Dyad is both shooter and a racer, which should be quite enough for any videogame to take on. If you’re prepared to squint a bit, though, you’ll see that this is a game with deeper ambitions, too. If you peer past the leaderboards and psychedelic particle effects, the whole thing becomes a brisk little primer in arcade archaeology – and this secret element turns out to be a lot more fun than it sounds. The ideas driving Dyad may sometimes seem complex, but they rarely weigh it down. The pace is frantic, the tone is light, and the syllabus is richly varied.
Shawn McGrath’s game is set inside a tunnel, and the tunnel stretches all the way back to the days of Tempest. As you drill into the past – whether you’re blasting at targets or fighting against the clock – you’ll be digging your way around confident genre classics like Rez, but you’ll also be turfing up far more wayward oddities such as Jeff Minter’s mesmerising and often under-appreciated Space Giraffe. This is a videogame with a serious, potentially overpowering lineage, in other words, and it comes with a sturdy, unspoken sense of its place in history.
That each play session manages to leave you with such a strong appreciation of the game’s own identity is a testament to the manner in which its designer skilfully juggles established ideas and blends genres together in unexpectedly coherent ways. Dyad may be drawn towards old concepts, but it ultimately emerges with something new.
There’s a surprising amount of variety within Dyad’s warping, flickering, evolving backdrops
Those old concepts are never far away, however, and for the first few minutes all a novice player is likely to notice are the glittering trophies that Dyad has lifted from other titles. Spotting the potential influences can be an entertaining process in itself, as can teasing out the point at which homage ends and fresh design begins. Tempest is the prime mover, of course, since Dave Theurer’s stylishly abstract blaster provides the template for both the luminous aesthetic and that famous into-the-screen perspective, setting your craft spinning around the walls of a glittering wormhole. From Rez, meanwhile, the game gets the courage to expand on its colourful, otherworldly ambience, along with a willingness to mix in audio cues alongside standard rail shooter mechanics.
It’s when the tunnel zips past Space Giraffe that Dyad seems to really load up its cart, though. Few contemporary designers can keep the arcade spirit alive and evolving quite like Minter, and McGrath’s game ends up with a similar a fondness for bloomy visual noise, a taste for its own arcane terminology and a skill with handy post-match infographics. More than anything, Dyad has the soul of a Llamasoft game – even if it prefers to wrap it up inside the cool lines of industrial design rather than with that famously wonky sense of humour.
So what has this Frankenstein-esque patchwork of parts created? A game that turns out to be surprisingly intuitive at heart, even if it doesn’t necessarily look that way on paper. As you move through each level’s endless tunnel, your most basic skill involves shooting – or ‘hooking’ – glowing enemies to get a speed boost from them as you barrel past. Next, you’re encouraged to match colours as you hook. Over time, you’re introduced to ‘grazing’ too, as you brush through the warped halos created by hooked enemies to build up something called a lance meter.
‘Lancing’ turns out to be an ability that lends you a handy burst of speed and momentum. Press the correct button and you’ll suddenly rush forward, punching a hole through anything that gets in your way, which gives you a rare opportunity to crash into enemies instead of avoiding them. Lances can be extended, too, and then there are triads, which provide an incentive to sharpen your aim by offering up a nucleus orbited by two glowing electrons. Shoot the nucleus, and you’ll create a zipline that allows you to pick up truly huge bursts of speed. Shoot the electrons, and you’ll cancel the nucleus out, leaving you with nothing but another shimmering halo.