First things first, I love this game and put it up on the same pedestal as Tetris and DRoD. If I could only ever play 3 games, those would be the three.
For some reason, I’ve always been fond of Jeff Minter games. Before I could appreciate why I was shooting cigarettes at rizlas in a stage in Ancipital I was liking the game. I was rubbish at Mutant Camels but I delighted in the oddness of it. That was over two decades ago.
Like many, I really liked Tempest 2000 but found it hamstrung by the awful Jaguar. Fortunately, a superb PC version can be found and plays very very well indeed. More recently Gridrunner++ was my favourite Minter shooter. Wonderfully hectic but filled with strategy and depth and, like the very best twitch games, able to take you to that place where you and the game match wavelengths and you end up playing in some zen-like state.
I’ve learned that you can’t really judge a Minter game until you’ve played it. The totally indecipherable videos of Space Giraffe (SG) that appeared some months back on YouTube gave a flicker of concern but didn’t really put me off as I felt confident the underlying game would become apparent when I was at the controls.
As I’ve mentioned before, when you’ve played games for over two decades, there’s little you’ve not seen in one form or another already. As such, any game that can surprise you or second guess your expectations makes quite an impact. Conversely, any game that ends up being precisely what you expected it to be feels disappointing (unless, it’s God of War 2, naturally).
It should be apparent by now that I had a positive approach to Space Giraffe and was willing to give it more than just the benefit of the doubt. I grabbed the game and played through the tutorial and read through the text instructions which go as far as to tell you how to unlock your first achievement. I started playing the game properly and instantly didn’t get what made it any different to Tempest.
I went back and re-read the instructions and re-played the tutorial. A couple of things clicked into place and I did better. About an hour later I was bulling, jumping and cranking up my score multiplier like billy-o.
People are going to find there’s three goals in Space Giraffe. One is to earn the highest score you can. One is to beat the final level (level 100) the other is to unlock the achievements. But, at it’s core, Space Giraffe is simply about score and how to maximise it. Remember games with that goal? Playing for points? Takes you back, doesn’t it?
Some have criticised the game as being too random. Not true. The game is very structured and the attack waves follow a recogniseable sequence. If in doubt, replay level one a few times and you’ll see what I mean. There’s deliberate design in the action on the screen.
Of course, another criticism is that you can’t actually see the action on the screen due to the psychedelic noise. Whilst this is true to some extent, this is more than compensated by the information delivered by the audio. Trust me, you’ll do so much better in Space Giraffe once you learn to digest the wealth of information it gives your eyes and ears.
Now, admittedly, just what this information represents isn’t immediately apparent. The strange bleats, telephone bleeps, chimes, bovine whining, flashes, psychedelia, cries of “muu muu” and dozens of other cues seem like disorganised abstract overkill. Except they’re not.
If you’re used to games that present you with a blue door and a blue key and leave you to work out what to do next then Space Giraffe is going to make you question a lot of how it goes about doing things. Once again, it’s not that the way this stuff has been put together doesn’t make sense or is too abstract – once you make the connections in your head it all makes perfect sense – in the context of a game that calls itself “Space Giraffe”. I mean, look at the title of the game. That’s a clue as to the sort of logic you’re going to find in it’s mechanics right there. At no point does it ever promise to leave the gamer in their cosy little comfort zone of standard conventions.
So, once you loosen up and are prepared to go with the game’s flow you’ll realise that it has a hell of a lot of sctructure and good sense. For example, if I were to be blindfolded and listen to the game being played I could tell what score multiplier had been reached, how many enemy bullets were shot down, how many enemy bullets were left on the playfield at the end of the stage, if the player had earned the stage-transition bonus and if they had any jump-pods left over. By contrast, if I did the same with, say, Street Fighter 2 I wouldn’t be able to tell you whether player 1 or player 2 won the round!
