How badly am I dating myself that I can actually recall a time when the only way to play Tempest was in an arcade? For the uninitiated, or anyone born after the end of the 20th century, TxK is a spiritual successor to Tempest 2000. Both games were crafted by indie developer, Jeff Minter of Llamasoft, 20 years apart.
The concept is simple, move your crab-like ship left and right and shoot the oncoming waves of enemies. It is the foundation of every arcade shoot ‘em up – shmup, if you will. Tempest’s calling card is the tube tunnel comprised of simple wireframe graphics. Delve a little deeper and you’ll find a challenging shmup with a twist, dazzling particle effects, and a pulse-pounding soundtrack that works brilliantly on the PlayStation Vita.
TxK may be no frills, but there’s plenty of content. You have the choice of Pure Mode – starting your game at level one – or Survival Mode – no extra lives, no bonus levels. You can skip to any of the levels you’ve unlocked, and you’ll begin that level at the highest score you’ve ever received in any other playthrough with the most extra lives you had stored at the time of unlocking the level. This is where TxK masterfully offers an illusion of progression through 100 levels.
The controls are somewhat disorienting at the start and it does take some practice for the gameplay to become second nature. Power-ups provide the ability to jump or enable an extremely helpful AI drone that becomes essential as enemies overrun the stages later in the game. Just when I thought I’d become one with the controls and the constantly changing tubular levels, TxK threw me a curveball by introducing pulsating and rotating levels that changed the gameplay rules that I had grown comfortable with. There are times when I’m not sure if it felt fair having to battle the actual stage in addition to the waves of enemies coming at me, but the satisfaction of beating a level with as high a score and as many lives as possible is worth the intensity.
It can become overwhelming, but I go back to the basic tenets of any shmup. The player must excel at the art of shooting and dodging. It has to come from reflex and memory. Overthinking leads to cheap deaths that can lead to frustration.
That zen-like feeling of accomplishment would be nothing without an incredible sensory experience. The soundtrack’s electronic future-retro beats mesmerizes as it flows harmoniously with the claw ship dashing left to right, blasting enemies into vibrant, eye-popping vector particles. Pop in earbuds to get the full effect of the equally great soundtrack, which you can even buy separately and I highly recommend it. The Vita’s sharp display beautifully handles the colorful vectors and explosions. The contrasting black space with the multi-colored stages and enemies border on discord when things become increasingly hectic, but when everything clicks and you hit that groove, that’s when TxK transcends into a sublime experience.
The bonus stages might be the only part of TxK that I don’t enjoy. I feel like they’re intended to give the player a bit of a breather. I found it difficult to pull myself out of the intense zone I’m in to maneuver the slow-paced ship through rings or along a path. It seemed almost counter-intuitive to what I was being trained to do for the rest of the game.
TxK is perfect for the PS Vita, especially at the cost equivalent of a roll of quarters, which would’ve lasted me all day in an arcade back in the day. Gamers have been blessed with some hardcore shmups on PS4 and PS Vita recently. TxK’s execution hits on all the right notes, making for a fun, addictive experience.