I tell myself that I pretty much hate Achievements. Sure, a few games have used them beautifully - to guide the eye of the player, to offer a gentle shove towards hidden fun - but so many more seem to delight in getting it all wrong.
They either dole points out for ludicrously simple tasks, leaving you faintly patronised, or they use them to tempt you, vindictively, into empty displays of mindless repetition: treasure hunts that never end, or kill-counts only obsessive-compulsives will ever notch up. You want me to shoot 100,000 enemies in the nuts? You shoot 100,000 enemies in the nuts. Hey, and start with yourself, eh?
Pa-plink! I hate the way they pop out just in time to break the spell of those rare dramatic moments (You've found out you were adopted! 50 points!). I hate the way they turn up to distract you or obscure your view of the radar at crucial points in a battle. Most of all, I hate the way they seem to want to change the way you move through games, turning everything into a grind, into an inventory list, turning play into a particularly energy-intensive form of shopping.
That said, when you find one that genuinely means something to you, all those potential irritations fade away. For me, it's Black Belt Grandmaster in Mutant Storm Reloaded: complete all 89 levels in Adventure Mode on Black Belt starting from Level 1. 35 points.
And, ironically, it's one of the worst: a slog through a campaign that's already difficult enough without an additional layering of meta challenges. But Grandmaster got to me because I felt I owed it to the game: I owed it to the craft and care and sheer gooey imagination on display in every one of those brutal arenas, I owed it to the memory of all that fun a meagre 800 Microsoft Points bought me, and I owed it to a title that, frankly, was too delightfully, wilfully weird to ever make it as a megahit. I couldn't do much else for Mutant Storm, then, but I could do this.
Actually, I couldn't.
Or, at least, I haven't been able to do it yet. Mutant Storm is hard. It's really hard, in fact. Luckily it's also thrilling, constantly surprising, and possessed of a wonky beauty that makes it unforgettable. How can you best describe those Day-Glo caverns and slippery, slobbering monsters you'll find inside them? It's a bit like finding yourself in the midst of a parasite disco staged within the womb of a jelly baby. Lovely!
And, yes, as a twin-stick shooter, it's kind of like Geometry Wars, which means, inevitably, that it's kind of like Robotron 2084. In fact, Robotron (when I finally hit two million on it, I'll be able to call it 'Roby', as if it was an old friend) is the clear template for almost all of Mutant Storm's structure.
Like PomPom's title, the arcade classic breaks its action into rooms, and throws enemies at you in fiercely calibrated waves - albeit waves that have been fiercely calibrated by the game design equivalent of a drug-crazed SS commandant.
Robotron also has enemies you can't shoot sprinkled in among those you really have to, and Robotron has that kind of energising claustrophobia that comes when you can fit the entire arena onto a single screen (with very few exceptions, all of Mutant Storm's battlefields are similarly snug).
But Mutant Storm is also Asteroids at times, as those devastatingly irritating tinfoil meteorites you encounter early on in proceedings bust into smaller pieces and start to fling themselves dangerously around the map. It's Defender too - and a million other copycats - with its precious stock of smart bombs. Frankly, there's even a little bit of Contra or Mercs in some of the split-shot power-ups you encounter as you blast through.
And yet, throughout all those quick changes, it never stops being Mutant Storm either.
Mutant Storm started out in life as a downloadable PC game - a weird and rather niche delight from PopPom, the two-man team who left the safety of the studio system to commit themselves to making weird and rather niche delights full-time sometime around 2000. After creating Space Tripper, a blistering neon deconstruction of Defender, PomPom turned its attention to Eugene Jarvis's robotic follow-up.
Mutant Storm was sufficiently eye-catching to make it onto Xbox Live Arcade - the original one, on the original Xbox. At that point, with the 360 powering through its own development cycle - Microsoft was probably just starting to work out how to make the disk drive really noisy, and ensure that the CPU got incredibly hot and broke all the time - an upgraded port for launch day was inevitable.
