Let’s be honest, I suck at playing straight shoot-em-up games. So most of them bore me after a while. Or depress me. Probably that last one, really.
However there’s one coder who has almost consistently produced shooters that I enjoy, even though I suck at them. That coder is Jeff Minter, also known as ‘Yak’. So when I heard that he (with his partner in code, Giles) was making a game for the XBox 360, it inspired me to buy one. Really, I originally bought the 360 for two games I knew were coming out: Space Giraffe, and Grand Theft Auto IV.
What Yak produced was up to his usual standards: intense shooting action, trippy visuals and that indefinable ‘something’ that makes you want to play again, even if you’ve just been completely humiliated.
The game itself has its roots (I’m told – because I’ve never played it) in Tempest, and Tempest 2000 (which Yak also coded) and also in Light Synthesisers, which Yak was one of the pioneers of. Most of the effects are produced by his Neon Light Synth engine, which was originally (and may still be there) included in the 360 firmware as the music visualiser.
One criticism that’s been levelled at the 360 version of Space Giraffe is that it’s hard to see what’s going on. With the moving backgrounds, the effects placed in the foreground, and the various particles flying every which way. Immediate impressions back this up. However SG is more than about what you see with your eyes, and there are audio cues for what’s happening on screen. You can hear bullets being fired, tell if you’ve hit a flower, know when boffins have arrived and more. Part of learning the game is learning the audio cues to help you know what to look for. This is something that makes me love this game, making it even more immersive.
There’s also quite a bit of strategy involved. You can play it as a straight “twitch-shooter”, but you won’t get the high scores. One big part of this is allowing enemies to collect on the rim and then (under the right conditions) knocking or “bulling” them off to gain multipliers.
There’s a power zone. that extends along the web, and shooting enemies helps keep it extended. The right conditions for “bulling” is having the power zone extended. However, by shooting enemies, you have less on the rim to push off. There are various tricks you can use to balance the two, and you learn these as you go along.
Later some enemies become invulnerable, or are invulnerable unless they’re moving just the right way. This means you have to focus on them, but still keep track of everything else. This is a game that needs your full attention, and I think that’s partly what I love about it.
I should also mention the background music done by (I believe) Yak himself and a group called Redpoint. These pieces add to the atmosphere immensely. There’s also a “replica” of a “numbers station” that plays over the title screen and over the Bonus screen which gives a quite strange, unusual and intriguing air.
Space Giraffe, at its heart, is an old-school shooter done up with current-generation visuals, and with a few extra layers of tweaking laid over the top. If you can get into it, and learn it, it’s rewarding, frustrating, and great fun to play. From someone who really isn’t a shooter fan, that says a lot, I think.