Review: Taito Space Invaders Infinity Gene
There are many things to love about Taito's new Space Invaders Infinity Gene ($5) for the iPhone and iPod touch, and only one thing to dislike -- it isn't Space Invaders Extreme, the last game Taito succeeded in using to rejuvenate its classic but previously tired series of overhead shooters. Like Extreme, Space Invaders Infinity Gene relies on a formula of retro-styled graphics, techno music, and intense gameplay to radically improve on the company's original formula, in the process creating an almost entirely worthwhile title for the asking price. Updated: Our original review of Space Invaders Infinity Gene on July 28, 2009 covered version 1.0 of the game. Significant improvements made since then have led us to update this review with a new section, Space Invaders Infinity Gene Version 3.0, found below our original text. Our rating of the game remains unchanged; an additional rating has been added for the overall quality of the downloadable content.
We’ll say this much before continuing on with the review: if you’re a Space Invaders fan, enough has been said above to let you know whether or not to make a purchase, and we wouldn’t recommend continuing to read on. Part of what makes Space Invaders Infinity Gene cool is the sense of discovery you have when playing through it for the first time, and by necessity, the discussion that follows will spoil part of that discovery. Consider yourself warned.
In essence, whereas Space Invaders Extreme borrowed the raw energy of Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s retro-styled 3-D shooter Rez, pumping the eyes and ears full of so much excitement that it was hard to feel anything other than enthusiastic. By contrast, Space Invaders Infinity Gene feels as if it is out to match Rez’s soul: there is a dreamy, tree-like level map that guides you through a mostly linear path of stages, conjuring Rez’s more relaxed moments, and like Rez, the theme here is evolution. You start with a plain ship against a plain backdrop of invaders, all monochrome and deliberately sort of boring, used as a fake to hint at the expansion that is to come.
Taito literally cuts you off in the middle of playing this first stage, then adds numerous enemies that could have as easily come from a Namco title like Galaga, and bosses that are somewhat like the ones in Space Invaders Extreme. Except that they’re far more numerous, coming unexpectedly, and displaying initially overwhelming strength or speed. You learn how to defeat them. Then you advance. And the game makes an odd reference to a new type of weapon you can use, or new freedom of movement that you’ve gained, or a hidden extra stage that’s been unlocked. Suddenly, the tree of levels is wider than it was before, and you’re thinking of how and when to die so that you can change weapons—unlike Space Invaders Extreme, you can’t switch between them in the middle of a stage.
While the graphics never really rise to the level they hit early on in Extreme, Space Invaders Infinity Gene puts on a cool retro show, blending classic black-and-white pixel art with vector line art, then colorful shaded backdrops, to produce visuals that are at once decidedly 1970’s/1980’s classic and yet unlike anything that was actually done in the series before. Enemy ships zoom in from the distance and from off the screen, teleport around with gray waves, and produce streams of bullets and lasers that could never have been handled by the graphics chips of old. Yet the game is still mostly Space Invaders in gameplay sensibility, apart from your ability—after an evolution—to move your ship vertically as well as horizontally. The music is by Taito’s Zuntata team, and generally very, very good by App Store standards, if too frequently interrupted by stage-to-stage transitions.
Once again, control issues rear their ugly head in Infinity Gene, but they’re not dealbreakers. Initially, the game restricts the playfield such that there’s a safe touchable scrolling place between your ship and the bottom of the screen, but you quickly gain the ability to move anywhere on screen, and soon thereafter, enemies are coming up at you from all directions, making finger-based control a real challenge: you need to see them, and your ship, in order to avoid dying over and over again. The game is thankfully generous—unlimited—in its continues, but you start with only three ships to complete a given stage, and there’s a good chance that you’ll lose at least one of them because of the controls. But then, Taito compensates by “evolving” the game to let you have 5 ships, and by letting you re-try stages with multiple types of weapons to see which works best. It has truly thought of almost everything here.
If anything’s a little off in Infinity Gene, it’s the power up system. As noted above, you get to choose one weapon to use, and that weapon stays with you until you lose all three of your ships, at which point you can switch weapons. Molecules are unleashed from certain ships, such as UFOs, to juice up whichever individual weapon you’ve selected to use, though they stop improving your firepower well before you cease to collect the molecules; additionally, you lose all of your power ups if your ship gets hit once, and they float around briefly for re-collection before disappearing. Simply put, this system doesn’t work all that well given the variations in stage challenges—some really require wide shots, others more targeted shots—so the Space Invaders Extreme formula of multiple types of user-selectable power ups worked better.
Though there were numerous forgettable iterations in the years that passed between Space Invaders’ 1978 debut and the more recent release of Space Invaders Extreme, Space Invaders Infinity Gene demonstrates that Taito isn’t just limited to one great side series when expanding this classic brand. While this new title won’t necessarily broaden the franchise’s appeal, it is unquestionably a thrilling release for past Invaders fans and retro gamers in general, with more than enough stages and unlockables to justify the $5 asking price. The only thing better would be an iPhone OS version of Extreme, but this is a great way to pass the time while we wait for that.
