TxK and Flappy Bird: where’s the line between retro and ripoff?

trigger happy

Steven Poole is an author and regular Edge columnist. Illustration by Marsh Davies.

For a handheld console – or any kind of console, actually – Vita has an awful lot of control options. A touchscreen, dual sticks, a D-pad, buttons, motion sensing, and the rear touchpad, which always makes me feel a little bit like a ’70s radio legend trying to put his hand up an unsuspecting teenager’s skirt. And yet with all these control options, there’s another one that now feels missing. Trust that goat-fancying visionary Jeff Minter to make me wish Vita had a rotary paddle as well.

I am playing TxK, of course, a beautifully waxed Ferrari of what Yak himself calls the “neo-retro arcade shooter”. The only problem is that when the controls of a Tempest-alike game are left-right rather than clockwise-counterclockwise, they effectively get reversed when you’re up round the top of a circular level – pushing the stick left makes you go right and vice versa. Cue innumerable farcical deaths as I shunt myself with alacrity right into an enemy instead of into the powerups in the other direction.

But gradually I get used to it. And everything else about the game is pure psychoelectronic opiates. Yes, TxK is the best game of Tempest you can possibly play without owning an original Tempest cabinet. And even then, many things about TxK are more fun and charming than the original. The ecstatically repeated cries of “Yes yes yes yes yes” when you ace a level, as though James Joyce’s Molly Bloom were on an LSD-inspired interstellar odyssey. The overwhelming sense of relief and power when you obtain the ability to jump. Plus Llamasoft’s brilliantly player-friendly ‘Restart Best’ system.

‘TxK isn’t just one of the best games on Vita: it might just be the best Minter’s ever made,’ we said in our TxK review.

Yet, of course, it’s still basically Tempest. TxK is a remake of and improvement on Minter’s own T3K and Tempest 2000, not to mention Space Giraffe, which were all remakes of Tempest. And yet no one bombards Minter with death threats for his relentless work of digital homage. This is what artists in mature artforms do: Michael Nyman plundered Purcell; William Shakespeare nicked stories anywhere he could find them; Heat, Michael Mann’s masterpiece, improves in every way on its inspiration, Mann’s own earlier film LA Takedown. And so on.

So what is the difference between TxK and Flappy Bird? Why does Jeff Minter get the (thoroughly deserved) plaudits, while Dong Nguyen was hounded by moralising pedants claiming he’d ripped off the iconic Nintendo pipe design, to the point where Nguyen temporarily removed the game from sale?

When this sorry story broke, many videogame commentators engaged in various more-or-less humiliating acts of public self-flagellation, wondering why they and their culture were so nasty. Was there an element of racism in the barracking of an obscure Korean guy, where an all-American brogrammer might have been embraced by the ‘community’? Possibly.

But I think the critical difference boils down to the difference between the games. Where TxK is deliberately more friendly and approachable than Llamasoft’s uncompromising previous output, Flappy Bird is so hard that it makes ‘hardcore’ seem like a really floppy word. It’s so hard that you can spend half an hour on it without scoring over five points. But while being amazingly hard, it’s also amazingly cute. There is real artistry in the pixel-perfect personality of your bird. This much difficulty and this much lovability should not coexist. Über-hard games are usually blockily utilitarian (VVVVVV) or abstractly, geometrically beautiful (Super Hexagon), but rarely cartoonily nice. Hard and cute does not compute.

‘Flappy Bird is so hard that it makes ‘hardcore’ seem like a really floppy word.’

Flappy Bird is so cute-hard, I think, that people who got addicted to it suspected that they had been tricked. (Dudes, of course you were tricked! Psychological manipulation is a fundamental component of any artform!) And this trickster guy, who had tricked everyone into playing his stupid impossible game, was reportedly making $50,000 a day from it. Obviously, that was just not fair. And so jealousy entered the equation, too. The App Store is the California gold rush of our day: people move out there and dream of making untold riches. This guy did, with a trick game so simple anyone could have made it. But he did and I didn’t. Bastard.

These, then, are the real reasons why Nguyen was hounded into near-silence, while Minter is justly celebrated. TxK is a portal into outer space, daubed in exciting colours and with a moreishly banging soundtrack. But Flappy Bird was a mirror into the troubled, angry souls of its players.