Release: Out Now
Unusually for a downloadable game, ColorZ really pushes your hardware. Unusually for a game of any kind, the hardware in question isn’t the slab of silicon and solder underneath the TV but rather the muddle of electrically-charged squidge between your ears. This is a uniquely stubborn game, and one that aims to forge new connections within its players’ brains, making what seems to be an impossible control scheme slowly plausible, and then, ultimately, enjoyable.
Things get complicated quickly, starting with a nippy little primary colour UFO you steer between huge bacterial spores by pointing the remote. Run into microbes matching the hue of your craft and you’ll absorb them; crash into any others and you’ll die. As enemy formations become more complex, you can change your paintjob by passing over special pads, but just when the game seems to be settling into its role as a sedate retread of Radiant Silvergun, Exkee presents you with a second UFO to pilot alongside the first, this one controlled with the Nunchuk. Finally, in a blast of savage brilliance, a third ship enters the fray, forcing you to get to grips with the remote’s d-pad as well.
It is, you might be surprised to learn, even harder than it sounds. Ignore the game’s soft scoop backdrops: a small yet brutal suite of challenges awaits anyone hoping to shepherd their tricolour of UFOs to victory. And while the various control methods are suitably responsive and the level design rarely pulls any genuinely dirty tricks, the central premise of attempting two – and then three – tasks at once makes for a fearsomely steep learning curve as single-craft levels become race tracks and then minefields, while busier missions evolve into mazes, asteroid belts, and escort jobs. Corridors branch unpredictably, colour-swapping mutates to embrace cyan, magenta and even white as you gain the ability to fuse your ships together, and towering barriers unstitch themselves at the spur of the moment, before proceeding to fling tiny spinning chunks of death into your crafts’ separate paths.
And, when you fail, ColorZ serves to remind you that the orgy of encouragement in most modern titles is far from mandatory, each death flinging you back to the start of a torturous level with the faint, but audible cry of ‘Loser!’. But while the game can be cruel, it also knows how to make a little kindness go a long way, offering a simple brute-force solution for even the most arthritic of UFO commanders, as every blunder grants you an additional chunk of life the next time you attempt the mission.
So perhaps ColorZ’s singular ability to generate stress is not due to the fact that it’s more difficult than other games, but because it simply feels more difficult. Disaster is a constant twitchy presence here, never more than a hand-tremor away, and, thanks to the regal crawl of some of the more complex levels, you’ll spend a lot of time retracing your steps in the event of each mistake.
With its clouds of spiny bacteria and that sense of looming threat, ColorZ is a perfect digital companion to enjoy during global pandemic. It’s a throwback, but a fascinating one: a game you don’t play to see the sights, or even, really to enjoy the multiplayer options (although they’re surprisingly workable), so much as to lose yourself in pure, frustrating challenge. With such uniquely punishing mechanics, it’s amazing that Exkee has smoothed out the difficulty curve as well as it has done, but even now it can be hard to separate the genuine moments of pleasure from a kind of ludic Stockholm syndrome.
Ingenious, experimental and entirely polarising, games like ColorZ show that WiiWare continues to take the road less travelled. In doing so, the platform’s most poignant offerings reveal something a little bit magical – a fleeting glimpse of the soul lurking within the machine.