Space Invaders Extreme
Genre: Classic Shooter
Release Date: June 18, 2008
Like Alex, I cringed when Square-Enix (henceforth shortened to “Squeenix”, which is easier, and more fun, to type) bought out Taito in 2005. While Taito wasn’t quite the company by then that had given me so much fun growing up – I could go on for hours about Elevator Action, Arkanoid, Power Blade, Rainbow Islands, etc. Taito was bought out in 2005, the same year Squeenix did irreparable harm to their reputation with a bunch of games that were inarguable piles of crap. Final Fantasy X-2, Drakengard 2, Romancing SaGa, Grandia III, and a glitchy version of Final Fantasy IV were released that year, and one could argue about the merits of games such as Kingdom Hearts II, which I absolutely abhorred. In short: longtime Squaresoft fans were being driven away in droves in the company’s seeming desire to covet the teenage girl, slash fan fiction writing crowd at the same time one of the legendary names in the industry was bought out by them.
Thankfully, while still being a bit hit-or-miss, Squeenix’s record has gotten better of late, and they’ve started to take advantage of the companies under their wing by branching out into other markets, much like the Einhander and Bushido Blade-era Square we all grew up loving. When I heard they were releasing Arkanoid and Space Invaders for the DS under the old Taito brand, I got that pit in my gut again; after all, Game Arts couldn’t save Grandia III from sucking, and the very mention of Valkyrie Profile 2 is all it takes to get Lucard foaming at the mouth. Therefore, between Squeenix’s own record, and the fact that Taito never did really do a good remake of Space Invaders, I came into reviewing Space Invaders Extreme wanting for it to be good, but reflexively bracing myself for it being a massive disappointment.
Would my own jaded instincts win out, or did Square inject some water from the Fountain of Youth into a thirty year old franchise? Let’s find out.
There aren’t a plethora of games modes in Space Invaders Extreme, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because there’s also no fluff whatsoever. You have an Arcade mode, which is the standard mode of advancement and unlocking, as well as a stage select mode for practise and improving personal scores. There’s a ranking mode, which allows you to play through and get the best score for uploading to a global leaderboard, which is great in theory but defeated by the fact that a few chaps in Japan seem to have found a way to max out the score, likely from cheating. There’s a multiplayer mode that allows you to either play a Vs. game locally (only one cart is necessary; a huge boost), over the internet via Wi-Fi, or you can practise against a weak computer opponent. Beating a stage unlocks the stage mode, and beating arcade mode unlocks Extreme mode.
Within Arcade mode, there are multiple stages, with five per playthrough. After stage 2, if your score is high enough in a stage, you can choose your path (If your score isn’t good enough, you get defaulted to the easy path), and from that stage you get one or two more choices, until stage 5. Anyone that’s familiar with the old Taito shooter Darius will understand what I’m talking about. Arcade mode also gives the option of being able to retry a stage, whereas ranking mode doesn’t allow continues. Your whole goal is to get the best score with three lives that you can from start to finish.
As stated, there aren’t a lot of modes, but the ones that are here are all very deep and engrossing for hours.
GAME MODES: GOOD
The first question anyone should be asking is, “How the hell do you make Space Invaders look good?”. There’s one of two ways to go about making the game look good: you can either go the Space Invaders ’95 route and make it completely goofy, or you can take the seminal sprites that made the game famous, and add flare to it. Taito went for the latter, and the results are very nice. As you play the game, there’s a swirling, psychedelic background under the invaders, which is aesthetically pleasing, but could get in the way of people trying to play the game. Thankfully, you have the option of turning this on or off. Everything else in the game is clean and crisp, and doesn’t get in the way.
