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.