On matters Tempest…

I never really had much experience with the 1980 Tempest arcade game, but Jeff Minter did. He absolutely loves it. So much so that, when offered the opportunity by Atari, he created a glorious interpretation of the game – the Jaguar’s Tempest 2000.

T2K made the Jaguar worth owning. Nothing else in the console’s brief lifetime had anywhere near the playability, and it introduced a whole new generation of fans to Minter’s Llamasoft. But it was not the first of Yak’s Tempest re-workings that I ever played; that honour goes to Tempest 3000, written for the Nuon processor that managed to find a home in a mere handful of Samsung and Toshiba DVD players. An eBay win and shipping from a helpful mate in the US netted me a Samsung N501; a quick trip to DSE for a 230-to-115V transformer saw me in business.

T3K is a visual feast, pure and simple; the vast majority of the game looks like it’s in some glorious mild soft-focus, a soothing “come hither” effect that makes the plethora of death you’ll be dealt seem as daunting as a Mills & Boon novel. But that’s the beauty of it; T3K seems so innocuous, so sit-back-and-let-it-wash-over-you with visuals that are at once brilliant neon and soothing pastel. Blurry and indistinct, maybe – but spend half-an-hour getting into the groove of the game and they become second nature.

I aspired to be great at Tempest 3000. Being “good” wasn’t good enough; I wanted to be able to hold my head up high and say “I rock at this game.” And so, with guidance from the ever-faithful Llamascores, the nightly practise sessions began: about 15 minutes to settle in, and then the time just flew by as the game and I became a Competitive One, yin and yang, and blissfully so. Early attempts saw me bowing out of proceedings whenever the dreaded Pulsars hit the web – I had no bloody idea what was going on, no idea where they were, and was merely whizzing around the web in hope.

Dropping the trancey music volume down a few notches allows the imperative audio cues to come to the fore; suddenly, the soft “warning” and “pulsar firing” messages (being audible) were actually useful, and more progress was made. Alas, high scores in T3K seem to be reliant on (a) not using the jump (or “hover”) powerup, and (2) being able to traverse the bonus levels. I suck at the bonus level. And I can’t stop using the hover. My multipliers aren’t collected, and my score remains puny.

But what a lovely, lovely game. “Lush” is a word that suits it especially well. If only the Nuon had the ability to persist high scores… Aside from that, though, the Nuon was criminally underused hardware. Apparently hard as hell to program (with a VLIW instruction set that, with the benefit of hindsight, must be a secret shame of someone right now). The controller I snaffled was very N64-ish, and perfect for T3K: a lovely loose analog stick, perfect for thrashing about the web, before switching to the precision of the D-pad. And, of course, the Nuon was also home to Minter’s VLM-2 audio visualiser… but that’s leading to a much longer conversation.

Later, after having positively failed in my attempt to be “great” at T3K, I acquired a Jaguar and a stack of games, T2K included. And – most important of all – a rotary spinner controller, given the Yak-tastic thumbs-up as being the definitive way to play T2K. Fire up the console, give the game a nudge and a wink to engage rotary support, and we’re off – playing the game as Yak originally intended.

First thoughts were jarring; after the plasma-fied smoothness of T3K, the Jaguar’s pixel-shattering graphics felt positively coarse. It also didn’t feel as balanced; early levels carried on way too long, especially when compared to the svelte level designs of T3K. Colour me unimpressed.

Several months later, though, in the midst of a glorious break from work, I decided to return to T2K – if only to try and remove it from the To-Do List. And it managed to dig both fangs in and dig hard. After getting to grips with the controls (and, more importantly, learning how the T2K pulsars worked), I settled in for some quality Minter gaming.

As usual, his progression though levels is beautifully calculated; there’s no massive leaps in difficulty, and you always feel as if you’re learning, and being rewarded for doing so. The T2K “Key” mechanism – whereby you can restart at any odd-numbered level, as long as you’ve completed it – allows short targeted bursts, tackling three levels at a time.

I progress – slowly. My “completed” goal of unlocking Beastly Mode (by completing all 100 levels) seems quite doable as I scoot through the forties, battle manfully through the fifties, and leap into the sixties…

…only to be greeted suddenly with a blank, black screen at the end of a level.


