TxK review: Tidal Tempest

Indie designer Jeff Minter has lingered on the fringes of the video game industry over the last few decades, producing refined versions of classic arcade games that reflect his quirky, bovine-loving personality. His latest game, TxK for the PlayStation Vita, feels essentially like a remake of Tempest 2000, Minter's groundbreaking arcade update that holds the dubious honor of being among the best games released for the unsuccessful Atari Jaguar console.

Compared to Minter's follow-up, Space Giraffe (another Tempest-alike), TxK is a return to basics. Built on Tempest's foundation, TxK scales back Space Giraffe's complexity while incorporating many elements from Tempest 2000 for a refined and enjoyable – if overly familiar – look back at arcade gaming's past.
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TxK is a level-based, single-screen shoot-'em-up that pits players against waves of enemies emerging from the far end of a tunnel. Each level follows a similar structure; after fending off a starting wave of easily defeated enemies, players slide along the edges of the tunnel, gathering power-ups to prepare for an incoming horde. By the time enemy forces engage in full, you'll have equipped yourself with a decent weapon, an AI helper droid, and the ability to leap off of the level's boundaries to sweep the area clean of encroaching creatures. Kill everything and you progress to the next level, where you'll need to rebuild your arsenal from scratch.

Though you'll use similar strategies in each level, the TxK campaign has a satisfying difficulty curve, which helps to maintain a solid sense of pacing throughout its 100 included levels. Whereas classic arcade games continue ramping difficulty as levels progress, TxK often rewards players with one or two relatively calm levels after surviving a particularly fiendish stage. It makes the lengthy campaign less grueling than it would be otherwise, and extra lives are doled out frequently enough to offset any difficulty roadblocks you'll encounter.

TxK starts off as a generally straightforward Tempest remake, retaining the original 1983 arcade game's kill-em-all gameplay and focus on twitch reflexes over strategy. Starting in later levels, though, playfields twist, undulate, and fold in upon themselves, making it more difficult to track enemy movement. When the game is firing on all cylinders, you'll repel swarms of invading creatures atop a playfield that spins constantly, often flipping your character (and your controls) upside-down. Keeping your cool while TxK is doing its damnedest to make you nauseated is a unique challenge, and it's a brilliant twist on a classic formula.

Compared to Space Giraffe, TxK is much narrower in scope, and its gameplay is more straightforward and accessible. If you're already familiar with Tempest, you'll master TxK's mechanics immediately. Even if you've never played any previous version of Tempest, TxK's three-button control scheme is easy enough for newcomers to grasp, especially when compared to Space Giraffe's risky, enemy-ramming gameplay and expanded twin-stick mechanics, which resulted in a steep rise in difficulty.

TxK fixes many of Space Giraffe's fundamental issues, but you'll still suffer the occasional death from unseen hazards – a problem stemming the Minter's long-standing love of psychedelic backdrops and overwhelming enemy hordes. These deaths aren't too punitive, thanks to a friendly "Restart Best" option, which allows players to restart at their highest reached level with extra lives intact, but slamming into an enemy bullet obscured by the on-screen chaos is always a heartbreaking momentum-killer.

While it's a wise step back from Space Giraffe's overwhelming complexity, TxK instead feels like too straightforward of a Tempest remake overall. Many of its strongest elements are directly lifted from Tempest 2000; the power-up based gameplay structure, the enemy types, the jumping mechanic, the bonus levels, and even TxK's power-ups were originally introduced almost 20 years ago in Minter's Jaguar game. Despite its aesthetic improvements, TxK feels less like an epiphany and more like a return to an established formula.

Minter's recent iOS output saw wild shifts in genre, style, and presentation. TxK, in comparison, is an exercise in restraint. In a way, this change is for the best. By culling the experimental elements that sometimes made Minter's previous works difficult to enjoy, TxK is more cohesive as a whole. On the other hand, reigning in the weirdness factor means missing out on much of Minter's trademark charm. It's a necessary trade-off for the sake of mass appeal, but as a fan of his experimental side, I'm a little bit disappointed that Minter didn't take more risks with TxK.

Though it plays it safe in terms of mechanics, TxK is challenging and thrilling throughout. It's a treat for anyone who enjoyed any previous version of Tempest, and it's especially worthwhile if you missed out on Tempest 2000. If nothing else, TxK's existence means that there is no longer any reason whatsoever to own an Atari Jaguar. For that, I'm grateful.

This review is based on a PSN download of TxK, provided by Sony. Images: Llamasoft.

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