There's a clear thread which runs through the majority of Q Entertainment's games - not in terms of the lush, club-culture influenced presentation, which is an obvious link, but in terms of the philosophy behind the games themselves. In a nutshell, Q builds games that are almost dramatic in their simplicity- each of their concepts hinges around one instruction so straightforward that you wouldn't be surprised to see it in a Wario Ware mini-game, and one basic germ of an idea which blossoms into complexity as the game progresses, without ever actually changing at heart.
Take Lumines; "make a square". Meteos; "make three in a row". You can even go back in time and apply the concept to some of Q luminary Tetsuya Mizuguchi's earlier games. Space Channel 5, for instance; "repeat the moves".
It's easy to see why the cult favourite Japanese freeware game Every Extend caught Mizuguchi's eye. It's got a concept as simple and as intriguing as anything Q has made to date - "set off a chain reaction" - and draws heavily on the still-vibrant Japanese shoot-'em-up scene for inspiration along the way. Brought under the wing of Q Entertainment, Every Extend has been ported to the PSP, gaining not only the Extra moniker but also Q's inimitable blend of music and visuals, new levels and bosses, and even a multiplayer mode. At heart though, the game retains the same structure - a simple concept with complex consequences - that has endeared Q's previous titles to the global audience.
The best way to describe Every Extend Extra is that it is a shoot-'em-up where you can't shoot. In fact, you can only do two things - you can move around the screen (which is an enclosed, non-scrolling play area in the style of Geometry Wars), and then you can blow yourself up by tapping any of the PSP's face buttons. When you self-destruct, it costs you a life from your stockpile - but it also sends out a small shockwave which catches nearby enemies, causing them to blow up as well. Exploding enemies catch other enemies in the destruction, and the key skill to the game is learning to detonate yourself in such a way as to cause a massive chain of destruction across the whole screen.
The reason for wanting to cause so much destruction with one self-destruct is simple; you lose a life when you self-destruct, and in order to add extra lives (known as "extends" in shoot-'em-up parlance) to your stockpile, you need to pass certain score thresholds - either by blowing up enemies, or by picking up the green crystals some of them drop when they detonate. Blowing yourself up with few enemies around won't garner enough points to replace the life you'll lose - while the worst waste of all is to crash into an enemy or be hit by one of the bullets which certain enemies fire, since in this case you'll get no points (crashing doesn't destroy enemies, just you) and will have five seconds deducted from your timer.
Ah yes, the timer. That's the other limiting factor in the game, aside from your stockpile of extends (I'm using clever shoot-'em-up language, mum!) - everything runs on a very strict time limit which rarely gives you much time to mess around during a level, the structure of which calls for you to accumulate a certain number of points before taking on a boss. When you start playing, you'll find yourself running up against the time limit halfway through the boss battle more often than not, but the game thankfully offers a number of clever ways to play around with the timer.
As well as the ability to screw yourself royally by crashing and shaving precious seconds off the timer, you can also add 10 seconds to the clock by picking up a special bonus crystal dropped by certain specific enemies. Even more useful, although not quite as obvious in its execution, is the "Quicken" crystal - a power-up which speeds up the game, causing enemies to appear and move around more quickly than before. This is another example of Every Extend Extra turning the shoot-'em-up genre on its head - not only is blowing yourself up good, but making your enemies speed up is also good, since it offers you the chance to rack up points more quickly and beat the merciless clock.
Already, you can probably see the complexity which Every Extend Extra is building on top of a very simple concept - and the game throws several other spanners into the works as well, such as bombs floating across the play area that detonate a couple of seconds after your chain reaches them, allowing clever players to set up chain reactions that keep going long after the initial chain runs out of "fuel", as it were. The biggest challenges the game has to offer, however, are the bosses which pop up at the end of each level - bullet-spewing horrors which need to be defeated by meeting a certain number of clear criteria. As an example, some bosses can only be damaged by hitting them at the end of a chain of a certain length, so you'll need to detonate at exactly the right moment and position to catch them in a maelstrom of destruction from the lesser enemies teeming around the play area - no mean feat when the play area is filled with more bullets than a John Woo shoot-out. A pre-Hollywood John Woo shoot-out.
