The past several years have seen innumerable revivals of arcade classics, with a varying degree of quality and success. Most of these projects are half-baked ports with new graphics, doing little to innovate or make the old formulas interesting again. Some of them are insults to the venerable classics, using brand recognition alone to sell an inferior product. Between Xbox Live Arcade and Nintendo’s Virtual Console, I’ve seen enough bad “classics” to make me permanently skeptical, and senior staffer Cyril Lachel has seen dozens more in his Retro Round Up feature.
That is why Space Invaders Extreme comes as a complete surprise. Cyril loved it for the PSP, and I was charged with reviewing the DS version. I was a little apprehensive, considering “extreme” is in the title, and the tendency for Nintendo platforms to get lousy ports these days, but Taito managed to do justice to Space Invaders. The DS has been given an addictive and complex arcade shooter, that stands alongside the PSP version as a worthy adaptation of a seminal classic.
The gameplay in Extreme takes the original arcade concept and expounds upon it, leaving the pick up and play arcade quality intact but adding depth that makes it a lot more fun to play. You still control a small cannon at the bottom of the screen, which you can move laterally, and use it to fire at the rapidly approaching lines of invaders falling from the top of the screen. Your cannon can only sustain a single hit, so you start each session with a number of lives and a weak, slow blaster. If you are hit or the invaders make it to the bottom of the screen, you lose a life, and when you’re out of lives, it’s game over.
And this is where the classic formula ends and the improvements begin. The biggest change I noticed, and the difference from the PSP version, is that Extreme uses both screens vertically, similar to Sonic Rush. While this is potentially problematic, considering the “dead space” between the two screens, Taito handles it well. I never noticed any significant lag problems, and even if I did, I could adjust the dead space delay in the options menu.
Taito also stuck with traditional D-pad and button controls, and I appreciate that they didn’t do anything gimmicky with the touch screen. Some developers use the DS’s features just for the sake of doing it, and gameplay usually suffers. Extreme does none of that pandering to the gimmick-hungry casual crowd. The real innovation comes with the gameplay additions.
Taito has packed so many nuances and multipliers into the original concept of “high score” that Extreme almost feels like the shooter equivalent of a combo-heavy fighting game. The addition of color alone to the original black and white Space Invaders opens up a number of possibilities. For example, killing four of the same color in a row grants you a powerup: bombs for red, spreadshot for green, laser for blue, and shield for black. These powerups can be held in reserve and using them strategically is usually the difference between victory and game over.
But the powerups are only the surface. Shooting different combinations of flying saucers will activate a bonus round. These short timed rounds have different objectives based on the color of the UFO you toast, such as killing a certain type of enemy or a certain number. Completing these rounds activates Fever mode, a double score period where you have an infinite super shot for a brief time. These help break up the gameplay a bit, and again, if you know how to time them right they can give a definite advantage, not to mention a huge score boost. As you complete these rounds, your cannon can level up, increasing the effectiveness of its blaster; losing a life knocks you back to its base level, providing incentive to go as long as possible on one cannon. These are just the most obvious and common ways to enhance your score; Extreme has enough combo multipliers to make a Guitar Hero player’s eyes spin.
This gameplay is broken up into a number of modes. Arcade is the base mode, which lets you advance along a branching path of five stages, the last two broken up into easy and hard tiers. These stages aren’t the simple ad-naseum repetition of the old arcade game—you’ll go up against increasingly complex formations of invaders, as new ones appear with more nefarious behavior. You’ll battle the standard scrolling aliens, but be prepared for dive-bombing kamikazes, deflector wielding invaders and large baddies using the same powerups you can acquire. Each stage ends with a unique boss fight that takes a specific strategy to complete. I love the fourth level boss, which required you to bounce shots off a row of deflector aliens on the top screen to hit an unreachable boss below you on the bottom screen.You can save your progress between stages, which is a huge relief when you’re getting low on lives and you know you won’t last much longer. It also fits the quick-session nature of the portable DS. Beating levels in arcade opens them up in stage mode, where you can play them individually for a high score. Ranking mode lets you play the arcade mode old school style, without save or retry options, and then lets you upload your scores to leaderboards when you finally bite the dust.
Extreme also has a strong multiplayer component, which allows you to compete one-on-one over wireless play, or on the Nintendo Wifi Connection—again, you can upload your scores. Extreme supports both multi-card and download play.
Visually, Extreme has a great art style. Taito wisely avoided the goofy presentation updates of other classic adaptations, and instead went for a retro flair. Each level is a psychedelic display of pixel art, using the old sprite shapes but deliberately enhancing them with vibrant colors and transform effects. The end result is a wonderful combination of arcade nostalgia and stylistic charm. The music and sound aren’t as creative and get a little repetitive, but I do like what Taito did with them—the music and FX are synchronized, so as you blast invaders, it accents the current tune playing. There’s even a small note counter on the top screen that keeps track of the music combos you make.
Space Invaders Extreme is overall a brief experience—the arcade mode only takes a couple hours to finish. It’s the challenging difficulty and deep combo system, however, that will keep you coming back, no matter how many times the game schools you (and trust me, it’ll be a lot). Extreme is the very definition of an arcade update done right, and as a fiendishly addictive portable game, it’s one of this year’s best DS titles. My only real complaint is that they didn’t include the original game for comparison’s sake, to show just how far Space Invaders has come. For $20, this is one of the best deals, hands down, on the shelves right now. Get this sleeper hit before it disappears.