those unfortunate games that fell between the cracks in the world of games and the gaming press. It wasn't a big-money movie licence or sports franchise, so it got little coverage in the mainstream games mags, and it wasn't original or groundbreaking (being seen as basically just a slightly tweaked version of Jeff Minter's original Tempest update Tempest 2000 on the Jaguar, though it came out nearly three years later) so it was largely ignored by the more "intellectual" elements of the gaming media too. (TX3 got just a sixth of a page in Edge, for example - just 8% of the space that was given to both Tempest 2000 and Minter's own Nuon follow-up Tempest 3000 which came out four years after TX3. It may also be that T2000 and T3000 got so much more coverage because they were written by one of gaming's sacred cows rather than the anonymous in-house code monkeys at Interplay who did TX3, but that's a whole other article.)

But Tempest X3 is actually a lot more than a minor respray of Tempest 2000. For a start, it's considerably bigger, offering 128 levels of abstract-spider's-web-based space blasting rather than its predecessor's 100. What's more, the first 100 levels also contain many new webs not seen in T2000. There are several entirely new enemy types too (a substantial change when you consider that Tempest and T2000 only had about six different enemies in the first place, so adding four or five new ones makes a pretty big difference), and a hidden "Trippy Mode" that's still the most psychedelically mindblowing experience in the 25-year history of videogaming. (To call it "trippy" is like pointing at a Lamborghini Diablo and saying "Car".)

On top of this there's a purely aesthetic respray too. The empty wireframe webs of T2000 are replaced with ones filled with fluid textures, futuristic new fonts in gleaming white bring a cleaner, sharper, more modern feel to the presentation, and the Playstation's lighting effects are shovelled on unstintingly to create the impression of an unscheduled explosion in a fireworks factory.

In truth, Tempest X3 is almost as different from Tempest 2000 as Tempest 2000 was from the original Tempest. The core gameplay might be the same, but there are so many extras, and so many changes to existing elements, that to all intents and purposes it's a whole new sequel rather than a slight update. (The Pulsars of TX3, for example, are a far less fearsome adversary than their T2000 equivalents, meaning you don't have to drop absolutely everything else in a terrified panic when one makes it to the edge of a web. But they're balanced by other new and tweaked enemies, so overall the newer game is every bit as hard.) To drive home this point with a flourish verging on the contemptuous, TX3 actually offers a complete port of T2000 as an unlockable extra when you top the high-score table, and playing the two games one after the other convincingly dispels the myth that they're the same.

That said, however, the two games share a common dynamic that's unchanged from 2000 to X3, and which does have to be largely attributed to Minter's initial updating. The original Tempest coin-op was an artistic tour-de-force, but at heart a pretty unsophisticated game. By the time you'd got to level 20 or so, every subsequent level was fundamentally exactly the same as the last, only a little harder, and attaining high scores was a repetitive test of sheer reflex and endurance. If you couldn't beat a particular screen in a straight shootout, you were pretty much screwed. With T2000, Minter perfectly judged the number, type and timing of power-ups to introduce, and in doing so increased the game's depth of play tenfold.

There were now substantially different ways to tackle any given stage. For example, the third power-up collected on every level is usually the Jump capability. This allows the player's ship to spring up off the web into the safety of space, free from the clutches of almost all the enemies but still able to rain fire and death down on them. Novice or frightened players can use their Superzapper smart bomb right at the start of a level and be almost guaranteed to get the Jump before things start to get nasty, enabling them to spend the level bouncing up and down like a rabbit on a pogo-stick, firing like crazy, and still have a decent chance of making it through the stage. The more expert player, though, can risk taking on the first wave of enemy attacks without the protection of the Jump, in the knowledge that on succeeding they'll have the all-powerful Superzapper to fall back on during the overwhelming onslaughts later in the wave and hence have a better chance of surviving the level than their more lily-livered compatriots.

(The Superzapper, incidentally, marks another of the subtle but important changes in the way the two games play. In Tempest 2000 it wipes out every enemy on the screen almost instantly, but in TX3 it takes a lot longer to destroy them one by one, giving it the potential to kill more baddies who appear while it's going off, but making it less useful as a panic button to fall back on in times of disaster, forcing the player to use it more tactically and strategically.)

