Version tested: Xbox 360
Two reviews? What's the point of that? Well, Space Giraffe is not a normal game, y'see, and is probably the most hotly debated game this year, or any other year. Some people think it's an unfathomable load of tosh, others seem to think it's really rather splendid. So rather than provide you with one viewpoint, we looked at two contrasting opinions of Jeff Minter's Xbox Live Arcade shooter. We're good to you like that.
This game is not Tempest.
No, really, Jeff Minter says so, and he should know - he made the game. Look at the 'How to Play' section in Space Giraffe's main menu, and there it is. Clear as day are the words: "This game is not Tempest." And if Jeff said so, pointedly, then I guess we should kindly refrain from comparing it to Tempest right now.
But but but. What's the fun of that? Why is the first reaction of everyone* (*disclaimer - that I know) who's played Space Giraffe is that it's "Tempest with a different scoring mechanic?". Are we all stupid, ignorant durrbrains who can't spot a variation on a theme when we see one? Maybe. Or maybe we're just calling a spade a spade.
I guess the point is, really, that if you're going to try and play Space Giraffe like Tempest, then you're going to miss the point in a fairly fundamental way. At first glance, visually it's like a barmy acid-fried take on the original (more of which in a moment), and yes, in basic gameplay terms you're doing pretty much the same thing as you would do in the 1980 arcade classic.
Stick your neck out
Stop me if you're heard this one before, but you're moving a craft (in this case, a Space Giraffe) along the rim of a series of long rectangular segments while frantically shooting and dodging dozens of enemy craft as they attempt to work their way up towards you. Clear all the enemies and you move on to a different shaped level, and so on through 100 of them.
Ok, sure, so it's a bit like Tempest, but the devil is in the detail. Whereas Tempest is a simple twitch shooter where clearing enemies is the be all and end all, Space Giraffe essentially builds on the premise by introducing several new mechanics which mark it out as a substantially different game if you're prepared to get to grips with it.
The first thing to understand is the concept of the Power Zone. A horizontal line creeps away from you as you shoot enemies and collect power ups, opening the Zone. As long as the power isn't allowed to fall back to zero you're able to knock into ("bull") enemies stationed on the rim without dying. With much of the game's appeal based around getting ridiculously high scores, the game quickly becomes less about clearing all the enemies by shooting them, and more about the tug o' war between keeping the Power Zone from falling back while allowing enemies to work their way up to the rim. Bull a load of enemies at once, and your bonus multiplier goes through the roof.
In addition, the Power Zone helps you out by slowing down enemy shots, so it's in your interests to make sure this zone is topped up. The ability to 'steer' your ever-present stream of shots with the right stick means you can effectively sit in a safe-ish zone and still hit the enemies that help keep the Power Zone active. In a delicate balance between risk and reward, you can furtively nip around, aim your shots, and bull just when it looks like you might be overwhelmed. If things look really impossible, you can use one of your limited stock of Jump Pods (of which you collect up to five) by pressing the right trigger. This has the effect of making you jump backwards away from the rim for a brief period, giving you a crucial chance to avoid danger. And when all else fails, you can also use your screen clearing smart bomb once per life.
If you manage to refrain from using your pods, then you'll gain bonuses, such as extra lives, fast bullets or point bonuses - but, predictably, ninja levels of expertise are required to benefit from such generosity. In fact, bug-eyed in-the-zone skills are the order of the day in general, even to the extent that audio cues are equally important to understanding the game as the visuals - but then this is a Llamasoft game we're talking about, daddio. That comes with the territory: a part of the gaming Wild West that ought to come with red neon-lit BBFC warning signs that flash "Danger! HARDCORE PURITY AHEAD!" in your slightly frazzled face. For the people who still demand such wanton levels of twitch gaming masochism, that's entirely the appeal; that special elite club where the terms of entry are calloused, claw-shaped hands, goth tan, extreme opinions and a thousand yard stare. For those of us who don't have hyperactive insect reactions and mutant Llamas tattooed under our eyelids, it's also the game's downfall right there.
But, if the only reason to not get on with Space Giraffe was its vertical learning curve and in-the-zone superhuman skills, that'd be fine. We've absolutely no issue with games like that - you just have to practise, practise, and practise some more until you stop sucking. We grew up with these games, at a time when they were the norm, if anything, and still appreciate the purity they can offer that's so unlike the mainstream offerings out there today.
In fact, there's a lot we liked about Space Giraffe - the otherworldly sound of a girl speaking numbers in Welsh is possibly the most inspired menu accompaniment ever, and some of the game's humorous references leave you with a big grin on your face for the first few goes. Odd references to everything from J Allard to the KLF and the beloved Commodore 64 remind you that only Llamasoft could have ever made a game so god damned off the wall. The fact that games like this can even get made these days is cause for celebration, and we can't help but want to give Microsoft credit for making it possible. No-one else would have.
Hypnotwisting the night away
The main problem with extracting enjoyment out of Space Giraffe is a lot simpler than that: it's more to do with its determination to obscure the playfield with Minters' beloved Neon light visualisation than any fundamental flaw in the gameplay mechanics. As painful as it might be for the vocal band of hardcore followers to admit, the psychedelic backdrops do absolutely nothing but provide a hindrance when playing the game. If I want to see the screen melting gently in a rainbow swirl to the sound of hypnotic electronica, I'll ingest some psychotropic substance of choice, pop the appropriate mindbending playlist on the 360, have some friends over and giggle like six year-olds until the sun rises. Trying to play a progressive take on Tempest with all that going on in the background is, at best, far out maaaan, and at worst, just a monumental annoyance as a muddled mess of indistinct enemies blur into a swirling vortex of colour. So much of the time you're dying because, well, you can't tell what the yak is going on. If your eyes can adjust to the splodgenessabounds, then well done you, but you're in a minority.