Inevitably awesome, that is. Along with the 360's pad ensuring everyone who played the game had a relatively reliable control device for twin-stick shooters in their hands - I'm aware that some people prefer the keyboard setup, but I've never been able to truly click with it - Reloaded brought with it warping, wafting visual flourishes and PomPom's first go at a proper score. It sounds a bit like the music from Mass Effect played through a sponge.
But at the core of the Mutant Storm experience there are things that have little to do with high-definition displays and improved particle effects. The heart of the game is still the scoring system, which sees you earning increasingly powerful multipliers if you can survive long enough, and its big sister, the Belts.
Belts are the way you chart your progress through the dark art of Blastikkidoo - I'm shocked to see that Blastikkidoo doesn't have its own Wikipedia page, incidentally, especially since stuff like Scientology gets one. Ranging from White all the way up to Black, each belt you unlock tightens the screws a little, making the enemies more aggressive and responsive, and generally cutting your life expectancy in half.
Survive 10 or 20 levels on Black Belt settings and you can feel pretty happy about things, 30 to 40 is the equivalent of winning a Nobel Prize - one of the good ones, too, like Chemistry - and getting all the way through to the end lands you with a personal telegram from President Bartlett, delivered to your door in the beak of a dove.
Complicating things is the fact that Mutant Storm make your failures count, too: each death will knock you back a multiplier level, while tugging your next belt progression a little further out of reach. Meanwhile, friendlier inclusions like time bonuses balance things out, encouraging you to think of individual rooms as puzzles, and asking you to 'solve' each one as quickly as possible to maximise your points.
Those are the compulsions that keep you playing, but it's that brilliantly disquieting enemy design that gives you something astonishing to look at while you do. There's something magically horrible at work in PomPom's character art: I love to watch those disgusting beasties swarming about on the television screen, but if I ever suspected that any of them actually existed, even in some diminished form, somewhere in the real world, I'd probably put my own head in an oven.
What a gaggle of freaks, eh? Kicking off with those mutating grunts who waddle after you almost pathetically, ramping up with the nasty fish that swim in quick little circles, through turrets and exploding egg sacks filled with wriggling electrical pond spawn, all the way to - yep - the Sperm Flower, a diabolical collision between some really old, wet, root vegetables and IVF, PomPom never misses a beat.
No matter how clean your house is when you sit down to play Mutant Storm, you're likely to feel an undeniable bacterial horror as the game's pocket monsters wriggle towards you in unbeatable numbers. After each round, I like to douse myself in Cillit Bang, and I swallow an entire Glade plug-in whole.
Reloaded also provided a solid basis for PomPom to build upon with Empire, the subsequent XBLA - and now PC - sequel. Lavishly designed, and filled with gorgeous touches, ranging from the little things like the door animations, through to a big floppy end boss who appears to have been dressed by Cher, and blessed with an entirely new combo system, Empire is a worthy addition to the series in every way. It's probably the closest PomPom has ever gotten to making a big-budget title, as well.
But it may have diluted the purer thrills of Reloaded ever so slightly. Linking its rooms together to create longer levels allowed the art design to go berserk, indulging in everything from deadly laser-grid squash courts to noxious blood red bubble baths, while lobbing bioluminescent sea urchins, exploding cheese footballs, and centipedes with metallic Mickey Mouse ears at you. But the caged intensity of the original was inevitably diminished.
How couldn't it be? Mutant Storm proves, above all else, that sometimes you need boundaries and restrictions. You need brutal, crushing difficulty as the walls seem to close in and the enemies respawn yet again. PomPom's greatest title proves that, sometimes, you need fewer choices, not more, and that survival can be a reward in itself when you have nothing else to look forward to but an extra life and an extra smart bomb if you make to the end of the next round of levels.
So it's a game where creativity and constrictions are in perfect balance, in other words: a shining example of what Dorothy Parker referred to as "the disciplined eye and the wild mind".
She couldn't unlock Black Belt Grandmaster either, incidentally.
Check back tomorrow for an in-depth interview with developer PomPom.