The bolder of these two theoretical players, by staying on the web surface rather than spending most of their time leaping into space, will also have a better chance of collecting the other power-ups, one of which is the highly useful "AI Droid", an invulnerable wingman who'll happily wade into even the roughest of enemy infestations, guns blazing, while the player cowers whimpering in a quiet corner, or just seeks a brief moment's respite to gather their shattered nerves. And by extra-specially judicious shooting rather than just blasting everything that moves, the talented player can also manipulate the appearance and collection of power-ups so that the AI Droid will actually be the first thing collected on the next stage, further rewarding skilled play with increased chances of survival.

Such manipulation of the power-up crystals (all of which are gained by shooting enemies or enemy shots), in fact, is probably the cleverest of Minter's additions to the Tempest formula. In the normal order of things, the sixth crystal released in any level will be a warp token. Collecting three of these gives you access to the bonus stages, which provide a calming danger-free break from the brutal intensity of the normal levels and a chance to rack up thousands of points and a free life or two. But the bonus stages aren't just a soothing rest stop. Complete one and you get a big points bonus, but the game also skips you ahead five levels. If there's a particular stage you just can't beat, then picking up warp tokens on the previous levels gives you another way to defeat it - bypass it entirely. (This reporter once spent an entire day trying to get past the Jaguar game's horrendous Level 64 in such a way.)

Alternatively, you can dodge warp tokens in order to save them up for bonus stages you're better at (the bonus stage changes every time the core colour of the webs does). Or you can take advantage of the fact that shooting enemy bullets earns you power-ups just like shooting enemies does, and keep a green Spiker or two alive at the end of a stage, picking off their bullets and spikes to earn more crystals and get the warp tokens you need. (The game wises up to this tactic and stops giving you crystals after a little bit, but picking up a warp token or earning a starting AI Droid can make all the difference to your chances of getting through the next screen.) By adding remarkably few elements to the basic design, Minter vastly increased the scope with which the game could be played, and the power-up system is the one part of T2000 that TX3 developers High Voltage left almost totally untouched.

But all this cleverness would be irrelevant if it were attached to a dull game. And given that every level of T2000 or TX3 is just a single-screen web with a few enemies coming up it at you, surely it must be incredibly repetitive after the initial buzz wears off? That it isn't is where the real heart of Tempest's gameplay genius lies.

Any idiot can design a dull game and then pile feature after feature on top of it in an attempt to hide its dullness from the player. Any fool can make a game so complex, with so many controls and buttons and move combinations, that players feel a sense of achievement and misguided appreciation simply from the act of learning to play it. What separates the masters from the mediocre is to be able to design a game so simple in concept, with so few basic elements, and so easy to pick up that anyone can grasp the mechanics of it in seconds, and then combine those few elements in so many ways and with such perfectly-judged balance that no two consecutive screens present the same challenge, and in which even the most practiced player is no more than a fraction of a second's loss of concentration away from catastrophe.

The things that make T2000 and TX3 so great are in large part the things that made the original Tempest so beloved of gamers back in the 1980s - the webs themselves. It's the dizzying array of abstract geometric designs that make the game so compelling, because even 50, 60 or 70 levels in, the game can still find something new to throw at you. Some webs are tiny, with only eight or nine "channels", concentrating a maelstrom of action into a tiny space of staggering savagery, whereas some are so big that the entire complexion of the stage can change in the time it takes you to race from one end to the other.

Some are circular, enabling the player to spin round pouring a constant barrage of fire down each channel, while others have dead ends which the player can make strongpoints of, sweeping from one corner to the other and back again with the Jump function and ensuring that there are always two channels free of Spikes to race down at the end of the level or if the "OUTTA HERE!" crystal is collected, ending the level suddenly. Some are even figure-eights, testing the most spatially-agile of minds as the player tries to figure out which way is left and which is right as they loop disorientatingly around.

