Okay Jeff Minter, you win.
Against logic and reason you have once again resurrected that 1981 Atari game, resolute that its gameplay principals are timeless and that the vector graphics are still agreeable to a modern audience, and you were right.
TxK emerges from its ancestry as the most accomplished instalment in the Tempest series yet.
Even more surprising is that, despite Tempest's birth on arcade boards, its cherished childhood on the Atari Jaguar and its misunderstood adolescence on Xbox Live Arcade (deciding, like some teenagers do, to change its name), on PlayStation Vita it feels like the series has come of age.
Much of this is due to the PS Vita hardware itself. TxK's approachable yet intense gameplay is perfect for thirty-minute bursts on handhelds. Meanwhile, the embarrassingly decent techno (complete with trancey one-liners such as "space...is everything") is perhaps best served through the privacy of earphones. And of course the look, that look, of psychedelic god rays hanging in space, sings harmoniously on the Vita OLED.
For those who've never sampled Tempest, it's essentially Space Invaders at an over-the-shoulder angle. Groups of enemies emerge from the far end of a tunnel and must be shot down as they trickle towards you. After about two minutes, each level will capitulate into a sumptuous acid burst of neon and the player is transported to the next.
But the following stage won't be a circular tunnel. It'll be a cuboid, and the next will be a pentagonal prism, and then an S-shape, and on and on until the game begins to throw up animated polyhedrons that begin to defy the laws of physics.
Meanwhile, platoons of enemies will be constantly trickling towards your side of the screen, and if they reach it unscathed they will effectively block your horizontal movement. Even worse, these foes will begin a crab-walk towards you with intent to kill.
Such fundamental rules evolve rapidly as each level progresses. Players can, for example, collect a Jump power-up, allowing your claw-shaped ship to momentarily dive away from the grid and thus shoot those entrenched at your end. Be advised, however, that other enemies can fire into the area of space that your ship jumps into.
TxK is a game laced with such caveats and countermeasures; it is an intense tug of war where both the player and computer are trying to swing the balance in their favour.
All power-ups are confiscated at the end of each level, for example, yet they are gradually spewed out onto the next, meaning the player is continuously jumping back and forth between underpowered and overpowered. Collecting such perks as they hurtle down each stage will force constant risk-reward decisions; do you focus on attacking the crowd or make a sideways dash for supplies?
What makes TxK so enthralling is these relentlessly evolving ideas and challenges, and how they compel the player to continually rethink their approach.
Later on, levels will slowly rotate like majestic celestial bodies, and even further down the line they'll begin to unravel and fold in on themselves, as if the player was dancing back and forth between either side of a wormhole. The mere concept of direction soon becomes redundant; pressing "right" will take you to the upper curl of a giant human ear, pressing "left" will push you down to the lowest point of a massive neon raindrop.
Mastery of TxK is accomplished by staying composed and maintaining your bearings as the world around you capitulates into chaos.
The pace in which the game transforms is relentless. During the ten-second respite between levels, for example, players are invited to jump through a series of hoops for bonus points. It's hard to decline such an offer when involved in what is, essentially, a high-score game.
Meanwhile, if the player collects four 'warp triangles', TxK will lurch into a different game entirely for a couple of minutes. One is a trippy dream-like challenge of swimming through spinning hoops in first-person. Another is reminiscent of Sonic 2's half-pipe segments, this time drenched in dreamy neon.
That neo-retro look, of course, is Minter's signature. It's obviously not to everyone's taste, but those who appreciate phosphorous vector graphics will cite TxK as a shining example of this visual style. The Vita's OLED deserves credit too; its chthonic black screen provides an immensely dark space neon lasers to cut into.
Just as impressive is Llamasoft's degree of restraint when presented with such opportunity; TxK delivers gorgeous colour intensity without over-saturation, and the final product is far better off because of this.
In fact, TxK as a whole benefits tremendously from this composed design principal of intensifying nearly everything but knowing when to stop. The result is the purest distillation yet of that thirty-three year-old Tempest formula, and the best game in the series.
That also means the game, by choice, is not particularly progressive. The gameplay may be presented in a dazzling new light, but its inherent ideas have ossified. Then again, it's easy to argue that TxK is a new take on a classic formula, so any fundamental changes would be missing the point.
Whatever your take, the end result is a game that has a capped long-term value. TxK lovingly offers you everything in its first few of hours, and while you could play it for another twenty and still be dazzled by the magic tricks, it doesn't do a particularly good job of compelling players to return.
After the punishing development odyssey of Space Giraffe, and its divisive response upon release, it's gratifying to see Minter and his team deliver something that is so easily enjoyable and sellable. TxK doesn't reinvent Tempest, but it proudly stands for everything good about it.
So well done Jeff & co, you finally nailed it. Now go and make a military shooter or something, for Christ's sake.
TxK is dazzlingly beautiful, relentless fun, and the purest distillation of the Tempest formula yet
- Gorgeous neo-retro look
- Demands constant rethinking
- Perfect for Vita
- At an evolutionary dead-end
- Not enticing enough after several hours