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Old 07-18-2010, 12:30 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Spectrum Analyzer: Future's Past

From the Atari 2600 to the NES to the Sega Genesis, you thought you've experienced everything there is to know about retro. Don't get too cocky though, Americans! There's a whole other chapter of classic gaming you've likely missed. Pack your bags... 1UP is taking an extended trip to England to discover:

We're nearly finished with our Spectrum analysis here at 1UP' there are just two weeks left before the series wraps up with a feature detailing the history of Britain's favorite home computer, including interviews with both fans and leading developers. However, we're not done just yet! This week we're going off the beaten path and reviewing a pair of Xbox Live Indie Games that were either directly inspired by the ZX Spectrum, or would have been right at home on the machine.

First up to bat is Crosstown, an overhead view shooter with similarities to' heh, take your pick! There's a little bit of nearly every classic arcade game you can imagine hidden in this release, from Wizard of Wor to Robotron: 2084. The developer even paid homage to the queen of psychological trauma, Portal, with Crosstown's villain, a nasty pink square named Piggy who does everything he can to get inside your head and wreck up the joint. Part of the fun of playing Crosstown is in reading his demeaning insults and rarely helpful advice!

The rest of the fun comes from wandering the cramped corridors of each stage, picking off tiny foes while collecting the local currency. The Qreds are your ticket out of the current stage, but collecting these pulsing rings tends to be rather difficult when the playfield is crawling with creatures, each with its own purpose for existing. Some meander aimlessly through the stage, others try to take the Qreds for themselves, and still others camp in the corners and pump lasers into anything foolish enough to walk past. When there are fifteen different enemies on the screen, the stage explodes into chaos and you'll have to think quickly to survive. Firing at anything that moves is stupidly reckless, as some creatures will send those lasers right back to you, and stray shots have a habit of drifting through the passages until they collide with something' typically you.

Crosstown was based on a game published in Compute!, a computer magazine that was popular in the 1980s*' yes, games were small enough back in the day that they could be squeezed into a few pages of text and typed in for the amusement of the reader. Although the original was actually designed for the Commodore 64, one of the ZX Spectrum's fiercest rivals, it's not hard to imagine Crosstown working on the Spectrum thanks to its small, mostly monochrome characters. The crude visuals are also why Crosstown wasn't as successful as it probably should have been, but don't let that stop you from trying one of the better, and certainly one of the most reasonably priced, titles on the Xbox Live Indie Games service.

While Crosstown looks like it could have been released on the Spectrum, Leave Home is quite deliberately inspired by the beloved British computer, with an introduction and stage transitions that bring to mind loading games from a cassette recorder. When you finish one area and enter the next, bright colors strobe in the background and harsh noises spill out of the speakers, giving you just a taste of what the average Spectrum owner had to endure while waiting for his copy of Underwulde to boot.

Beyond these tips of the hat to early British gaming culture, Leave Home is a thoroughly modern experience, borrowing much of its gameplay from horizontally scrolling shooters but with a visual style that will likely remind you of Rez. Every onscreen object is constructed from a handful of glowing, translucent polygons, giving the game a look best described as 'retrodelic.' The sharply rendered geometric shapes are simple yet breathtaking, and while vapor and particle effects are frequently used, they rarely obscure the action.

As a shooter, Leave Home is a bit of an oddity. Lives are unlimited, so you can't really lose the game, but if you're anything like me, you can really suck at it. Like Compile's excellent Zanac series, it's designed with a dynamic difficulty level, but unlike Zanac, this actually means something' the game is built around your performance and each level will drastically change depending on your skill level. If you crash your ship, the number of onscreen enemies thin out and any nasty surprises the game had planned to spring on you remain hidden. If you crash a lot, the challenge is significantly toned down, with wider gaps between obstacles and fewer of them to block your path.

Leave Home only increases in difficulty if the game thinks you can handle it. The challenge doesn't come so much from just blasting enemies and picking up the tiny blue dots they leave in their wake, but rather in holding your feet to the fire and keeping them there as they burn to a crisp. Playing flawlessly grants you access to all the game has to offer, but refusing to die only makes it more determined to humiliate you. Although Leave Home may seem short (you'll only need a few minutes to 'finish' it), it will take hours of dedicated play to get the full experience.

Next week is Last Call, a special installment of Spectrum Analyzer with capsule reviews of games requested by our readers. If you've got a personal favorite that we haven't already covered in the last two months, now's the time to speak up!

Images courtesy of Xbox Live Marketplace.

* Until OMNI mucked it up with that horrid redesign and took out all the fun stuff. What were you people THINKING?! Twenty years later, I'm still holding a grudge. I'm currently keeping old issues of OMNI in the bathroom closet as emergency toilet paper. God, I hope I'm almost out of Charmin.
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