Some levels are seen from "underneath", forcing the player to swiftly adapt his perspective. Some have channels which fold completely in on each other, creating a deadly double-sided plane in which shots seemingly aimed right at an enemy pass down the wrong side and miss entirely. Some webs have small "floor" sections and huge, vertiginous sides on which enemy attacks are practically invisible unless you climb to the very top and survey everything from the highest vantage point. And some are wide, flat and relaxing-looking, which dissipates the enemy attacks over a wide range without decreasing their ferocity any, and hence stuns the player into disbelief when they are killed yet again on such a simple-looking stage.

For despite the apparent repetitiveness, this is a ferociously addictive game. Cleverly, continue points only appear on every second stage, and only after a stage is completed. So for example, if you lose your last life on Level 40, your restart point will be on Level 39 (all restarts are on the last odd-numbered level successfully completed), and you'll have to clear three full levels in order to earn the next restart point on Level 41. In such a way, progress is always tantalisingly close, but always challengingly distant.

(Each level is a self-contained microcosm of this principle - the next reward is only a power-up crystal away, helping the player defeat each stage step by step, yet at the same time providing a tempting lure into danger. The warp token, for example, is accompanied by a free automatic Superzapper blast, which can be a lifesaver by such an advanced point in the stage, yet often requires dashing from the player's hard-won safe spot in order to go and collect it. All the best games are a delicate and constant balance between risk and reward, and T2000 and TX3 are that concept distilled to its purest essence. Every second of every minute brings a life-or-death decision to be made.)

It seems almost cheap to comment on the mere aesthetics of Tempest X3. The visual splendour is illustrated in the pictures on this page, but the aural aspect is a legend in game-sound circles - a cross between nosebleed techno and Nine Inch Nails, the driving, pulsating music is accompanied by nerve-jangling shouts and screams, and the perfectly-judged ingame effects are a vital and integral part of play, forcing the player to pay attention with their ears as much as their eyes. Your reporter would use the word "synergy", if it hadn't been made a hanging offence.

But it is worth a comment on the abstract aesthetic nature of the game, because in a modern age where "realism" is supposedly the ultimate aim of developer and player alike, it's fairly extraordinary for anyone to have put out a game like this, where your ship is a letter "C" and your enemies are letter "X"s and "W"s. (It's no coincidence that Tempest was the arcade game most successfully converted to the ZX81 over 20 years ago.)

That all the Tempest games manage to convey such a level of malevolence despite your adversaries being simple geometric shapes with no faces, eyes, or voices is testament to the fact that there's a lot more to giving enemies character than getting some unemployed actor to scowl into a motion-capture machine. Even games like Rez or Vib Ribbon gave players recognisably humanoid protagonists to identify with, but here there's absolutely nothing human to hold onto, except the knowledge that the C-ship is somehow "you" and that everything else is evil and wants to kill you. You don't know anything about them - all you know is that they're the enemy, and they must die.

The closest parallel to Tempest for atmosphere and "story"  would probably be the movie Tron - it's as if your console itself is the sentinel of another, electronic, universe, which it's trying to pull you into for some malicious reason. (And which would also explain the characters being like mutated versions of the iconic Playstation symbols.) That's why the red Flippers don't just kill you if they make it all the way up the web and get a hold of you - they drag you down into the screen, into the alternative universe, into who knows what kind of hellish place. It's one thing to get shot by a Spiker, blasted by a Fuseball or fried by a Pulsar, but even though nothing about the aftermath of capture is depicted or implied - hey, for all you know they just want to chat - somehow you can feel in your gut that you really don't want these guys taking you alive. Brrr.

Very few games are as timeless as Tempest X3, which makes it doubly, blackly ironic that the videogames industry places so little store by (indeed, is actively hostile to) timelessness. But then, the videogames industry is run by fat, soulless businessmen who care far less about videogames than they do about stock options and company BMWs and pension plans and third-quarter pre-tax earning projections. Gamers themselves have no such excuses. It isn't too hard, even now, to track down a copy of Tempest X3 (and if you don't have a PS1 or a PS2, an image file taken from the CD will run very nicely on the PC via emulation, with a couple of non-fatal bonus-stage hiccups), and it'll reward such effort as it takes a hundredfold. Even if the gameplay wasn't such a model of perfection - and it is - this would be a thing of rare and extraordinary beauty, a work of art such as the world of videogames sees maybe two or three times in a generation. Get it, play it, and love it to the last beat of your heart.
 

 

 

 

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