GRAPHICS: ABOVE AVERAGE
The sound in Space Invaders Extreme is absolutely sublime. By itself, the soundtrack is a sharp techno soundtrack that blends together into the background well while you blow your enemies up. However, two things contribute to turn this from a good sounding game into a capital-E Experience: 1) hitting your enemies contributes to the sound (like when you hit a shield and hear a drum cymbal, or even just shooting, which sounds different in every stage), and 2) the sound mixes in with the visuals described above, creating an immersing experience that had me involuntarily bobbing my head in most stages. I’d say the experience is very similar to the seminal Dreamcast/XBox Live game Rez, in how the sound and the graphics draw the player in to create something greater than the sum of it’s parts.
In terms of audible bliss, this is probably the best handheld game I’ve played, and that includes both Lumines games.
First, the bad: there’s not much in terms of how the game controls that hasn’t been done before by other Space Invaders games. But for a remake, they took all of those things, made them better, and made subtle improvements to the core gameplay that has an old experience feeling refreshed.
The core Space Invaders gameplay that we’ve all known since we were too young to see the screen without a milk crate is intact: little buggers – so well known and symbolic that they’ve developed their own little cults of personality at this point – meander down to the level of your spaceship, and they’re bad, so blow them up; if they reach the bottom, you lose a life. They, as well as UFO ships going along the top of the screen, will also try to shoot your ship. If they kept it to just that, this would still be a decent remake. But the way they spiced it up for 2008 is simply amazing.
First off, the invaders have different colours now. Shooting them individually is OK, and will increase your chain (therefore increasing your score and your score multiplier), but the majority of the game comes from shooting them in groups of four. Shooting four of the same colour in a row (save white, which has no benefit) brings down a power-up, and each power up has it’s strengths and weaknesses. The weapons have time limits, but you can use the L or R buttons to go back to the regular shot at times you don’t need the super weapons, or in cases where the weapons are more harmful than helpful, like when you fire a laser into a reflector alien.
Speaking of, the aliens aren’t just target practise anymore. They have regular sized aliens, small ones, tiny ones, large ones, aliens that fire reflective lasers, aliens that fire your shots back at you, aliens that dive bomb you once they’re hit, aliens that randomly change colours, aliens that explode… they took every way to improve the aliens themselves to make them more challenging, and ran with it, creating a truly diverse gameplay experience that I personally didn’t expect going in.
The old flying UFOs along the top of the screen are still around, only now, they serve more of a purpose. In terms of attacking, they have their own roles; for example, white ones shoot at you, green ones drop more enemies onto the screen, and the blue ones shoot a charged laser at you, usually at VERY inopportune times, those bloody wanks. However, there are also good ones; yellow ones start up a roulette wheel where you shoot an alien that’s spinning around, and the prizes go from nothing to an extra life to a point bonus. There are also the flashing UFOs. Going back to our little bout of ethnic alien cleansing, if you shoot two groups of four aliens of different colours (for example, four green, then four blue), will have a flashing UFO cross the top of the screen. Shoot it, and you go to a bonus stage away from the main game, where you’re given goals of shooting X amount of Y in Z amount of time, and getting shot yourself gives you a time penalty. Lose, and you just go back to where you came from. Win, and you go into Fever Mode, where you go to the next board in the stage with a super powered-up weapon for a limited time, time that you can extend by clearing boards and shooting down white UFOs (jackpots); shoot down seven of those, and a super UFO crosses the top. Hit that, and your score can reach pinball-levels, considering the bonus that comes after Fever Mode ends. You can also build up your score with score multipliers, and once you maximize this (5X), you enter Break mode, where your score multiplier hits 10X before wearing out and sending you back to 1X. Finally, you earn points by shooting a bunch of aliens of the same colour, or shooting out columns at one time, or rows, or taking out large formations at one time, or shooting out a board with perfect accuracy, and these are reflected in little lights that illuminate in the background of the bottom screen, as well as all the other lava-lamp crap going on in the background.
Furthermore, every part of every stage has it’s own formation; it’s no longer enough just to be able to clear the sides of the screen, as the enemies move in their own ways, and after one formation is knocked out, the other one comes up right away, bang, bang, bang, you don’t stop moving and shooting. The old, time-honoured version of Space Invaders with enemies going back and forth in time is virtually gone; in terms of how fast new items get thrown at you, this has become the Wario Ware of classic games.