Space Invaders Infinity Gene Version 3.0
Last year, we reviewed and loved Taito’s Space Invaders Infinity Gene, a retro-styled shooter that used vector-style line art and techno music to radically update the classic 1978 arcade game Space Invaders. Since then, Taito has released two major updates that are collectively so significant that we’ve decided to revisit our prior review, as they demonstrate interesting and different avenues that developers can take to extend the life of their earlier, worthwhile App Store releases.
Released late last year, version 2.0 of Space Invaders Infinity Gene added new unlockable stages and online OpenFeint leaderboards. Additionally, as Infinity Gene could dynamically create stages based on the music and associated data from tracks in your iPod music library, Taito added the ability to rate the game’s creations and share those ratings with friends. These were positive improvements to the title, but not huge ones, and largely flew under the radar.
This week’s release of version 3.0 is bigger, and bolstered by some familiar names from Taito’s storied history of arcade and console shooting games. A new menu called Download offers three different $2 level packs based loosely upon Taito’s earlier arcade games Darius, Metal Black and Night Striker, each adding two new stages and a new spaceship to the game. Buying any one of the packs unlocks an additional bonus ship called Boomerang, and buying all three unlocks yet another from the RayStorm arcade game called R-Gray2, bringing the total of purchasable unlockable ships to five. Seven others are available within the standard $5 game, including Classic, which gives you a lowly pea shooter to use against the hordes of powerful enemies—a big challenge for advanced players. It suffices to say that most gamers will be dead within seconds of choosing this ship, which has the look and sound effect of the cannon from the 1978 version of Space Invaders.
Fans of Taito’s past shooters might recall that unlike Space Invaders Infinity Gene, which scrolled vertically upwards, Darius and Metal Black were side-scrolling shooters. So Taito addresses this in version 3.0 by letting you reorient the on-screen overlays so that the game can be played in widescreen mode—assuming that you turn the device such that its Home button is on the left of the screen. While this doesn’t radically change the experience, as the game could have been rotated on its side in earlier versions of the software minus the shift in overlays, some of the new stages have been designed with walls and bullet elements that are easier to dodge when you’re playing the game in landscape orientation. It’s not strictly Space Invaders-like, but then, changing up that classic game’s formula is the name of the Infinity Gene game, and this option merely plays with yet another facet of the experience.
The basics of the downloadable stages will feel like a let-down for most players, but several of their specifics are actually pretty neat. Taito’s Silver Hawk pack lets you transform your spaceship into the Silver Hawk ship from the Darius series, complete with x-directional lasers and front-firing wave beams that increase in size as you gather power-ups. The two long Silver Hawk stages both end with highly similar, boring fish-like bosses, and the new music’s fine. By comparison, the Inter Gray pack gives you a ball-blasting ship from the early 3-D shooter Night Stalker, with energetic music and two stages that evolve to become “bullet hell” challenges filled with dodging and mayhem, again ending with very similar boss encounters. Finally, the Black Fly levels start with a so-so stage and great boss, backed by more very good music, and continue with an intense second stage that’s as challenging as any in the game, plus a repeat of the same boss. Taken from Metal Black, the Black Fly ship fires a triangular energy beam, but as with the other stages, you can choose any of the game’s ships—including the gear-firing boomerang and lock-on-based R-Gray2—if you think something with a different type of weaponry will better suit your needs.
Fans of the earlier titles will be disappointed that the new stages are over so quickly, use enemies and art taken from earlier stages—except the repetitive bosses—and that the ships are, like their predecessors in Space Invaders Infinity Gene, auto-firing machines with little depth of control. That’s arguably the price of shoehorning content from more sophisticated games into this deliberately retro vector-based game engine, but Taito should have done more. One new boss per stage and three stages per game would have been more likely to satisfy people for the $2 asking price, but there’s little doubt that even bringing Darius concepts into Space Invaders as was done here was a smart move to elevate a year-old game’s profile. Hard-core shooter fans may know and like the Night Stalker/Metal Black references enough to drop a couple of extra bucks into the game, as well; Taito has so many shooters, including ones more famous than these, that it could endlessly add more to this title if it wanted to do so.
Only time will tell whether Taito will continue to build on Infinity Gene, or whether it will begin to devote its programming resources to releasing either full-fledged ports of some of those earlier titles, or similarly iPhone-altered variations of them. Though the level packs released this week aren’t as satisfying as they could have been, Taito’s use of backcatalog titles certainly grabbed our attention in a way that few App Store upgrades have over the past couple of years, and will hopefully inspire other developers to follow suit with franchise crossovers. There’s no reason that App Store games need to wither away or disappear after a few months, and upgrades like these demonstrate how old and new features alike can keep interest high over time.