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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Centipede and Millipede

Legs and co.

I hate to bring this up, but my conscience just can't let this one go. Three years ago, Atari rather generously (and sensibly) packaged together all of its 70s and early 80s output into one great value Anthology package. Released on the Xbox and PS2 , this exhaustive compilation featured an impressive 85 games in total, comprised of 67 Atari 2600 games and, more interestingly, 18 arcade titles from the era. All the early Atari favourites were there: Tempest, Battlezone, Asteroids, Crystal Castles, Missile Command, Gravitar, and even really old stuff like Pong and Super Breakout. Oh, and Centipede and Millipede. For the retro completest who hadn't dabbled in MAME (is there anyone left, seriously?) it was a well-rounded offering, even if revisiting many of these titles was a pretty harrowing experience in reality.

And although it might not seem like the most obvious Xbox 1 game to work on the 360, it has been compatible for some time now. With retailers desperately trying to clear any remaining Xbox stock for hilariously low prices, the chances are you'll find Atari Anthology languishing in in bargain bins for less than a fiver if you're lucky.

With that in mind, such unheralded retro compilations such as this kind of take the shine off the prospect of forking out almost as much for a small segment of what it offered years ago. But that's Xbox Live Arcade's approach to retro gaming for you, and it drives us every so slightly 'round the twist every time we see it happening.

For the price of a cup of tea

Evolved, not revolved: the new look in all its glory.

On the other hand, people are very fond of reminding us that £3.40 (or whatever 400 Microsoft points are worth where you live) isn't actually a lot of money. Only a price of a large beer, or a rip-off cup of coffee, you might argue. That's true enough, and would be fair comment if gamers hadn't already been repeatedly re-sold these same retro offerings for pennies a few years before, so don't get me started on that one. [Too late - Ed].

But anyway. If we can pretend for a moment that these previously released great value compilations never existed, then Centipede and Millipede's joint arrival on Xbox Live Arcade is something we grudgingly welcome. For a start, it signals that publishers are starting to realise that trying to foist these old relics on us one at a time is a bit cheeky, and that they might have to make a little more effort than usual (i.e. not just shovel it unaltered) to pique our interest.

After all, Centipede and the harder, faster, more evil sequel Millipede were unapologetically basic shooters, with the simple novelty of having a trackball controller (a novelty you can't replicate at all on a standard 360 pad, obviously, but not to any massive detriment to the playability). Even back in 1980/81they were the sort of instant thrill games you'd have fun with for ten minutes but tire of and go and play something else. That was the beauty of the arcade - that non committal, low attention span ability to trawl all the machines. The inherent problem with both these games is they're very much 'in the zone' type shooters, where unless you're exceptionally good at them, the nostalgic fun you can glean from them evaporates in a matter of minutes. That's where the trial version comes in handy, naturally.

Get me away from here, I'm dying

If for some reason you've never played the game, it couldn't really be much simpler. You man a cannon at the bottom of the screen, and try to shoot the segments of a rapidly descending Centipede (or Millipede - they look basically identical) before it reaches the bottom of the static play area. At first it's pretty easy to knock out the segments (and surrounding 'mushrooms'), but within a few waves the 'garden' becomes beset with bouncing spiders and other creepy crawlies whose sole purpose is to hinder or destroy you. As ever, the old 'one-hit-kill' mechanic ensures that survival is down to a mixture of blind luck and ninja skills, as you bob and weave frantically to move your cannon out of the way of a myriad of incoming instant death. It's fun, frantic, pure, but too quickly down to factors outside of your control as to how long you survive. Unlike other arcade shooters of the era, there's no discernible pattern to how things pan out (correct me if I'm wrong, you know you want to), so it's tempting to blame the game when things go wrong. But like any popular arcade game, it was there to extract money as quickly as possible, not to be fair.

Back to the old school: the way we were.

Millipede took the whole concept to a rather hardcore and pretty manic extreme, with a far more deadly set of challenges and meaner enemies that might have appealed to those already insanely good at Centipede, but left everyone else with a bloody nose. No wonder Atari felt comfortable throwing it in alongside Centipede for nothing.

In both cases, the emulation is absolutely spot-on, just as you'd expect, down to the correct sound effects and so on. Anyone familiar with the arcade cabinet or MAME will acknowledge that there's very little to fault here with the exception of the loss of the trackball precision, but it's not a massive loss unless you're a hardcore player.

A space boy dream

Interestingly, Atari has gone down the road of making 'evolved' versions to complement the classic original editions, and we're happy to report that they work very well. In most instances you'd probably take a horrified look at a re-skinned version of an old classic, and quickly switch back to the original, but Stainless deserves credit for not screwing these up. The most important element - the gameplay - remains utterly unchanged, but the graphical and audio revamp somehow gives the bug squishing a more solid, fresh feel. Maybe it's the squelchy explosions that vibrate through the pad, or the fact that the (much larger) bugs now actually look and move like they should. Whatever it is, it doesn't elicit the horrified responses that you normally emit the second you see a reworked retro game. For possibly the first time since these old games started appearing on XBLA, you might actually prefer the new version with its vile luminous explosions and unpleasant sound effects.

Millipede: with added DDT for TOXIC DEATH, 1982 style.

Add the new super-speeded up modes, and you can frazzle yourself stupid trying to clock up improbable scores to win some rather amusing achievement points - things which all Live Arcade games ultimately live or die on.

Absent this time, however, are the pointless co-op or versus modes which so many retro games seem to have shoehorned in for no good reason - so you're merely left with a few leaderboards to prove your prowess in the two modes of both games. Tellingly, not many people seem to be rushing to download this one - even in its 'extra value' form. Nevertheless, the sooner publishers start realising that bundling several titles in the same retro download makes them more attractive, the less we'll continually moan about the pricing. We're bored of mentioning it too, you know.

Nice day for a sulk

That aside, Centipede and Millipede are the sort of simple, repetitive, no frills shooters you can get more than enough fun out of by playing the free trial version of, so we should be grateful to Microsoft for allowing people to find out why they probably shouldn't bother with this one. If, on the other hand, there's a significant part of your gaming psyche wrapped up in the nostalgia value of playing 27 year-old arcade games, then fill your boots - it's another spot-on conversion with a decent reskin to enjoy, so add a few more points if that's you.

5 / 10

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