Back in the olden days, computers were a bit primitive and games were designed by lone coders sitting in their bedrooms rather than teams of 50 people. They were relatively cheap to create (as opposed to today's multi-million pound budgets) and that meant they often showed far more imagination than today's big budget games and were as addictive as hell. Geometry Wars Galaxies is an unashamed retro throwback to those olden days.
It can't boast the most sophisticated graphics. There are no fancy backgrounds - just a plain black backdrop; your spaceship is tiny and fairly non-descript and (as the name suggests) your enemies are nothing more than a series of geometric shapes - many of them don't even shoot at you. True, the graphics have a nice neon effect (which makes them easy to see, so there's no excuses when you hit one and die!), but there's little here that couldn't have been done on the old 8 bit machines of the 1980s.
Things are slightly less primitive on the sound side, although still fairly minimal. A thumping soundtrack plays throughout, which really gets the blood flowing, but other than that, it's limited to a few explosion effects - effective and in keeping with the retro theme of the game but it's never going to win any awards.
Enemies might only be a series of simple shapes, but they have been used well to enhance the gameplay. Each different shape has different behaviour patterns. Circles are fairly slow and passive and will only attack if you get too close; diamonds are more aggressive and will home in on you, whilst snowflakes multiply rapidly unless you shoot them. They also meander around, making it difficult to predict where they are going (and so making it harder to avoid them). This means the player constantly has to make decisions to prioritise the threats, taking out the more dangerous targets first. Galaxies may be nothing more than a glorified shoot-em-up, but - as with all of that genre's better titles - there's a surprisingly deep element of strategy needed if you want to be good at it.
Geometry Wars' playing area is superbly tight and controlled and it's surprising how much a simple thing like boundaries can add to a game. Rather than having an open space environment which you can fly around at will, each level takes place within the confines of an arena. In keeping with the rest of the game, these arenas are geometrical shapes. This adds an additional challenge to the game and requires you to alter your strategy from level to level. Circular arenas, for example, give you plenty of room in which to move around, whilst rectangular once offer less vertical movement but more space to move horizontally. If you try and use the same tactics in a circular arena that you used in a rectangular one, you'll soon find yourself coming a cropper.
What really makes the game, though, is the tight controls which give you a phenomenal degree of handling of your little craft. Your ship is very small and highly manoeuvrable, able to squeeze through the tiniest of gaps (something you will soon need to master!). As such, even when you appear to be in the tightest of holes, if you are skilful enough, you can always thread your way through the attacking hordes to (relative) safety. I have been playing computer games for over 30 years now, and I am honestly struggling to think of a game which has ever offered the same degree of controls as this one. Quite simply, if you die it's because your skills are inadequate, not because the game is unfair.
In keeping with its retro theme, the number of buttons used are kept to a minimum and this again works in the game's favour. The D-Pad controls movement, the A button fires and the shoulder button explodes one of your smart bombs (these can be used to clear the screen of enemies if you are in danger of being overwhelmed, but you only have a few, so you need to use them wisely). The slight inertia on the ship takes a couple of games to adjust to, but once you have, you will be able to turn your spaceship on a sixpence to get out of trouble. Incidentally, you can also use the stylus and touch screen to control the game, but I don't find this anywhere near as responsive.
All this combines to create some truly exhilarating and panic-inducing gameplay. In keeping with the retro graphics and sound, this game is an unashamed throwback to the shoot em ups of days gone by. There is no point to the game other than the amassing of as many points as possible. At times, the game throws an insane number of enemies at you, yet, thanks to the tight controls, you never feel overwhelmed. The odds might be stacked against you, but you always feel as though you have a genuine chance. The constant, frantic action, the skin-of-the teeth escapes and the tightly bound arenas will have you bobbing from side to side, mimicking the movement of your ship and whooping with delight as you make yet another narrow escape from the clutches of your enemies.
Destroyed enemies also leave behind a pick-up which if collected will boost your score multiplier by one. The score multiplier is essential to success; without it, you will only score a piffling number of points. Get it to 50 and above, though and you really start to notch up some serious points. But this leaves a problem: with so many enemies on the screen, do you risk going for that pick-up that's floating around, or do you simply concentrate on killing the enemies that remain? It's an important decision because if you get it wrong and die, your Score Multiplier is reset to 0 and you have to building it up all over again.
With only 3 lives and hordes of enemies, Galaxies is hard - there's no getting away from that. Even the opening "trainer" levels set tough points targets either to unlock the next level or be awarded a medal. Once again, this apes the old-style shooters which rewarded a player for skill, rather than relying on the easy "everyone's a winner" game play of (say) the Lego Star Wars games. On the plus side, when you finally beat a level after dozens of attempts or achieve that elusive gold medal, you get a real feeling of satisfaction and achievement.
Despite some tough gameplay, Geometry Wars Galaxies is also incredibly addictive. If you beat a level and unlock the next one, you immediately want to move on to try your hand at the next challenge; if you die with a pitiful score, you head straight back to have another go; if you fall just short of your high score for that level, you hit Retry determined that this time, you will beat it.
This brings up the game's sole downside. Because the action is so frantic, your fingers and hands are constantly moving to shoot or move your ship. Since the DS is relatively small and the controls packed together, I do find that after around 30 minute's game time, my hands start to ache. This is frustrating, as I desperately want to carry on playing, but often have to stop to give my hands a rest. Mind you, it's probably just as well, as otherwise I would probably lose entire days playing it!
You can pick Geometry Wars up on the DS for around a fiver and at that price it's almost criminal. There are a lot of good games on Nintendo's handheld, but few titles I would consider absolute "must-haves". This is one. If you're a fan of old school shooters, then there really is no excuse for not owning this game.
© Copyright SWSt 2011