Jeff Minter has made over 60 games in his 30 years as a game developer, and yet it seems he’s spent his career remaking Dave Theurer’s classic tube shooter Tempest. It’s a template to which Minter appears unable to resist returning, refining and recalibrating its mechanics with each release to varying degrees of success. Some would cite 2007’s polarising Space Giraffe as his crowning achievement; rather more would consider 1994’s Tempest 2000 the pinnacle of Minter’s back catalogue. Both groups may soon find cause to revise their opinion.
TxK’s natural home isn’t on a portable console in 2014. Rather, it’s in a small local arcade in the 1980s. There, shrouded by a smoky fug, across a floor sticky with spilled beer, lies a cabinet scuffed through overuse, acned with burns from cigarette butts, silver coins lined up above its pockmarked sticks and scratched buttons. Yet so transportive is the experience of playing TxK that within minutes you’ll forget about Vita’s tiny sticks and buttons, or that its OLED display is no substitute for a vector monitor.
In fact, Minter’s gaudy neon aesthetic may well have found its perfect partner here. The vibrant, oversaturated colours that Vita’s screen produces make Llamasoft’s colourful iOS output look positively drab. The presentation is wonderfully crisp, those sharp edges never more apparent than at the end of a stage where the level explodes in a coruscating shower of Technicolor triangles.
Broadly speaking, its systems remain the same. You traverse the outer edges of a series of geometric shapes, shooting enemies and collecting power-ups to increase both your offensive capabilities and your score. A particle laser destroys enemies more quickly, while a jump ability allows you to leap up from the edge to escape any opponents that reach you before you can shoot them. Tap the screen and you’ll trigger a smart bomb, which can be used once per level and is replenished at the beginning of a new stage. Tunnels carry you between stages, offering more points the closer you stay to their centre, while collecting four warp triangles unlocks a bonus stage: either a thirdperson journey along arcing pathways, or a firstperson cruise through floating rings.
While these calming changes in tempo make for a welcome breather, they can’t compare to the dizzying, feverish arcade action of the main stages. Enemies come thicker, faster and stronger as you advance, with later levels bending, folding and unpacking themselves in increasingly unpredictable ways. You’ll leap and release a hail of bullets to sweep a row of enemies from the rim like bugs from a windscreen, dodging projectiles by a whisker and grabbing power-ups that launch an AI assistant along the edges in the nick of time. There’s little of the wilful obfuscation that made Space Giraffe so divisive, and though the action occasionally gets so hectic that you’ll be killed by something you didn’t quite spot, the visual and audio cues offer enough feedback between them that you’ll know to blame yourself, rather than the game, for each death.
The result is hypnotic. This is twitch gaming at its finest, with beautifully tuned thumbstick controls and a pulsing rave soundtrack that only seems to focus the mind more sharply. Meanwhile, the ability to resume from the point at which you perished makes it as easy to consume in short bursts as to devote longer sessions to. And while this is still instantly identifiable as a Llamasoft production, Minter has reined in some of his more idiosyncratic touches, while retaining his unique signature. Dynamic, thrilling and wholly invigorating, TxK isn’t just one of the best games on Vita: it might just be the best Minter’s ever made, too.