Reinventing an arcade classic presents unique challenges that few developers can rise to. Finding a balance between the spirit of the original and the lessons of modern game design is a tricky task that often results in disappointment. But TxK is a masterful example of doing it right. Though it is technically only a sequel to Atari’s Tempest in spirit, this Vita shooter sports the same vector-style visuals, the same tube-based gameplay, and even the same yellow player ship as the 1981 original, all refined into a stunning modern interpretation.
The extent to which TxK is Tempest on steroids cannot be understated, because its mastermind, Jeff Minter, was responsible for Tempest 2000 on the Atari Jaguar. TxK takes everything great from T2K and amplifies it, delivering an adrenaline-heavy arcade experience that stays remarkably close to its classic roots.
If you’ve somehow avoided Tempest over the last few decades, its basics are simple: Your ship sits at the top of a plane (traditionally cone-like, though TxK also features flattened, curved, and jagged shapes), with enemies coming up to get you from below. You want to destroy them before they reach you, because they attempt to grab you and pull you down into the abyss from whence they came–unless they simply blow you up first.
At the start of every short level, you are limited to basic movement (left and right along the plane) and shooting, as well as a single smart bomb, dubbed the supertapper (like Tempest’s superzapper), which blows up all enemies onscreen. Holding the L button locks you in place and allows you to “lean” into the lane to your right or left, which can be useful for destroying enemies while simultaneously dodging projectiles. By collecting power-ups that come toward you along with the enemies, you can upgrade your weapon speed, earn an AI drone to fight alongside you, and, perhaps most importantly, gain the ability to jump, allowing you to dodge many would-be fatal enemy encounters. But when the level ends, all those upgrades are gone, and you start from scratch again, with a single smart bomb and little else.
When the action ramps up, all of this can become hard to follow. The visuals are beautiful, but busy, mimicking the simple vector graphics of the original Tempest while throwing a lot more psychedelic effects, colors, and general noise onto the screen at once. This includes seemingly unrelated bits of text on occasion, so using a smart bomb might mean the phrase “Eat your vegetables” is thrown in your face for a split second. Why? Who knows. While the quirkiness has some charm, it can be one of TxK’s faults. In later levels especially, there is so much happening at once that the visuals are overwhelming to the point of being disorienting, and it can be frustrating when the screen is so cluttered that you fail to see what kills you when you lose a life. In an effort to ramp up the difficulty, some levels not only twist and fold into each other, but also start twisting and turning as you’re trying to play. With so much happening onscreen, it becomes very easy to lose track of where you are and what direction you’re moving in.
That said, TxK’s difficulty curve is sufficiently gradual, allowing you to improve your skills without even realizing it. You forget just how much easier the first 10 levels are compared to the final 10 until you go back and play them. And you will want to go back sometimes. Unless you’re playing either Pure mode (seeing how far you can get starting at level one) or Survival mode (also starting at level one, but with extra lives and bonus levels disabled), you can freely select any level you’ve unlocked. But TxK takes replaying older levels one clever step further than most arcade games. You don’t save your progress, nor do you simply have the option of starting a new game from the highest level you’ve reached. Instead, anytime you select a level above level one, you begin with the highest score and highest number of lives that you’ve ever had upon reaching that level previously.
…an adrenaline-fueled arcade experience that stays remarkably close to its classic roots.
For example, say you reach level 40 for the first time, but you get there with only two lives to spare. The game lets you start back at level 40 with two lives anytime you want. However, if you go back earlier in the game and reach level 40 again, this time with a higher score and a total of six lives on hand, you can now always start the game from level 40 with six lives. It’s a smart system, and it provides incentive to replay earlier levels in the hopes of performing better.
The sound is as amazing a mix of old and new as the visuals and design. Catchy techno beats underscore different groups of levels with intriguing vocal sound samples sprinkled throughout, one of which sounds as if it were taken from a news story about old game consoles. Meanwhile, many of the effects you hear as you play sound like they were ripped straight out of other arcade and Atari classics (the jump sound, for instance, might be straight out of Pitfall).
Despite the occasional frustration of visual pollution, all the aspects of TxK come together to make it a wonderful merger of what made an arcade classic fun and what makes modern twitch-based games enthralling. It’s topped off with local and online leaderboards to encourage you to play long after you’ve finished all 100 levels, and the Classic Mode’s clever use of saving your best performance gives that high-score chase a unique twist. TxK is an example of the right way to reimagine and remaster a classic, and it’s easily one of the better digital games in the Vita’s library.