Platform: PS Vita (£5.49)
"Yes, yes, yes, YES!"
TxK is a thing of exquisite beauty. Veteran retronaut Jeff Minter has built a career on perfecting the art of tightly-designed, nostalgic yet forward-thinking arcade shooters, culminating in this hypnotic fusion of eye candy and pitch-perfect twitch gameplay. It's the ultimate evolution of classic arcade game Tempest, trading cabinets and curious spinning knobs for the sleek thumbsticks and gorgeous OLED screen of the PlayStation Vita. If you've ever played any of the superb Tempest sequels or Llamasoft's psychedelic Space Giraffe on XBLA, you'll know broadly what to expect as you rotate around 100 vector tunnels, blasting waves of foes as they inexorably advance down the lanes towards your fragile ship.
After hours of play, however, it reminds me most heavily of a memorable Star Trek: TNG epsiode, wherein the entire crew end up addicted to an abstract vector videogame that titillates their senses and stimulates their pleasure centres. I sympathise, because once TxK starts pumping itself directly into your brain, you won't want to put your Vita down.
Not a sentence we get to say often enough, in all honesty.
If you're not au fait with the basic premise, try to imagine Space Invaders rolled up into a tube. Your ship is bound to a single plane, while enemies gradually make their way down the screen with the aim of getting to your baseline. Business as usual... except that the conventional flat space has been coiled into increasingly bizarre 3D geometries through which you'll peek like a hole in a toilet roll. Throw in lashings of sizzling neon and an unmistakably British sense of humour and you'll have something like the traditional Tempest format.
Retro simplicity is the name of the game. Left. Right. Shoot. Smart bomb. Once you've gotten your head around the initially-disorienting perspective, you'll quickly learn to cover all angles like a pro, map movement to muscle memory, all while collecting powerups to gradually beef up your ship's offensive capabilities. Upgrades are powerful if completely linear, with strengthened bullets followed by a supremely important jump skill that lets you leap backwards from the baseline for short periods, and eventually unlocking an adorable AI assistant who takes over a share of the blasting. Shoot the baddies, get the powerups, nail the high score. Simple.
But don't you dare mistake simplicity for a lack of depth. TxK is all about pushing limits of your skill and using your limited abilities to their fullest extent, while continuously adapting to new enemies and level geometries. After a few easy introductory levels, the lanes suddenly teem with territory-denying flowers, dangerously durable crystals and unpredictably-moving wildcards, all requiring different tactics and smart use of the specific level design to defeat. Since powerups reset in each new level, along with your singular smartbomb, you're encouraged to smoke 'em while you've got 'em; jumping off your baseline to desperately mop up stragglers and saving your smartbomb for the moment it's needed most... or using it to escape the clutches of an erstwhile captor. Unless your faithful AI companion manages to save you, that is.
Just surviving TxK demands skill, concentration, experience and reflex, let alone thriving and romping up the high score tables. Expect pure retro bliss without an ounce of fat on it, but plenty of muscle thanks to its century of stages and sprawling leaderboards.
I do miss Space Giraffe's Power Zone mechanic, which allowed enemies to be effortlessly smashed off your baseline, but TxK feels more even in terms of pacing and challenge. Bonus stages and tilt-sensitive transition scenes provide short yet welcome downtime between stages, and extra score for the bank. Better yet, you can play TxK however you want; idly dipping into it on the tube, replaying levels to increase the amount of lives you'll take into the next one (the much vaunted 'Restart Best Level' mechanic), setting yourself new highscore and 1UP thresholds, crushing the leaderboards or attempting to smash through all 100 stages in a single run. Good luck with that.
But what really brings TxK home is its irresistible presentation and irrepressible personality.
Unlike Space Giraffe, which split opinion with garish psychotropic backgrounds and what can only be described as gratuitous J Allard references (which we loved madly, for the record), TxK starkly sits its hot electric wireframes on deep black backgrounds, making for a less cluttered and distracting experience for newcomers. Mind you, it's still a gorgeous pulsing retina-searing dose of particles, lasers and outrageous visual feedback; doubly crisp and beautiful thanks to the Vita's lovely -- if soon to be discontinued -- OLED screen. A thumping electronic soundtrack seals the deal, pleasingly reminding us of old-school Prodigy, giving us a strong beat to gun to.
Everything you do, every shot on target or successful pickup, results in an explosion of satisfying colour and sound. The net result is that TxK becomes utterly mesmeric, a joy to play that can hoover up multiple consecutive hours, especially as left-field prompts (expect Basingstoke and curry references aplenty) and hilarious asides continually propel you forward and suck you in further. "Open your eyes and free your mind," it seductively urges. "Yes." "Yes." "YES." After a time, you won't know if it's TxK or your own subconscious telling you to press on.
Flaws? Erm. I suppose that the sheer amount of visual feedback can be distracting at times... and ultimately, should you spend £5 on effectively another Tempest remake?
Yes. Or to quote TxK itself, "YES YES YES YES."
- Hypnotic, skillful, perfectly-paced and compulsive arcade action
- Ravishing art design, excellent soundtrack and uniquely British personality
- Perfect fit for Vita, both in short bursts and marathons
- 100 levels and multiple modes, extraordinary value at £5.49
- Sensory overload...?
The Short Version: TxK is a marriage of hectic arcade fun, eyepopping style and impeccably-honed substance, proving that the arcade spirit is alive and well on PS Vita. You'll come for the visuals, stay for the action and fall in love with its irrepressible personality over many barmy hours.
Another superb effort from Llamasoft, and another essential game on what could eventually become the connoisseur's handheld of choice.