The quick and dirty of how you’re going to play Space Invaders Extreme is thus: you have to combine excellent twitch skills with proper strategy in order to get the best scores, and get all the stages without having to resort to retries (which start you at the beginning of the stage). I haven’t even gotten to the bosses yet.
At the end of every stage, you fight a boss, who usually has a weakness that you have to exploit by shooting little white pixels off it’s body so that you can blow away it’s creamy red pixel centre while avoiding various bullets and other assorted arsenals. Boss fights are engaging, but can sometimes get frustrating as the white pixels will regenerate themselves either over time or through other means, and having to shoot through the bullets can get frustrating especially when there are too many of them on the screen. Still, as frustrating as the more challenging boss fights can be, they don’t degenerate into “cheap” territory; they’re legitimate challenges, and it feels REALLY good to beat them.
If there’s one weakness to the gameplay, it’s the top of the screen. This is where your score is, but there are also a lot of graphs and other anomalies that are either virtually useless – an alien gauge when there’s one on the side of the bottom screen – or absolutely, completely useless (I still don’t know what the four number gauge is there for; what the hell is “drum” and “chrd” for? What are those numbers? Why am I looking at these num– oh crap, dead again). However, these are ignorable once you start getting seriously into the game; before that point, they are mostly frivolous distractions.
There is a versus and an online mode available, and they are incredibly engaging. Versus mode involves outlasting your opponent, while he attacks you and vice versa. You can attack by shooting aliens to build up a queue, and then shooting UFOs to send those aliens over to their screen; depending on the colour of the UFO, the aliens can take different forms. Just like the main game, shooting them in groups is preferable. In execution, it’s almost like playing a versus game of Tetris only with shooting elements, where you can either attack in little bits and pieces (double lines), or build up for one big, orgasmic attack that knocks your opponent silly. Best of all, you can see clearly, with a glance upwards, just how your opponent is doing. Therefore, a skilled player can wait until his opponent is on the ropes before sending in the cavalry for the rout. Furthermore, for local play, you only need one cartridge, a huge bonus. If there’s one problem with online mode, it’s that finding an opponent can be hard; every time I played, I either spent 10 minutes searching for opponents that weren’t showing up, or getting the same opponent multiple times. As I’m not very good at online mode yet, it got boring getting my ass kicked from here to Newfoundland by the same guy. Also, I think this game could have supported four-player versus play, but taking everything this game has and bitching about something so minuscule is the equivalent of having my cake, eating it, and wearing the frosting as a very inventive and yet very disturbing string bikini.
Finally, this game does support the importable paddle controller that came with Arkanoid DS in Japan. As I have not imported the controller – hell, I haven’t even seen the bloody thing – I was unable to play with it, and that is not reflected in any way in this score. However, I’ve heard it makes the game easier to play to the point where online scores that are achieved with the paddle have a “P” marker next to them to denote them. Take that for what it’s worth.
In short, there simply is not a better way to remake a classic, gameplay wise. After multiple failures over the years, the team at Taito should be commended for this.
This game is almost endlessly replayable. Just trying to beat stage five – at any level – is hard enough, but getting all the stages is a time-taking endeavour. Then there’s the challenge of getting the best high score possible (without cheating like those pesky Japanese I see at the top of the scoreboards), and a fun versus mode.
And then you beat Arcade Mode, and there’s an Extra Mode waiting for you? And it’s even harder than regular Arcade Mode? And this game is twenty dollars? Serious?
This game has a nearly impeccable balance where the first couple stages are very easy, and judging by your own skill and preferences, you can either stay on easy street, go for the gold of the hardest stages, or go in between. Either way, the learning and difficulty curves are almost perfect; I say “almost” because even stage 5-A is going to kick the ass of most gamers – it gave me big problems, and I’m not THAT old yet – and the last boss is incredibly hard; it seems a major step up in difficulty no matter what, and I haven’t even seen the hardest stage 5 yet.
