You only live once...03 Dec 2015
I’ve been meaning to jot down a few words about Rob Fearon’s Death Ray Manta:SE since I picked it up. It does a few things that I’m a sucker for, and it does them extremely well.
- It flashes lights. Big purple, red, yellow, blue, colour cycling, pulsing, throbbing lights. It does it relentlessly. It treats Alpha Blending like its bitch, while being ever-so-careful not to give you a whitey (the screen of death for a fast paced arcade game).
- It's an Arena Shooter. Robotron's an Arena Shooter. So is Llamatron. And Geometry Wars. These are excellent games, the type of which we should have had more of over the last 30 years. Colour in games was invented for Arena Shooters. More people should make Arena Shooters. (For fuck's sake, hurry up Housemarque).
- It's got a pun in it.
- It gives you one life.
This last bit is the most important, in my opinion. One Life Gaming is where Pringle-level addiction comes in. One life that, preferably, you’re sweating over for 5 seconds before the expletives come out. One life that DRM:SE manages nigh on perfectly.
No one can really go up against Robotron, but that’s not to say that it’s not worth trying. Geometry Wars ups the ante with the particle count and increases the arena’s size to cope with the physical scale and number of enemies that modern hardware can spawn, but I can’t help feeling that the floppy analogue sticks on the - admittedly best of generation - 360 pad do nothing but stymie the game. Throwing that little nubbin from side to side while not feeling unfairly battered falls off the knife edge too frequently for me, and it’s a shame, because I’ve tried to love it.
Llamatron might not have as much on screen as Roby, but it makes up for it with those cunty little laser things, along with a bunch of neat tricks to help you farm a power-up when you need it. The trademark saw tooth difficulty is not as refined as in later Minter games, but it’s clearly taking shape. It’s doable with twin sticks, but you have to work on it. Only Jeff could nail that and crown it all with the rude version. The Cunt. Cunt. Cunt. Cunt. Cunt.
DRM:SE takes all these things on-board (except the rudey bits), liberally applies the overdraw and smooshes it all into 5 seconds of mayhem. It’s like having an eye test while skydiving, the yellow afterglow on your retina does a damn good job of hiding the fact that you’re about to hit something. You’ve barely enough time to clock what gag the text is throwing at you - let alone wait for your eyes to clear - before BzzzzZZZzzzz next round BRIGHT LIGHT! GOOOOOOOOOO!
Even 25 minutes is a long time to play a game that can keep you hopping about on edge like this. It’s tiring. I love it. And let’s be honest, games were physical affairs long before the fucking Kinect came along. Playing something like Robotron was (and is) an act of wrestling with the machine. It actually makes a change to feel knackered after concentrating on, you know, beating a fucking score in this day and age.
Rob seems to get this. By making his levels fixed - getting rid of the random spawn element from Geo Wars and Robotron - he’s balancing things to his own liking. He’s telling a very exact story to the player. Not through narrative, but by controlling the ride. This also makes it more accessible. It’s entirely possible to memorise the path to the gem for the first 20+ levels within a few goes, which means it’s entirely possible that every player will recognise their own fuck ups within minutes of playing. And with fuck ups, comes the desire to improve. One more go. Once you pop, you can’t stop, and all that. Let’s reinforce that point by only giving you one life…
At level 26? Whoah, don’t fuck up! Sweaty palms yet?! Gngn, no, yes, arrgh, whoops, close, eee… FUCK!
All the things the arcade game-developer is looking for… DRM:SE does it with zero friction. Rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat.
God, I want to make an arcade game.
Flappy Bird. Super Hexagon. Canabalt. N++. etc. etc. etc. One Life Games are all over. Even Super Meat Boy restricts you to clearing the level in a one-er, kinda. All of them are moreish. They push your ability to take a risk, and with practice comes just enough mastery to increase the stakes, purely because you’ve fooled yourself into thinking that you’re better. You’ll fuck up. You know you will. You’ll hate yourself for it but you’ll have another go.
You can beat that fucking score. You know you can.
One Life Gaming.
A while back I knocked up a little ‘endless runner’ prototype on Android for a programming course that I was giving. Day’s work. With only one threat to the player and one life available it was surprisingly addictive. No graphics. No audio. Just risk and very little reward. Throw in a coin to collect and bing, you can lead the player into all sorts of shit. It was stupidly difficult, unrefined and raw, but I played that prototype for quite a while. DRM:SE makes me want to go back to that game and finish it off, or at least make something like it.
In the meantime it’s great that someone’s mining what it means to be an arcade game and doing it with their own voice. DRM:SE I salute you. (And wish I’d bought you before the SE was a thing. Doh.)