Version tested: DS
Rounds, Chains, Lamps, Features; Roulette, Fever, Bingo and Break. Space Invaders Extreme 2 needs a whole lexicon - a strangely camp one at that - to describe its arcane and multi-faceted scoring system. One of the oldest and simplest shoot-'em-ups in gaming became one of the more complex with the original Xbox Live Arcade, PSP and DS game, and in this DS-only sequel, it gets a little more complex yet.
Taito's iconic pixellated aliens have been enjoying a purple patch these last few years, and it was Extreme that set the standard. Unlike the bold reinvention of the iPhone's Infinity Gene or the bizarre table-turning of WiiWare's Space Invaders Get Even, Extreme took Space Invaders into the 21st century by adding innumerable twists and elaborations to a basically unchanged core. Waves of Invaders creep down the screen from left to right, from right to left, faster the fewer they are, as unhurriedly menacing as ever. Your cannon picks them and passing UFOs off.
The basic gameplay was unmistakeable and faithful, not quite as pure a revival as the brilliant Pac-Man Championship Edition, but just as successful at making a faded icon good as new. A Rez-inspired rhythmic techno makeover spruced up the image, but to be honest, the blocky sprites possess so much retro cool that they hardly needed it - stamped indelibly as they are on pop-culture consciousness (and, thanks to French artist Invader, the street).
A much bigger impact was had by the devious formations, new Invader types, branching stages, ingenious boss battles, and above all by the wealth of score multipliers (chains of enemies shot, items collected and UFOs destroyed) and the combo system. You could enhance your score by shooting rows or columns of Invaders, and Invaders of the same colour and shape in sequences called Features. Features caused cannon power-ups (broad, beam, bomb shots and shield) to drop, and pairs of features triggered special Rounds. These, if cleared, unleashed the ecstatic Fever Time, a firework display of exploding Invaders and rocketing score.
All of this is back in Space Invaders Extreme 2. It's not a radical sequel - in fact, to players of the first, it will be an extremely familiar one. You might question the need for such an incremental update, and those who already own a portable copy of the first will have to make up their own minds if this version warrants a further investment. It is better, though - tailored specifically for the DS, and enjoying an even more sophisticated and absorbing scoring mechanic that nudges it a little closer to being a hybrid of shmup and puzzle game.
The biggest back-of-the-box addition is also the least interesting, however. It's the new Time Attack mode which tallies the total time taken to play through the game's five stages (the third, fourth and fifth stages offer branching difficulty options in the OutRun style) - not counting stage restarts when you lose all your lives. Unbroken, that's actually an uncomfortably long haul for a time attack mode, although as with the normal score attack, you can save and restart between stages. And whilst it does offer an alternative goal to simply maximising your score, it's a far less interesting one that often contradicts or bypasses the best aspects of the game's design. You'll have to ignore most of what makes Extreme 2 great and just blast through it to put good times down.
You'll probably need to do this just to progress at first. The new Beginner mode allows you to play the easiest route through the game with infinite lives; it's a welcome way to learn Extreme 2's systems for new players, but it does train you to think about the game's mechanics first and simple survival second. Going back to a limited stock of lives in normal mode is a rude awakening. In fact the game is generous enough, only resetting multipliers when you die and putting you back to the start of stages (with your score saved) when you lose all your lives. But you're so lost in trying to construct Bingos that you forget to dodge bullets.
Bingo Fever is an ultra-high-score Fever Time, in which you can shoot down pink UFOs for massive point payouts. You get it by lighting up three squares in a row on the three-by-three Bingo Panel on the top screen, each one representing one of the nine permutations of colour features you can get (four red Invaders followed by four blue, four blue by four green, etc.). You also get Two Lines Fever and Full House Fever for completing two or three rows at once. Features are easier to get in Extreme 2 - you only need to worry about colour, not shape - which together with the introduction of Bingo shifts the game subtly from skill and luck towards planning and puzzle-solving.
It's also completely irresistible. There are plenty of other escalating satisfactions in Extreme 2, from the simple chain that unleashes the 16x Break mode when it passes 100, to the cannon levelling, the game-changing effects of Features using the black Invaders and more. But bingo becomes an obsession to the point of willingly making things harder for yourself, subverting the basic mechanics - survive and keep killing - of the shmup. That's great game design.
The other principle change to the game flow in Extreme 2 is the use of the DS' top screen. Rounds, usually requiring you to shoot down outsize Invaders with strange behaviours, now take place in the top screen, with the waves of Invaders progressing as normal below. This is a great twist, turning the somewhat basic and showy Rounds from an interruption to an addition, and requiring some acute visual awareness. Boss battles, too, fill both screens to great effect, and they're even more witty and surprising than they were in the first game.
Extreme 2 has decent multiplayer features; there's a return of the local and online versus mode, with new ways to send waves and UFOs over to your opponent's game which appears in the top screen. There are online leaderboards too, tracking scores in the harsh Ranking variations of Time and Score attack which don't allow continues. It's great to see these in a portable arcade game, even if they do make you pine for the home consoles' friends lists.
It's also a shame that there aren't individual scoreboards for the Stage Select mode, which allows you to perfect individual stages in both Score and Time Attack. Extreme 2 is relatively long from beginning to end, and Stage Select is a great option for short-haul perfectionists, so it's a pity not to be able to share your achievements here.
Space Invaders Extreme 2 is more balanced and involving than its predecessor. Its intricate combo scoring is more accessible, deeper and more addictive than the first game's, and it has plenty of longevity - there's an Extreme difficulty with all-new patterns and Invader types, unlocked by completing all branching levels on Normal - even if you don't get into the faintly unsatisfying Time Attack. But it's more of a perfected version of the first game than a true sequel, so it's mainly diehard fans and the uninitiated who should be descending on their game shop for a copy.
8 / 10