That’s likely nit-picking, however; Space Invaders by nature is a game that gets better with repetition and practise, and this is no exception.
BALANCE: VERY GOOD
Ah, the curse of the remake. Considering the major reason for releasing this game when they did was that it’s the thirty year anniversary of Space Invaders should tell you most of what you need to know about how “original” this game is; it’s freaking Space Invaders, for Joe Pesci’s sake! Furthermore, a lot of the things they put into this version of the game have been done before. Power-ups to your ship? Check. Enemies changing their flight patterns and flying erratically? Check. Boss fights? Check. Bonus stages? Check. Everything I just mentioned was available in Space Invaders ’95: Attack of Lunar Loonies, the only Space Invaders remake before this one that didn’t suck like a Kirby vacuum. While there are a few new items this time around, this game is less about originality than it is about refining prior set pieces.
Is this a trick question? Just playing this game today, my DS ran out of juice (which leads me to believe that it’s starting to show it’s age, I just charged it a couple days prior), and I SERIOUSLY considered running across the street from the laundromat I was at to go to Gamestop – a bad store with a vicious harpy manning the counter – and purchase a DS charger to plug into the wall socket of the laundromat, which likely has wiring dating back to the Polk administration. That’s how addicted I am to this game, especially considering the fact that I already own a DS charger at home. I could be mainlining crystal meth and it wouldn’t be as addictive as this game.
A game as far-reaching as Space Invaders definitely has mass appeal to the casual fanbase, just because of the name involved. It might not draw the twitchy-fingered kiddies who are too busy acting like retards during Halo sessions, but it’s definitely enough to bring in anyone over the age of 20. Furthermore, the price point – only $20! – is enough to bring in anyone on the fence. A $20 game by itself is a good thing. One that is as good as this one is something that will appeal to anyone that does a modicum of research.
APPEAL FACTOR: GREAT
Seriously, people. Let me stress this: all the great things I’ve said about this game, and it’s ONLY $20!. On top of that, Lucard feels the same way about Arkanoid DS. That could actually bite Squeenix in the ass, come to think of it. Think about it: plus tax, let’s say you have $40 that you can spend on video games, and you want a DS game to entertain you while your spouse forces you to visit the in-laws; you need something entertaining to offset all the “why haven’t you gotten promoted” questions and the “I really think she should have married the lawyer with the great ass!” comments. Now, in one corner, you have two easily accessible games that you can play on the go, stop at any time and get right back into, and they ask nothing of you except some fast fingers. On the other hand, you have ONE game that requires a correspondence course to learn everything, relies on a story that sounds like it was written by a 14 year old that’s listened to too much Morrissey, and demands 15-25 hours to get the most out of it.
Let me review this: TWO easy to access and fun games for $40, or ONE questionable title – as just about all of Squeenix’s $40 releases have been, there hasn’t been a home run yet – for that same $40.
I have to tell you, Square-Enix… you’ve raised the bar on yourselves. I hope you can live up to what you’ve done here. But until then, I’m going to enjoy myself in sheer, old-meets-new school bliss, and congratulate you guys on a job well done.
Game Modes: Good
Control and Gameplay: Classic
Balance: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Great
FINAL SCORE: GREAT GAME
Short Attention Span Summary
Anyone that makes games for the DS should hang their heads in shame right now, because my current favourite for DS Game of the Year is a $20 budget title that is running off of a thirty year old premise. If this is how Square-Enix is going to do things from now on, then maybe, just maybe, the company we used to love for games like Tobal No.2, Einhander and Bushido Blade will come back to life. I look forward to seeing where Squeenix goes from here.
I wholeheartedly recommend Space Invaders Extreme to any gamer of any age and any affiliation. This game is simply that damned good.