What does the word "Extreme" mean to you? Extreme sports? Extreme weather? The life and work of Nuno Bettencourt? When it comes to videogames, the presence of "Extreme" in the title is rarely a good thing. It usually signifies a desperate attempt to pretend there's something exciting about a game which is rubbish, as everyone involved in its creation knows.
Evidence for the prosecution: Disney's Extreme Skate Adventure, Antz Extreme Racing, Monster Trux Extreme, Monster Trux Extreme Offroad Edition, Freak Out: Extreme Freeride, Urban Extreme, Nanosaur Extreme, Dice Extreme and of course, who could forget Alawar Entertainment's superlative Traffic Jam Extreme ("a puzzle game in which the player's goal is to untangle vehicular gridlock on the streets of Stresstropolis").
So it's worrying to see the word "Extreme" in the title of the new Space Invaders game for Xbox Live Arcade. How do you make a simplistic 30 year-old game "Extreme", anyway? Make the enemies move a bit faster? Invent some stupid new guns? Throw in a few multiplayer modes? Add some tripped out backgrounds and repetitive beats in the hope at least people on drugs will enjoy it?
You do all of the above, if you're Backbone Entertainment. But if, like Backbone, you do it all with care, attention and imagination, you end up with a game that not only puts a new spin on an old classic, but one that's even more fun to play.
Just in case you're too young to remember the original Space Invaders, it went like this: you controlled a small spacecraft at the bottom of the screen, moving it left and right along a horizontal plane. Rows of aliens descended from the top of the screen. You hammered away at the fire button, avoiding missiles, blowing up enemies and scoring points.
At no point did you get to drive a car over a drug dealer or stab a Nazi in the face or find a medical kit inside a wooden crate or hide in a locker or upgrade your chest armour or use blue mana to extend your Swirling Ice Rage power. You did not mind, because you did not know any better, and besides there was nothing else to do but watch one of three TV channels or worry about the impending nuclear holocaust.
But playing Space Invaders today is dull. It's slow, ugly and repetitive. It feels like a lot of other games you've played before, on account of them all having ripped it off. Those who remember the original might get a bit of nostalgia value out of it but things have moved on, and Space Invaders hasn't.
Which is why in Space Invaders Extreme, they've made the enemies move a bit faster. Quite a lot faster, in fact. They also follow varied attack patterns and fire missiles in different directions. There's a wider range of enemies to deal with - some have shields, some fire huge laser cannons, some stick together in groups and some go flitting about the place like crazed intergalactic moths. Every so often you'll come across giant bosses surrounded by rings of guards. Of course there's nothing innovative about boss battles, but the point is this is new for Space Invaders, and the variation is welcome.
Enemies come in different colours, as always, but the colours have significance. Shoot four matching aliens in a row and a power-up will descend. Catch it and you'll get a stupid new gun. Green enemies get you the Broad Shot, which fires five bullets at once. Four reds wins the Bomb, which has a low rate of fire but a big impact. The most satisfying gun is the Laser, earned by shooting blue aliens. It shoots a solid, super-powerful ray, allowing you to cut through entire waves of enemies just by holding down fire and sliding across the bottom of the screen.
Shoot two sets of matching enemies in a row and a flashing UFO will fly across the screen. Take it out to kick off a bonus round with a specific objective, such as shooting 10 enemies within 15 seconds. Achieve this, and it's Fever Time. You can tell it's Fever Time because the background goes even trippier and swirlier, and your cannon becomes super-powerful, and the words FEVER TIME pulsate across the screen. There's no fear of death, you just hammer away and rack up huge scores. It's the perfect stress-relieving antidote to all the dodging, colour-coding and aiming you're focused on the rest of the time.
Or not, as the case may be. Space Invaders Extreme is still great fun if you couldn't give a toss about killing enemies in sequence or scoring extra points and just want to blow some stuff up. Chances are you'll collect a stupid gun or two and enter the odd bonus round through luck, anyway. You can have a blast without having to think about it all too much - controls don't come much more pick-up-and-play than left, right, fire.