There's a problem with the bosses, though, and it's reflective of a problem with the game as a whole - namely, the difficulty curve is very peculiarly pitched. The whole game will be fiendishly hard for most players, as is the wont of Japanese shoot-'em-ups, but that's not the problem. In fact, the difficulty level is welcome; the game is rewarding enough, and the sense of progression significant enough, that you won't mind regularly whipping out your PSP to hammer at the same level again and see if you can get further this time. Each individual play session may end in frustration, but within minutes you'll be itching to give it another go, and filled with determination to sort those little geometric gits out for once and for all this time. Indeed, it's just as well that Every Extend Extra is hard, because if not, you'd lash through the nine levels on offer in no time flat, a problem which we expect some die-hard fans of the original Every Extend (or simply die-hard shoot-'em-up fans) will experience with the game, but which is unlikely to trouble the vast bulk of players who will take many hours to finish the game.
No, the problem isn't the difficulty level, it's the difficulty curve - which hits a very odd plateau after you've been playing for a while. Initially, you'll find the bosses challenging not because you keep dying, but because you keep running out of time - having spent so long playing through the level and accumulating enough points to make the boss appear that you have barely any time in which to defeat the big chap. As you get better at the game, you'll find yourself at the point where you've cleared the level in good time and have plenty of time to battle the boss... Which will suddenly seem incredibly easy, because in the process of picking up the skill required to clear the level quickly, you've also surpassed the skill level required to take down the boss. This smoothing of the difficulty spike posed by the boss means that you'll never really be challenged by the boss mechanics, only by the clock, which is hardly a fatal flaw but still a little disappointing.
Another slight disappointment is the multiplayer functionality, which is something that Q is still seemingly struggling to get to grips with in its PSP titles. The game sharing mode is extremely limited, and essentially sees you playing the single-player game in an attempt to cause trouble for the other player by getting large chains. Much like multiplayer in Lumines, it has the feel of something tacked on as an afterthought, and sadly it still suffers from some of the lag which could ruin efforts at playing Lumines in two-player. That said, it's fun for a few games, but doesn't have the feel of something you'll return to over and over again.
Bullet with Butterfly Wings
Lifting our heads momentarily from the gameplay of Every Extend Extra, it's worth noting that the presentation is exactly what you'd expect from Q Entertainment - trippy visuals and music which are influenced by your actions in the gameplay make what could have been a dull looking puzzler into a visual feast. The whole effect is helped by having very different themes for each level - our personal favourite is the second stage, where enemies appear in the form of cute stylised buzzing bees, and the end of level boss is a peculiar array of silhouetted flowers which sway across the screen and spew bullets from their petals. The music lacks a track as iconic as Lumines' fantastic Shinin', but it's still enjoyable, and the whole package feels extremely slick. All of the options you'd expect from Lumines' creators are present and accounted for, too - including the ability to take on any given stage on its own, to battle bosses without having to go through the preceding levels, and even to play the original Every Extend (although you'll quickly find yourself heading back to to the shiny new Extra version - the original game is fun, but is really included more as a curiosity than anything else).
The game slots nicely into our collection alongside two favourites of the last couple of years - the orginal Lumines, whose style and design philosophy it owes much to, and Bizarre's fantastic Xbox Live Arcade title Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, whose gameplay has been taken in a fascinating and entertaining new direction by Every Extend. We like to think of it as the insurgency after the Geometry War. There's probably even a geometric president somewhere sending in 20,000 more polygons to sort everything out, although thankfully we don't have much to fear from the tabloids getting wind of a game in which you play a geometry suicide bomber, with 72 nubile vertex shaders waiting for you in pixel heaven. Probably.
In summary, then, Every Extend Extra is another triumph of fast-paced puzzle gameplay from Q - and is a solid enough update of the freeware original to make it interesting even to those who played the PC version to death. Two key problems with the game emerge as you play; firstly, the incredibly unforgiving and challenging difficulty curve, which will be offputting to some players, and secondly, the basic lack of content - with attempts at beating your high score being pretty much the only thing left to do once you've beaten the nine stages of the game. For quite a few players, though, those problems will cancel each other out; the game is hard enough to ensure that you don't get through the limited content particularly quickly. As long as you don't get easily frustrated by hard games, that's a balancing act that will probably work for you - and Every Extend Extra is a game which will challenge and entertain you for quite a while.