Of all the things to love about games, the best is when one comes out of nowhere to knock you upside the head. By name alone, Space Invaders Extreme doesn’t sound like a winner. The original Space Invaders was more influential than it is fun, and adding the word “extreme” to anything besides an energy drink is a certain sign of disaster. But it’s July, nothing new is out, and everybody’s looking ahead to the Electronic Entertainment Expo, so I figured what the hell — let’s give this thing a whirl. Good thing I did.
Even as the original Space Invaders celebrates its 30th birthday this year, this Extreme reimagining draws most of its inspiration from more recent shoot-’em-ups. For presentation, it combines a pulsing backbeat with chiming musical sound effects to create a colorful, synæsthetic experience that owes a major debt to Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s modern classic Rez. Enemy aliens march across the screen to the beat while a kaleidoscopic visual effect segues you between rounds. A technological masterpiece it isn’t, but it boasts a welcome artistic edge.
The gameplay also takes more than a few cues from recent shooters, notably Treasure’s Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga. The enemies aren’t merely worth varying point totals — they come in different colors, and shooting four ships of the same color in a row earns you a power-up. Most of these are offensive — blue for a powerful laser, green for a spreadshot, red for bombs — but there’s also a crucial shield available. So your goal isn’t always to clear the screen as fast as possible — you have to consider whether you want to go after a sequence of colors in order to gain a power-up.
Even with all this, the continual screen clearing might get repetitive, so the developers have added some bonkers interludes. After stringing together two successful power-up sequences, you’ll have a chance to shoot a flashing UFO that blitzes across the top of the screen. Doing so triggers a bonus round with a unique objective, the successful completion of which will drop you back into the game with a massively powered temporary weapon. This is the sort of thing that’s great to aspire to if you’re skillful enough, and even if you’re not, it’ll happen often enough to freshen things up.
In the finest shmup tradition, Space Invaders Extreme is brutally difficult. Would you have it any other way? It doesn’t reach Ikuraga’s heights of controller-smashing futility, but death comes swiftly and often. If the game has one notable failing, it’s that there are no intra-level checkpoints to restart at when you reach the “game over” screen. This is true to Space Invaders’ arcade roots, but inching just a bit further through a level over and over before having to restart can try a body’s patience.
It’s hard to believe that any video game could be 30 years old, but here we are. When you consider that Space Invaders was the urtext for an entire genre of games — one that’s enjoyed steady popularity all these decades — it’s only right that it should borrow liberally from the games it inspired. A simple port with some upgraded graphics and zippy sound effects might have sold well enough, but it wouldn’t have been true to the groundbreaking spirit of the original. The best tribute that could be paid to the source material is a game made for 2008 and not 1978. That’s just what Taito has done.