I have a heated and contentious history with arcade games. As an old guy, I was around for the heyday of quarter operated arcades. I remember popping quarter after quarter into games like Space Invaders, Galaxian, and Galaga. As the earliest wave shooters, these games are responsible for creating a lot of the same DNA present in Space Pirate Trainer, the early Oculus and HTC Vive hit that was recently ported over to PlayStation VR.
Space Pirate Trainer Revels In Its Arcade Roots
In fact, Space Pirate Trainer has more in common with these early games than most other VR wave shooters on the market. Players stand on a platform, shooting up at wave after wave of attacking robots, which in turn shoot back. Three lives are provided, and once your last life is gone the game is over. You can type in your initials to register your place on a leaderboard, an act that is at once a both satisfying and meaningless.
There are powerups and weapon types to take into consideration, but at its core, the gameplay found in Space Pirate Trainer is as simple as that found in an arcade cabinet circa 1983. And much like those quarter-munching classics, Space Pirate Trainer simultaneously entrances and infuriates me.
Space Pirate Trainer, like all good arcade games, can be blisteringly difficult. There is a definite skill set to build up here, and players should not expect to just jump in and be successful. S.P.T. is an arcade-style game that thrives upon repetition, and only through playing repeatedly will you start catching on and succeeding.
Think back to playing Asteroids for the first time, or Defender, and you get the idea. Death comes quickly, and with it comes a surge of anger and the impulse to try “just one more time”.
What you see is very much what you get in Space Pirate Trainer. This is a game that is not trying to be anything that it is not. There is no story, no characters, no cut scenes (and no pirates). There is nothing to distract players from engaging in Space Pirate’s pure core gameplay, which just happens to be very, very well done.
Gameplay Is A Throwback To 1983, By Way Of 2016
Standing on a space dock platform, players face down wave after wave of invading robots. A small UI element on the floor in front of you keeps you apprised of your current score and works as a radar of sorts. Through a simple 3D model, this interface telegraphs incoming waves, allowing players to get in a moment of preparation and strategic planning.
Armed with duel laser pistols, players try to get a bead on the their constantly shifting targets. As the robots are wildly wheeling about, sliding to the sides and overhead, predicting their paths in order to have leading shots waiting for them is part of the challenge. A variety of powerups come into play, temporarily changing your weapons’ ammunition type. My favorite is the beam shot, which allows you to cut across the sky like a laser scalpel, slicing down any baddies in your path.
In addition to your pistols, there are a few other weapon configurations to try out. There is a small hand-held shield that you can hold in one hand to protect against shots (and sometimes bounce them back towards enemies if you are skilled). Space Pirates also provides a light-whip thingy that can grab enemies and smash them down to the ground. Fun when it works, but I was never able to truly get the hang of it, preferring to stay with my two-gun configuration.
Space Pirate Trainer is a very active game, physically. Enemies shoot various ammunition types and configurations at you, and as those shots approach time slows down in a very “Matrix/Max Payne” sort of way. Players must then dodge the incoming bullets or lose one of their precious lives. This has the effect of sending you diving for the ground, or wrenching your body into contorted position to avoid getting shot.
Technically, Space Pirate Is An Achievement
While it is clear that S.P.T. was designed to be a room-level experience, I had few problems playing with the PS VR’s more limited set up. Tracking of the Move Controllers is very tight and precise, and the PlayStation camera was able to keep track of where I was as I lurched about the living room.
A few different game modes are available to mix things up. Hardcore Mode, for example, takes away the bullet-time effect, allowing players to give themselves whiplash in real time. As I was barely able to avoid shots in slow motion, I quickly scurried back to the default mode.
If I have one grievance with Space Pirate Trainer, its that the game doesn’t bother showing players how to play. When the game first boots up, there are a few screens to cycle through that show still images of possible gameplay options. “Use your whip!” “Don’t forget your turrets!” Stuff like that.
Unfortunately, it was only through experimentation that I was able to figure out how exactly to transition to my whip, or how to pull out my shield. And of course, in attempting to reach behind my back to pull out these apparently “holstered” weapons, I managed to shoot myself in the head a number of times (yes, that’s possible). A bit of guidance on how these things function would have been welcome, but I suppose such instruction might go against the Space Pirate’s arcade aesthetics.
Is Space Pirate Trainer Deep Enough For Modern VR Gamers?
And that is the crux of Space Pirate Trainer. It is an arcade game, right down to its marrow. This makes the game both immediately thrilling and immediately forgettable. Outside of the excitement of pushing your name further up the leaderboards, there is little reason to continue playing.
I do wonder if VR games have evolved past this sort of wave shooter. While the medium is only a few years old, there are dozens of games of this style available. While this is a quality game, it doesn’t change the fact that the genre has seen several evolutionary steps since this game’s very recent heyday. Is a place on a leaderboard a sufficient carrot for a current VR player to spend time with Space Pirate?
But for a certain type of player, this high-score chase will be more than enough motivation. Space Pirate is extremely polished, and deeply fun in the moment. Just don’t go in expecting anything beyond a momentary rush of adrenaline, and be happy that you don’t have to keep popping in quarters.