I reboot the Jaguar, restart T2K… to discover that all my high-scores, all my progress, had been lost.

Double shit.

I start from Level 1 again. Things are much smoother this time, and before I know it I’m into the late-fifties. Then the black screen returns, dismissing any gains made.

A quick poke around the InterNets revealed that this problem was symptomatic of dodgy chips – Jag cartridges have tiny slivers of flash in them to store save-states, but the early nature of the technology used led to a relatively low write limit… which I assumed my cart was approaching.

Triple shit. Harrumph.

So, a quick poke around has netted me another (assuredly “almost unused”) T2K cart; it’s yet to be played, though. Yet another little project on the back-burner.

And so to Space Giraffe.

Let’s get one thing straight: Space Giraffe is fucking magnificent. But it’s not Tempest. In fact, were Minter anything but a chilled hippie, he’d kick your teeth in for saying so. It certainly owes a lot to Theurer’s classic (or, more accurately, Minter’s previous re-interpretations) – the webs, powerups, and baddies all seem somewhat familiar… but it’s the gameplay that sets the Giraffe apart. And that’s something I’m not even going to attempt to explain; there’s a squillion other sites out there that delve into details of bulling, juggling, and dealing with rotors.

As expected, the reviews of Space Giraffe have been all over the shop; Edge gave it an 8, OXM famously slated it with a 2.0. Everyone’s favourite opinionated netizen Stuart Campbell loved it (brilliant review there, personal insults aside), and Consolevania‘s fleeting mention (in the tricky-to-find “25677-3” episode) was right on the money too. But, as a lifelong fan of Minter’s work (well, about 90% of it, anyway), I slapped my 400 points down for the Giraffe without looking at the demo, without reading a review. And, from the outset, I knew that we were going to have a good relationship. The Neon engine that pumps forth the brilliant (in both senses of the word) visuals proved no impediment to me (up until Level 52, which required some serious brain re-wiring to comprehend), the music was a perfect fit, the audio cues perfect. Straight away, I knew that I was in love with this game – and, once again, I wanted to be able to call myself “great”. Luckily, the (frankly brilliant) level- and score-save system seems tailor-made for obsessives like me to leverage for decent ranks.

Through practise, determination, and sheer bloody-minded beligerence that I was not going to let this get to me, I managed to scrimp and save enough points to climb as high as 11th in the world… Then the exploit-abusers came in. Yes, there’s a minor exploit to be exploited that allows massive scores to be accumulated; many have taken the opportunity to get wonderful leaderboard rankings. Many more have used it as a reason to not play the Giraffe in anger until it is patched.

Not me, though. I was practising the hell out of this puppy. By the time I cracked the 400-million mark, I’d crawled back up to 13th. Hurrah!

But now I’m taking a break from the Giraffe until the patch – and resultant leaderboard wipe – has come out. Then the graph below will have a new line – the line where I’m trying to beat my own score. Already, I’m concerned about some levels that I completely fluked my way through the first time; but if any game is going to cajole me, it’s Space Giraffe.

If you’ve got a 360, and haven’t played the Giraffe yet, then download it forthwith and play the demo. Better yet, just cough up the measly 400 points and buy it outright.

Fantastic, fantastic game… Massive props, Yak :)

There’s one last game that I should mention in this little Tempest-fest, and that’s Tony Crowther’s N2O. It differs from the original Tempest in almost exactly the opposite manner to T2K; if anything, the two games are complementary.

N2O sees the player piloting a craft through tubes blasting baddies, with the player freely rotating around the outside of the tube as you travel through it. The opaque and twisting nature of the tubes is a key differentiator from the more traditional treatments, but the lovely thing about the game is the weight that’s afforded your vehicle – it’s got a lovely heft to it, and handling subtleties between different models of craft offer one of many minor tactical aspects.

By no means have I hammered N2O – in fact, I’ve only seen about a third of the levels, playing on the easiest skill level. But it’s another game on the To-Do List – like T2K, T3K, and Space Giraffe – that I’m really looking forward to immersing myself in. If only to be “good”.