Version tested: Xbox 360
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.
There is depth here, though, for those who want it. Serious players can level up their weapons by achieving high scores. There's even a bit of tactical strategy involved; holding down a shoulder button switches back to your normal gun and preserves any power left in your special weapon meter, so you can save it till just the right moment. You can take out enemies by column and row for yet more points, earn multipliers, extend Fever Time, shoot down Super Jackpot UFOs... In short, the points system has enough layers and twists to challenge the most experienced high-score whore.
Then there are those multiplayer modes, each one playable by up to four players. In Survivor you fight it out on individual playing fields, and enemies you destroy descend on your opponents. The problem is the playing fields are quite small so they all fit on the same screen, and unless you're using a big telly you'll find yourself squinting a bit.
In Score Attack you have a single, full-sized playing field and different-coloured ships. The objective is to shoot down enemies before your opponent and thereby rack up the most points. It's much more enjoyable than Versus - unless you're the first person to run out of lives. Then, if the other player is still alive, there's nothing to do but sit back and watch them shoot. You won't get a continue no matter how many 10p coins you shove in the disc drive.
There's also a co-op mode. This involves completing the same levels as in the single-player game, except the odds are improved by the fact there are two or more of you shooting. Not as challenging then, but fun enough, and ideal for playing with kids or people who are useless at games.
All the multiplayer modes can be played online as well as locally, or that's the theory. Having tried all the permutations of match types and ranking options we couldn't find a single game to join, or anyone to play against when hosting. This was on a Thursday morning, though - you might have more luck on a Friday night.
The final elements of the "Extreme" package are the visuals and audio. The backgrounds are brightly coloured and trippy, but not to the point where they provide a distraction from the gameplay. Expect swirling shapes and blurry planetscapes, the kind of thing you'd see on a flyer in 1994 along with a word like "UNIVERSAL" and the slogan "FOR THE LOVE OF DANCE £3 b4 10pm".
Turns out Llamasoft's Jeff Minter, the man behind Space Giraffe and the Xbox 360 music visualiser, is responsible for the backgrounds. If you're familiar with his work you won't be surprised. When I asked Eurogamer's Oli Welsh to guess who'd designed the backgrounds in Space Invaders Extreme, Jeff was his first answer.
The clubby feel is compounded by the game's soundtrack, which for the most part is fast-paced and really rather jolly drum and bass. It's enhanced by the shooting sound effects as you play; they're loud and plinky and bright. The overall effect is reminiscent of Rez - repetitive beats with chaotic electro-percussion over the top. It's fantastic if you're the one playing, but if you're trying to read and you don't like videogames much anyway you're likely to rustle your newspaper loudly and say things like, "If I was making a film about the endless nightmare of living with a games journalist, this would be the soundtrack." Whatever, GRANDDAD.
The tripped-out backgrounds and repetitive beats make the game feel a bit nineties, but that doesn't matter; in fact the effect is positive. You know you're playing a game which has moved on in the past 30 years, but there's still a retro feel to it. Plus it must be brilliant if you're on drugs.
So what's the asking price for the faster enemies, the stupid guns, the multiplayer modes and a peek at the inside of Jeff Minter's brain? 800 Microsoft Points, equivalent to GBP 6.80 / EUR 9.60. Which is a bit steep. This is an old game, the single-player campaign doesn't last that long and the multiplayer modes aren't interesting or varied enough to provide long-term value. A price somewhere below the five pound mark would have been more appropriate.
All the same, there's no denying Space Invaders Extreme is great fun. Like the excellent Pac-Man Championship Edition, it adds new layers of depth to an old classic, and does so with style. It might not offer hours and hours of entertainment, but it's perfect for quick blasts of play. It's ideal for those times when you can't be bothered with the drug dealers or the Nazis or the wooden crates or the Poorly Lit Caves of Krobnobnogar, and just want to press one button to shoot some aliens. Preferably with some stupid guns.
It's simple enough for anyone to play, but with enough nuances to challenge experienced gamers. And the whole package is smoother and shinier than Nuno Bettencourt's hair. It's not a bargain, and it's not the best game you'll play this year, but it's probably the best game you'll ever play with the word "Extreme" in the title.
7 / 10