Some people ask “why can’t he just do things this way or that way”. Well, perhaps he could. But it’s not Minter’s style (if there’s one thing you can say about Minter, it’s that his work has a pretty distinctive style to it) and, more importantly, the game doesn’t suffer as a result. In fact, Minter’s shooters consistently concentrate on expanding core shooting mechanics at the expense niceties like pretty graphics or the multi-limbed bosses and other established gaming conventions. And if you’re going to dismiss a game purely because it’s not got the set-dressing you need then Minter games aren’t for you and probably never will be.
A way Minter has been particularly smart in Space Giraffe is to second guess pretty much all the gamers that believe they’ve got him sussed.
See, gamers are such assholes. They spend their time destroying things IN games or using destructive criticism on fucking messageboards to sound off about game development. Except, hang about, what do they know about game development? Where’s the game they’ve made? What actual well of experience are they drawing from? Or are they assuming playing a game is the same as making a game? That reading a book is the same as writing a book? Sure, you can have an opinion, but it’s not the same as having an informed opinion. Do you sit on a plane and slag off the pilot even though you can’t fly a plane yourself? I believe many gamers use fractured logic along the lines of “Well, I’m better than people who make games because I’ve NEVER made a game. That means I’ve never made a bad game and never made a bad game design decision. I have an umblemished record and therefore am in a better position to criticise game development than anyone that ever developed a game”. Or, just possibly, your ego is running your mouth again.
I always challenge people with such attitudes to make a game of battleships or Tetris or something relatively straightforward using some free tools – like Flash. The moment they stop talking and start walking their view would alter dramatically. Of course, that takes more effort and time than bitching on the internet so there’s no chance they’re going to do that when they can sit on their ironic asses and brand developers as being lazy.
“If I don’t try, I can’t fail.” Better not try then eh? Sure. That’s an attitude we can all respect.
Anyway, these folk that never make games but only criticise about how poor someone else’s craftsmanship is have gleefully decided the game is “Just another version of Tempest” or that “Minter can barely string two lines of code together”. The latter is funny because, assuming it’s accurate that would still be two lines of code more than his accusers are capable of – and, even if they could, the second line would probably read GOTO 10.
See, a lot of the game’s charm, for me, is that it doesn’t spoonfed mongrel gamers and pat them on the back for having the ability to read or press a button marked “A” with a showering of praise or a cut-scene. In fact, Space Giraffe is brilliantly stubborn. It insists you play it like Space Giraffe. If you’re too lazy or too blinkered and keep playing it like Tempest, it’ll laugh at you for it. Sure, you’ll make your way through a bunch of levels, then it’ll show you your score on a graph against the potential performance you could have acheived to show you just how bad you are at playing the game. The game, quite deliberately doesn’t give the gamer what they expect or play into their hands. It wants them to unlearn some of their traditions and to do things a little differently. It’s not a particularly harsh master but it will reward the gamer with a higher score and a good deal of gameplay satisfaction and enjoyment.
Now, I hear a lot about how graphics don’t matter and how gameplay is king. I hear a lot about thank God some people are shaking things up a bit and doing something different and confronting people’s perceptions about game traditions. Yeah. I hear a lot of that.
Talk is cheap.
Space Giraffe is brilliant at demonstrating those ideals and just how much gamers who constantly preach them happen to be full of shit. Because, unlike slapping the very pretty Resident Evil 4 on a Wii and calling it a new innovation in gaming, we have a game that eschews much of what is expected by gamers who claim to be bored with the colour brown or with ‘yet another’ this or that. It concentrates on the core gameplay and sticks two fingers up at today’s expectations of digital bling and the two-faced gamers that claim they can live without it but won’t go near a game that doesn’t have graphics by Gucci. Let’s be honest folks, if Gears of War had the same aesthetic as Space Giraffe then few would have touched it.
So, Space Giraffe not only represents great gameplay and incredible bravura but represents a lesson that gamers should pay attention to. For what it is and for what it represents, Space Giraffe is, quite simply, the best commercial game I’ve seen in years.
Thanks Jeff. Don’t ever change!