Something I find a little disappointing about the current retro-gaming scene is the lack of new titles being released for the 16-bit platforms. Whilst the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64 have a healthy turnover of new indie releases each year fans of the Atari ST, Amiga, SNES, Sega Megadrive et al are usually left standing around wondering why no one wants to write anything new for their platforms at quite the same rate. Given that the Amiga and ST had huge numbers of freeware games published for them each year in their heyday I’ve always found this a little puzzling.
Still, every so often you get what you want (as the Rolling Stones never sang) and so it is that a brand new title for the Atari ST has recently come to light calling itself r0x.
Now, despite what a cursory glance at any screenshots of this game might suggest (see the one top-right) r0x is not a shoot-em-up. It is, for want of a better term, an avoid-em-up. The player takes control of a spaceship and has to fly through asteroid fields and avoid the many rocks that hurtle towards you; as the level proceeds, a timer ticks down and as it reaches closer to zero the rocks start to move faster meaning that the last few “ticks” of a level can get a bit hectic.
Whilst the ship doesn’t have any weapons of the sort you’d expect in a game featuring a player-controlled ship flying through space it isn’t completely unarmed. It carries a form of smart bomb which, when activated with the fire button, will destroy all rocks on screen. These are very limited in number but a good way of getting out of a tight spot.
Whilst most of the things flying through space towards the players doughty little spaceship have no other effect than to smash it into tiny pieces some space debris is useful. Certain rocks can be collected for bonus score (identified by crystals sticking out of them but also by their worth in points helpfully written across their sides) and extra lives, extra smart bombs and letters spelling “E X T R A” (giving, unsurprisingly, an extra life) can also be grabbed from bonus pods. There are a couple of those notorious things known as power-downs to also be found, though, namely “death” pods which destroy the ship and “reverse” pods which reverse the controls. The instructions and intro screen also, respectively, describe and show cosmonauts who can be collected for a bonus although I’ve not come across these yet (I must be too rubbish)*.
r0x (I started a sentence with a small letter because I had to, please don’t tut!) is, at heart, a high-score title and the scoring mechanism is one of this game’s clever features. Whilst the score slowly ticks up as the timer ticks down, bonus points can be achieved by “skimming” the rocks with the ship’s wings adding a strong element of risk/reward to gameplay as you end up trying to scrape the ‘roids in order to grab a few hundred or thousand extra points.
So, I’ve given you the basic overview and the big question now hangs over this review like a friendly white cloud (can cloud’s be friendly? They can now!): is it any good? Well, we’ll go over the answer to that bit by bit shall we? Let’s start with presentation: everything looks and sounds excellent. Amiga and Megadrive owners tended to look down at the ST for its 16-colour display capabilities but in the right hands 16 colours could be used to create bitmaps of beauty and that’s very true here with an excellent blue/yellow metallic/rocky look to everything (and superb fire when the ship thrusts upwards – see the pic for details). As for sound, there’s a rolicking in-game tune which brings to mind Buck Rogers and other pulp sci-fi. This is a game whose visuals and audio are nigh-on perfect and very atmospheric.
As for gameplay, we have something of a mixed bag (albeit one with much more liquorice allsorts than fluffy boiled sweets). Generally, r0x is brilliant stuff with play never being boring and the scoring mechanism making things very often exciting. There are some problems, though; gameplay is a bit repetitive after a while and I thought some audio/visual feedback for when your ship is skimming a rock for points would have been a good idea. I also had some problems with the power ups/downs – first, the “extra life” power up made collecting the “E X T R A” letters feel a bit superflous and tokenistic rather than as vital as they should have been; secondly since the “kill” power-down had the same effect as a rock I felt it might as well have been, well, a rock; finally, the temporary “reverse controls” power-down continues to effect the player after losing a life which is really shitty. I also noticed it was possible to skim rocks for points whilst the player was indestructable during the first few seconds of a new life although whether that’s a good or bad thing is debatable. In addition to these, I came across a couple of bugs namely a “score” rock killing me when I flew into it (although I’ve only had this happen once so far) and the high scores sometimes apparently being lost (or at least not appearing in the table).
Speaking of this last problem, this brings me to what was r0x‘s only major downer which was that, in the earlier version I played, the high score table didn’t save to disc on exiting. A new version (1.0) has since been released, though, which includes highscore saving as well as ironing out some bugs (hopefully those mentioned above).
I know that the small number of moans I described earlier might put some people off but they really, really shouldn’t. r0x is a great game: fun, addictive, beautifully presented; it’s easily one of the best indie titles that I’ve played so far this year and now that it has highscore saving its only major negative has been sorted-out. If you’ve a real ST with over 2MB of memory (you’ll need that, forgot to mention) or you’ve got an emulator then there’s no real reason not to download this terrific, if imperfect, little game.
And I’ve not even had a shot of the two-player option yet!
r0x can be downloaded from its website here which now provides the game in various formats for ease of use.
Thanks to Stickhead for making me aware of this game on his blog; Stickhead’s take on r0x can be found here
*EDIT: I’ve since encountered one, they seem to be very rare