If there was one game that stood out among the mediocre first wave of Xbox Live Arcade titles released just over a year ago, it was PomPom's hugely addictive take on Robotron. Few old hands needed convincing of the allure of an updated version of that old top-down shooting classic, but the thing that impressed most was the immensely attractive visual sheen that turned the game into an eye-frying Minter-esque slice of psychotropic twitch brilliance. That the game has been revamped (or, strictly speaking, Reloaded) for the 360 can only be a Good Thing - as long as you didn't buy it a year or so ago. Or, er, even longer ago, seeing as it was originally released on the PC way back in 2003.
For those of you somehow new to the ancient Robotron template, the premise couldn't really be much simpler. Based around the then-revolutionary concept of moving your ship/man/whatever with the left stick and firing in your chosen direction with the right stick, the basic idea is to clear each playfield of enemies and move onto the next, more difficult level. Easy. Ish.
On your travels you'll encounter a wild and varied selection of foes, some easy to dispatch in droves, some exploding into smaller shards, some growing into missile-spitting turrets, others engulfing the 3D arenas with threatening tentacles and requiring boss monster-esque weak-spot detection. From the opening level onwards (there are 89 of them in total) it's evident that you're massively outnumbered, hopelessly outgunned and generally overwhelmed in a way not seen since the likes of Minter's Llamatron, Smash TV and the long-forgotten Loaded were the stars of the era. Wave upon wave of determined enemies swamp the screen, all making a dramatic beeline for you, causing the kind of intense brow-furrowing survive-by-the-skin-of-your-teeth dodge-and-weave twitch gaming that evokes visions of one of those heroic last-ditch, seven-lane changeover manoeuvres on the Hanger Lane gyratory during rush hour.
None shall pass
But unlike our dodgy driving excursions, destroying those who dare to cross your path reaps various rewards, as opposed to a few months in chokey. Power-ups of the weapons and armour variety make short work of dozens of tiny, oncoming death machines, but sadly the likes of the Laser, Three-Way and Spinner appear all too briefly, making Mutant Storm as much about your skilful dexterity and pattern avoidance tactics as your ability to collect the power-ups.
Much like the revered Geometry Wars, it's all about second-guessing what's coming next, positioning wisely and keeping an eye on what's teleporting at any given time. But unlike the celebrated Bizarre Creations effort, this is much more focused on short, sharp bursts of prescribed waves, with recognisable challenges that can eventually be overcome with precision and set tactics. As such, the game's appeal works on a subtly different level. On the one hand you can try and play it like a typical arcade game, working through the various stages one after the other and going for a massive high score, score multipliers and earning the various 'belts' (colour-coded, like Karate belts, from white up to black, all in the name of 'Blastikkidoo', appropriately), or you can play through it stage by stage in what amounts to a pseudo score-attack mode, choosing to play it on whichever belt colour you choose and attempting to earn the best individual score.
If anything, the definable progress you make from this so-called Tally mode provides a great deal of satisfaction and by extension acts as a kind of repetitive tutorial to gain intimate knowledge of each and every level. It's the kind of knowledge that will probably elude you if you stick to the normal Adventure mode, and works well, almost by accident (but probably not). Gaining the highest possible belt on each and every level becomes the goal, but it's the score that ultimately means more. Curiously, PomPom's leaderboard system only caters for your overall Tally score, rather than allowing you to aim for the best on each individual level, but that's a minor issue.
Perhaps the only real irritation about Mutant Storm Reloaded is the sudden spike in its learning curve about a third of the way through, and how heavily it punishes players for daring to lose a life, and the knock-on effect this has towards earning any of the belts in Adventure mode. We realise this is all part of the fun, and represents a serious challenge, but many of the achievements locked away will only be earned by seriously skilled players, and getting that good is a lot tougher than it initially appears - even if you are the sort of player who romps through black belts on Tally mode. As with a lot of shooters, there's an equal portion of luck involved in squeaking through, and for us, the punishments for failure are a little too hard to swallow when you're that close to scoring high multipliers or earning new belts. It's not necessarily that the game itself is too hard - it isn't - but the reward structure is set firmly in the red zone. Then again, this is exactly what the hardcore retro shooter wants, so I'll shut up now.
Of course, one thing we've not mentioned yet is the presence of the excellent co-op two player mode for both Adventure and Tally modes, adding a decent social mode that makes your life a fair bit easier during the more insane levels.
And one thing we can get enough of is the fantastic visual style, which manages to haul what is ostensibly a 25 year old concept into the modern age with aplomb. Somehow the arenas are varied, look exceptionally cool and are populated by the kind of random evil that game designers were hankering after a quarter of a century ago. Shoehorn in a sub-woofer-busting soundtrack and the retro-futuristic feel is complete.
All round, Mutant Storm Reloaded is the kind of sympathetic update that reminds us exactly why gamers gets so foamed up about supposedly outdated concepts. Sometimes things just work, and always will. Although, at 800 points, it's by no means the cheapest retro thrill out there, it's well worth giving Mutant Storm Reloaded a try (for free, there's a decent demo available, remember) and remind yourself how intoxicating a Robotron-style shooter can be.
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