Saturday, June 7, 2008

Kobo Deluxe

Hey, what's going on? Kobo Deluxe isn't a KDE game! Can it be? Blessed respite from the logic-puzzle/strategy doldrums, in the form of an action packed top-down space shooter? By Crom!* It is!

Maybe just because it was something different after the last half-dozen games, but I really enjoyed my time with Kobo Deluxe. Anyone who's played a video game in the last 30 years is familiar with the basic mechanics of these games; use the arrow-keys/number-pad to move your ship in the direction you desire, and press the fire-button to shoot.

Your ship in this game shoots out of its front and back (stern and bow?) simultaneously whenever its firing. The ship is always moving; there's no brakes, no accelerator, and no way to stop. You're in constant, uniform motion. With those two bits of information, you know all you need to know to play Kobo Deluxe. There are no power-ups, and on the 'Classic' difficulty level, one hit = death (the other difficulty levels have a life-bar, and the possibility for your guns to overheat, which didn't seem to have any affect when I played it).

This simplistic approach belies the frustrating, adrenaline-fueled nightmare of fun that actually makes up the game. The magic is in the level design. It's kind of hard to describe your goal... remember at the end of the first Star Wars movie (Episode 4, for the anally inclined) where Luke had to shoot that one spot on the Death Star? It's kind of like each level is populated with these squarish mini-Death Stars that have to be destroyed. Get 'em all, and you beat the level.

Each one has a central node, that destroys the whole structure when you hit it, and a bunch of other nodes (they're a different color) that hold up various pieces of the matrix. All of the nodes spit out something harmful, be it missles, weird spiky bullets, bombs, or what-have-you. So you have to dodge a constant stream of evil things while attempting to clear enough of the outer nodes to expose the central node and destroy the matrix/Death Star.

It's really fun, it gets really challenging a few levels in, and its addictive nature is enhanced by something the greatest gaming blog in the world mentioned when discussing Trials 2: as little interruption as possible between dying and trying again. The fire key doubles as the enter-key, so when you game-over, you can just tap it impatiently for a second and a half and you're right back in the game, at the level you died on. This makes it really easy to zone-out and kill shamefully long periods of time trying to get further.

It's got fifty levels, which will probably be enough to satisfy the person who only dabbles at the scrolling shooters, but expert sh'muppers will probably run through that, eventually. The levels are laid out in the same way (i.e. each Death Star matrix is in the same position each time you play the level in question) but the layout of the matrices, internally, is randomly generated each time, so they're slightly different - sometimes in maddening, level-altering ways - each time you play.

Hrmn... what else should I mention? There's a radar screen, that comes in extra handy in this game, as you can use it to line yourself up with targets that aren't on screen, and make strafing runs. I found the strategy invaluable, myself, but I have the reflexes of a garden-slug, so it may be less necessary to you able-bodied gamers.

The graphics are nothing to write home about, but they look coherent, with a retro style that makes the most of the low-fi visuals, and thanks to their relative simplicity, the game will probably run on just about anything. The enemies and obstacles are all clearly differentiated from one another and easy to spot - I didn't run into any of the sophomoric errors that haunt indie games, where stuff looks nice but is a pain in the ass to play with.

Sound-wise, it's got a typical retro sh'mup score with decent enough sound effects to get you into the spirit of the game aurally as well as visually. Of note is the fact that the game actually generates all of the music algorhythmically when the game is loaded, rather than including a bunch of .wav files in the install. That means less than nothing in today's world of broadband (even when the music's been generated, it only takes up a meg and a half of space; who cares about an extra meg in a game download?), but if you're using the game on a PocketPC or something, it might come in handy, and it's just neat. Go ingeniosity!

Add it all up, and you've rather surprisingly got a sh'mup that has my unqualified seal of approval. Tiny elements of a dozen games get mashed up into a thoroughly satisfying gumbo of gaming greatness. It's not going to change the world, or even change the world of gaming, but if you're in the mood for some semi-twitchy gaming you could do far worse. Check it out.

*- I've been using this phrase since I was 10, occasionally, so please don't think I'm promoting Age of Conan or anything. Though I can't wait to try it as soon as I get my PC upgraded to current standard. I'm just sayin'...

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