There aren’t many developers and publishers around today that were in business when the video games industry as we know it started back in the 80s. Companies like Activision and Electronic Arts are still going but many either didn’t learn to adapt and change with the times or were swallowed up by larger companies. As for the smaller publishers and developers, most of those went by the wayside many moons ago. Not Llamasoft though. Legendary programmer Jeff Minter has been writing games since the early 80s on almost every home computer format imaginable and has been responsible for an incredible range of classic, yet somewhat surreal arcade shooters and some of the best games to grace home formats. Sheep, goats, camels and other hairy animals may have been the staple content for many, but you were always guaranteed a good game.
Now, well over 30 years after Jeff Minter’s first game Llamasoft have moved away from a foray into iOS territory with their first game for the PS Vita, a spritual successor to their Atari Jaguar hit Tempest 2000, but could the magic still be there…?
I say spiritual successor to Tempest 2000 but I have to stress that TxK isn’t Tempest. It has no connection to Tempest, bears no resemblance to Tempest, isn’t a sequel to Tempest, isn’t a follow-up to Tempest, Tempest 2000, or a variation on Tempest or anything like that. The fact that it’s a tunnel shooter that just happens to look like Tempest (as many games have before it) and has been developed by Jeff Minter and Ivan Zorzin who wrote the definitive game in the Tempest series officially for Atari with Tempest 2000 is irrelevant but you didn’t read that or were able to make the obvious connections for yourselves.
Okay, now that we have a clear understanding on what TxK is or isn’t, this game reminds me of why I love games so much and why I hold on to my gaming roots so firmly as someone who grew up playing games in the 80s. While many people talk about how great games are today looking at titles like The Last Of Us, God Of War, Grand Theft Auto, Final Fantasy and so on, the old arcade classics are truly timeless. There’s no denying that the old classics have genuinely everlasting appeal. The true testimony to that are the seemingly never-ending number of clones, remakes and new “interpretations” of these old classics that still continue to be made decades after the release of the originals. Despite being released back in 1976, Breakout still has clones being released today, albeit ones based more on Taito’s updated version Arkanoid from 1986. Namco themselves have revisited Pac Man several times in the home and arcades, and Atari did the same with Tempest (didn’t I say I wasn’t going to mention that one?).
For those of us with the PS Vita (and lucky enough to own a PS4), we’ve seen more than a few remakes as well. Super Stardust Delta is essentially an update of Asteroids. For those of you old enough to remember the Amiga original, that one is truer to the arcade original version of Asteroids, whereas the PS3 and Vita versions simply added the 3D planetary model and adaped the game into a twin stick shooter instead. As for the PS4, Resogun is little more than Defender with a makeover. That doesn’t mean that they’re not fantastic games, but it only serves to show that the 80s gameplay has stood the test of time remarkably well.
So that brings me onto TxK… if you’ve never played a tunnel shooter like this before, the gameplay itself is incredibly simple. In TxK you control a claw-like ship that rests at the top of a tunnel, each level taking the form of a different geometric shape. at the bottom of this tunnel different creatures are heading towards you up the tunnel aiming to make their way to the top. All you have to do (as if it’s really going to be that simple!) is to destroy all of them before they reach the top and then progress to the next level. Okay, it’s not quite that easy… there are a range of creatures in the tunnels, increasing in numbers and speed as you progress through the levels and while things start off at a relatively relaxed pace, it’s not long before they start to shoot back at you, and if they do reach the top of the tunnel then you’re really in trouble as they start to follow you around the rim pursuing you to your certain death…
It’s not all doom and gloom though. You start off with some limitations to your ship. As with most old-school shooters, you can only fire so many shots at a time but plenty of power-ups appear throughout the game and collecting these can upgrade your weapons, increase your rate of fire, extra lives, give you bonus points (and after all, that’s what TxK is all about) and then there’s my personal favourite, the AI Droid. This provides you with a drone that follows you around at the top of the tunner shooting creatures down the tunnel and trying its damnest to protect you from anything that might reach the top. Not enough for you? If you still need help after that there are two more you can make use of…
The Jump power up does exactly what it says on the tin – once this is enabled you can literally jump off the top of the tunnel for a few brief seconds allowing you to shoot down onto the top of the rim, reaching targets you normally would have been able to reach. If you haven’t managed to get that, you can make use of the smart bomb at your disposal to destroy everything on screen. You only get one of these to use per level so you need to use them wisely but they’re replenished at the start of each level.
Playing TxK is an absolute dream. It’s a joy to control and whether you use the analogue stick or d-pad, moving your ship is simplicity in itself. All you have to do is move left and right to move along the tunnel, X to shoot, circle or the touch screen for the smart bombs, the right shoulder button to jump and the left shoulder button (in conunction with the direction buttons) to “lean” into the lanes to shoot targets that have reached the top of the tunnel if you don’t have powerups to help. It doesn’t always get them depending on your rate of fire, but it’s a technique that might just save your neck a few times if you can master it!
The only other controls you need to worry about are for the bonus stages between levels. This takes the form of a series of rings that appear on screen and you have you steer a spark through these. The closer the spark is to the centre of the rings the more points you score. This can be controlled using the left analogue stick or the Vita’s motion sensors and works well either way although using the tilt functions of the Vita is incredibly responsive and feels so natural that you’ll find yourself prefering this to any other method of play. Every so many levels, this bonus game switches to another similar game where you’re faced with travelling through a series of green rings hurtling towards you. This time you have to navigate your way through them… and it’s tougher than it sounds. It’s not essential that you complete these bonus rounds, but they make a great diversion from the action.