All of which leads me to the conclusion that Space Giraffe is a tragically wasted opportunity on so many levels. The expectation was there, and the time was right for Jeff Minter and co. to show the world the kind of rare talent that have been missed for so long. Yet what they've delivered feels wilfully, almost criminally self-indulgent to the point that even the most ardent hardcore shooter fans will question some of the design decisions. Even if you make allowances for the game's exceptionally niche appeal, Space Giraffe misses the mark for the simple reason that it's too busy projectile vomiting colour over the indistinct enemies to let players get on and enjoy what might have been an intelligent progression of an all-time classic. As many exasperated Londoners might be exclaiming at this point, you're 'avin a giraffe, Jeff.
6 / 10
Rob Fahey's take
Life is scattered with those little coming-of-age moments; instants in your life when you realise you've been sitting on a fence all this time, and you must now decide on which side your feet belong.
For example - about three weeks ago, I encountered a jar of Marmite in the kitchen cupboard. It struck me, as I turned it over in my hand, that I've probably described games, films, books and their ilk as being "a bit like Marmite" countless times - and yet I've never actually worked out on which side of the famous Marmite Divide I fall.
So I made some toast. And I cautiously spread a thin slick of Marmite on it, just enough to brown the surface; sniffed experimentally, raised it to my mouth, and bit off a chunk.
Then I gagged, my eyes watered, I thought I was going to throw up, and I chucked the rest of the toast in the bloody bin while I gulped down about two pints of water. What the bloody hell is wrong with you sick weirdos?
The anecdote is relevant (honest), because where Space Giraffe is concerned, I feel like the shoe is on the other foot. My gut reaction is to recommend that everyone should play it - but somewhere at the back of my mind, I know that the majority of you will probably gag, choke, and throw it in the bin. Probably followed by glowering at me about wasted Microsoft Points (much as my Marmite-munching flatmate did after I encouraged him to buy the game).
Kristan has already described perfectly the basics of how the game works. Despite Jeff Minter's claims to the contrary, it is very clearly an evolution of the Tempest formula - but one which takes the same basic controls and mechanics and fashions a radically overhauled experience from them.
The addition of enemies such as Flowers (which essentially block your ability to move around the game surface freely for a period of time) and Boffins (nasty little sods that can only be shot when they're moving horizontally) turns the game into a vastly more strategic affair than Tempest ever was. Indeed, of all of Minter's games to date, it's arguably the one which demands the most from its players, forcing you to keep an eye on a wide range of different factors rather than simply shooting lots and dodging bullets.
There's a sense that you're not just fighting enemies here; you're actively nurturing a play area, attempting to set up the conditions for the best score possible. Simply shooting everything is a tactic that stops working early in the game; as you progress, you're expected to take a holistic approach that "gardens" the playing grid until the time is right to bull a large number of enemies off at once.
That, for me at least, is what makes Space Giraffe extraordinary. I'll admit it up front - I don't have the reactions required for twitch shooters any more, much as I love the genre, but Space Giraffe actually offers something vastly more strategic and cerebral than most other shooters. It's hidden away under a thick layer of eye-blasting visuals, silly humour and fast-paced action, but it's there and it's utterly compelling.
Ah, yes - the eye-blasting visuals. A common and perfectly understandable complaint about Space Giraffe is that you can't see what's going on due to Minter's inclusion of light synth backdrops, which plaster your screen with bright plasma effects that do frequently obscure important gameplay elements like enemy bullets or flower stems.
It's a legitimate complaint - but once again, I find myself remembering standing over my kitchen sink gagging on the taste of a condiment my flatmate can happily munch down by the teaspoonful. To me, the light-synth backdrops are a major part of the appeal of Space Giraffe; a kind of trippy, ecstatic visual that plays with your perception and draws you deeply into the experience of the game.
It's not like the backdrops just sit there and look pretty, either. They are a core element of the game to a large extent, and deliberately or not, Space Giraffe is a remarkably successful experiment on human perception. The light synth confuses our visual input, in effect; it makes visual feedback useful only in a general sense, obscuring the fine but vital details like bullets.
Instead, you're forced to rely on auditory feedback for those game systems - the unique audio cues which Space Giraffe uses for every event in the game. Shooting bullets and flowers, and listening for the resulting sounds, builds up a map of what's happening, even when a flare from the light-synth is obscuring reliable visual information. For some players, this will be incredibly frustrating; for others, however, the moment when this mechanism clicks in your head is an eye-opener, a revelatory unveiling of a whole new level to the game.
The wheat really gets separated from the chaff with the introduction of Feedback Monsters - a type of enemy which, as far as I can recall, is almost entirely unique to Space Giraffe. These enemies don't actually harm you, can be safely bulled off the edge of the screen, and are generally non-threatening - except that they generate intense visual distortions which screw with your perception even more than the light synth does. A player who is working efficiently with sound at this point won't find them too challenging; someone still getting by on the tangled visual information will be crippled.
Therein lies the beauty of Space Giraffe, for the minority of players who will really "get" the game - it forces you to deal with input in ways which are unfamiliar and difficult, to develop faculties which have never been called upon by other games. Its uniquely British humour and gentle progression system (the ability to restart levels with saved high-score is a hugely welcome feature) provide light relief to what is, essentially, one of the most unorthodox and alien gaming experiences you'll ever have.
If you're in the majority of gamers who don't get Space Giraffe, that's by no means an indication that you're a lesser gamer than someone who does get it. Your brain just isn't tuned to this unusual frequency; hell, if you don't get it, it probably just means you're normal. We're the freaks. But some days it's good to be a freak - and as a sufferer from this freakish affliction, I can't help but rate Space Giraffe highly.
8 / 10