Standing in a darkened room oscillating wildly to the electronic noises of the the future. That pretty much sums up my entry into the world of video gaming before home computers and consoles provided that elusive fix right in your own home. You'd happily burn through a stack of loose change proving your worth on some impossibly evil example of twitch gaming, and emerge blinking into the daylight poorer, but happier. Who could forget the triumph of the high score? This phase was like the punk explosion, the manic pop thrill, the sugar high of instant entertainment.
Where we are now resembles the latter days of progressive rock era of the 1970s, when pop hooks were disregarded in favour of epic soundscapes, infuriating noodling and pretentiously named bands full of pompous self-worth. Some games these days have all the appeal of a ten-minute drum solo; technically it might be amazing, and you'll nod sagely with beardy approval, but deep down what you really want is a stomping two-minute-thirty slice of hook-laden perfection. With attitude. Verse chorus verse, middle eight, key change, heart-melting 'ba-ba-ba'-laden chorus to fade, thanks. Job done.
Gamers are no different. We want to pick up the pad and be entertained now, not in two, three hours time when we've played through the sprawling tutorial and learned 28 combos. Not all of us have got time for that. Life's too short. And that's another slightly long-winded way of us getting to the point of why Xbox Live Arcade is one of the best ideas Microsoft has ever come up with.
Crystal Quest sits snugly in the gradually expanding roster of cheap-ish retro offerings populating this intriguing new market segment, offering the kind of instant hooks that seem impossibly fresh given the utter simplicity of what's on offer here. The premise is almost embarrassingly basic - as are the visuals - but once again it grabs you by the proverbials and drags you into the kind of primal gaming that still seems faintly impossible in this often overcomplicated gaming age.
Stainless' update (of the 1987 Apple Mac 'classic') is barely any different to the original, which is to say you're tasked with guiding a ball around a series of fixed screen top-down levels, collecting all the crystals in the play field and hot-footing it out of the exit once you're done. Meanwhile, at opposing sides of the screen, enemies spawn (and re-spawn) out of their portals and begin their little dance of death around the screen, often in pursuit, sometimes firing, but mostly just getting in your way. In return, you can fire in any direction your wish, but you're armed with a pretty rubbish gun that's not the most helpful weapon in the time of a crisis. More useful are the limited stock of screen-clearing bombs that happily wipe out anything that's about to do you damage - except, that is, for the permanent spiky fixtures that will quickly kill you if you repeatedly bash into them. Fortunately, one-hit-death has been removed in the name of sanity.
Throw in the collection of super-high-scoring gems and other point-scoring pick-ups and, in a fairly neat nutshell, that's pretty much the entire point of the game. As you make progress, the number of gems you're tasked with picking up increases, but then so do the hazards, making negotiation of each screen something of an increasingly palpitating twitch fest that demands bravery, a bit of luck and no small amount of skill. Just as well, then, that the controls are super-slick, and make you feel like you're capable of threading the eye of a needle at speed.
As with other 360 Live Arcade Games, there's a 'classic' version of the game for the curious, but annoyingly your scores for the original version don't get uploaded to the Leaderboard - something you'll probably only realise after a marathon session. Bah. Elsewhere, though, the main version offers a veritable high score feast, with numerous attainable achievements to unlock, based around actually bothering to play the game on a sensible skill level (which is, curiously, based on a slider, rather than, say Easy, Medium, Hard) and having the ability to do crazy things like not touching a single obstacle, harvesting unlikely quantities of smartbombs or lives, and so on.
But as pure and addictive as it is in the beginning, it's not one of those Live Arcade games that will have you coming back endlessly like Geometry Wars or Mutant Storm. 60 levels might sound like a lot, but after just a few hours of play you'll probably feel sated with what you've seen and achieved and leave it at that. In fact, the freely available demo might well show you all you need to see, which is a shame.
If Crystal Quest was a little cheaper to start with it might be easier to recommend. The fact that Stainless has just made a bunch of entirely pointless reskin and audio downloads available for 100 credits a pop seems like a scary trend that we hope others avoid. The new Xtreme scenarios are a particularly unsavoury thing to have to pay extra for - nothing more than just upping the difficulty level for the real hardcore players. What happened to just giving people extra content as a gesture of goodwill? It's not as if any of this new stuff is remotely interesting, even for free.
Back on topic, whether Crystal Quest is worth buying is questionable. Sure, it's one of the cheaper offerings on Live Arcade, and it's certainly a fun, entertaining addition to the Live Arcade scene, but as brightly as it burns, it's an all-too-brief fix that doesn't leave you wanting more. You'll feel satisfied with what you've seen, but also keen to move on to something else. Download it and see for yourself.
6 / 10