The difficulty curve is set perfectly and while the earlier levels ease you into the game gradually it picks up but not to the point where you feel frustrated at any point. It’s incredible quick and easy to pick up and within a matter of moments you’ll know everything that you need to know to play TxK… mastering the game is a completely different thing altogether though but that’s the real beauty of it. It’s a game that you’ll be able to enjoy and get the same amount of fun out of it whether you’re a hardened gamer and trophy hunter wanting to completely demolish the game or a casual arcade game lover just wanting a new shoot-em-up to enjoy and be able to spend time enjoying and having fun playing. It harks back to the days when games were designed to be played and where fun was the primary reason for playing them.
TxK is pure arcade action at its finest and there is nothing in this game that isn’t there for a reason. The action doesn’t let up for a moment but there’s never an instant where you feel that the game has punished you unfairly when you’ve lost a life or you’ve come to the end of a game – you know that your progression and performance in the game is completely within your control at all times and when you manage to set a new high score, or get that little bit further than you have before, there’s no doubt in your mind that it’s because you’re getting better as a player.
There are three main game modes on offer in TxK. Pure Mode is a straight-up mode where you play through the game from start to finish (hopefully!). Classic Mode follows the same format but allows you to choose the level you start at. One thing that is unique here is that TxK stores your progress as you play and remembers your best performance on every level in the game in Pure Mode. What this means is that you can start any level in Classic Mode with the number of lives and starting score from your personal best allowing you to continue towards achieving a personal best score. The final mode is Survival and it’s a non-stop ride through the game’s levels… without the added benefit of extra lives, meaning that you’re forced to make every shot and every powerup count.
One thing I really loved about the game is the way it treats the players. When you lose a life colliding with any of the creatures in the game, you still have a chance to save yourself from dying if you have any smart bombs at your disposal. The screen pauses for a moment and if you tap the circle button or touch screen to unleash the smart bomb, it will destroy everything on screen and effectively stop your imminent destruction. It doesn’t stop there though. Unlike other shoot-em-ups, you don’t lose any of your powerups when you lose a life, and there’s none of this nonsense of being sent back to checkpoints or back to the beginning of the current level – you just carry on from where you are… so if you’re destroyed with just one last enemy to destroy to complete a level then that’s all you’ve got left to defeat when you start your next life. It may only seem like a minor point, but there’s nothing more frustrating than being close to the end of a level and then being sent back to the start just because you make a tiny error of judgement while playing.
But there’s even more to it than that. To balance the gameplay further, all of your powerups are reset at the start of each level – the only things you carry forward from one level to the next are your score and remaining lives. While this may seem unfair at first, it really adds an extra dimension to the game and means that you really have to learn to play the game properly to beat each level rather than depending on powerups to do all the hard work for you. With levels getting increasingly difficult, it makes each win all the more satisfying as a result.
So that’s the game itself but what does it look and sound like? In typical Llamasoft fashion TxK is a treat. It’s a psychedelic explosion on the brain that will tease and tantalise both your eyes and ears in ways you could never imagine. The visuals are awash with colour, neon effects, explosions and particles weaving in and out of every nook and crevice that the Vita’s screen can provide. There never appears to be any pixel on the screen unused, but you are drawn deeper and deeper into the game’s abstract world as you play. Running at a fabulous 60fps with no slowdown at any point, you’re left speechless at just how much is going on.
Sound is just as hypnotic with a stunning techo / electronic soundtrack throughout. No matter what your musical tastes are, the vast 18 pieces of music fit the game perfectly and drive the game’s pace along even more than the gameplay does on its own. That would be enough in itself if it wasn’t enhanced further with ample 80s inspired arcade sound effects, speech… and a few farmyard animal effects thrown in for good measure (well it is a Llamasoft game!). What really astonished me with the music is that all of the composers donated their music to the game free of charge out of a love of Llamasoft games. As a thankyou, the complete soundtrack has been released for purchase with the proceeds going to the composers and it’s very much a worthy purchase.
TxK is more than just a game – it’s a unique gaming experience. The Vita’s OLED screen is really put to fantastic use and shows just why it makes a difference for serious gaming, but playing it normally still doesn’t do it justice. Turn off the lights, plug in your favourite pair of headphones, crank up the volume and you’re in for a completely new game altogether. It’s a breathtaking journey and gives you an incredible adrenaline rush as you play and it’s the best way to experience what programmers Jeff Minter and Ivan Zorzin have so lovingly created. It takes what is already an astonishly playable and addictive game to the next level and gives you a game like nothing you have played before.
There’s no doubt in my mind that this is one of, if not the best game to grace the PlayStation Vita so far and whether you’re looking for an arcade game to play for lengthy gaming sessions or something to pick up and play for quick five minute blasts between anything else, you won’t find a more finely-tuned, polished and more compelling shoot-em-up on any format. Quite simply, in TxK Jeff Minter has accomplished the impossible and created the perfect arcade shooter and there’s no better compliment I can give than that and this is a game that must be a part of every Vita owner’s collection.
At A Glance
- Title: TxK
- Publisher: Llamasoft
- System: PS Vita
- Format: PSN Download
- Cross Buy: N / A
- Cross Play: N / A
- Online Multiplayer: No
- PlayStation TV Compatible: Yes
- Memory Card Space Needed: 106Mb