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Posted by WDesm on Jan 5, 2011
XBLIG Review: Revolver360

XBLIG Review: Revolver360

“Revolver360 is amazing.”

An XboxHornet review by Jon Saulnier.

It’s appropriate that the word “evolve” is contained in the title of Revolver360. Current views on evolution via natural selection tend to favor an approach of punctuated equilibrium.  Rather than species evolving in a smooth and linear fashion, picking up and improving upon traits at roughly the same rate with every generation, punctuated equilibrium suggests that species tend to remain static for long periods only to be supplanted by members exhibiting radical mutations. I bring this up because it seems an appropriate analogy for the scrolling shooter, or SHUMP, genre. First there was the antediluvian fixed shooter, crawling from the primordial soup of early game design. It persisted for a few years until someone had the brilliant idea of allowing your craft to move around in two dimensions rather one. Before long, powers up systems were introduced. Finally the addition of a limited stock of bombs that would clear the screen of enemies was introduced. This has been the definition of the SHUMP since the mid ‘80’s. Not much changed really. The speed of the games increased, as did the number of enemies and their projectiles. Members of the species displayed an extreme variance in terms of graphical and overall gameplay quality, but that was about it. If you’ve played one you have pretty much played them all.

The SHUMP genre had long ago found its environmental niche, forming a symbiotic relationship with score obsessed, adrenaline fueled gamers who enjoy the challenge of games requiring a superhuman amount of skill and reflexes (a good memory doesn’t hurt either). But this niche is also a niche in the sense of being a small, obscure and rapidly diminishing demographic. The SHUMP is a product of a bygone era, while being a test of skill from the standpoint of the people making them and the people who genuinely love playing them, for everyone else they are designed and built to suck quarters. Last year something changed. Leave Home, another game on the XBLIG service, was released. While a good, if not great game, it was a great proof of concept. There are two things that Leave Home did which were quiet novel for the SHUMP genre; It features an algorithmic, procedurally generated level structure, the levels get harder or easier depending on how well you play, subsequently it’s never the same game twice. And it is short, like five minutes exactly short. These two adaptations fit our current time in very crucial ways. The first is indicative of the increasing popularity of indie games themselves; it’s a way for a single programmer or a small team to make a lot of game without employing a lot of resources. It’s a way to make a game longer and keep it interesting without investing in a lot of level and character design. The second is indicative of us, the people who play video games. We’ve been spoiled by checkpoints. It’s arguable that video games have gotten easier over the years, but the length of time you need to play at your peak without any pause or respite has gotten significantly shorter. Related to this, and also a result of the ubiquitous checkpoint, games have become more forgiving. That you will have an unlimited amount of attempts to finish any challenge without appreciable loss of progress is a safe assumption to make about any modern video game. Reducing the length of scrolling shooters from 35 minutes to 5 is, perhaps, a necessary evil to interest people in a game genre that is on its last legs as that’s probably the longest duration of time you can expect the average gamer to want to keepup a white-knuckled focus.

Revolver360 has adopted both of these features from Leave Home. It’s “Short Range” mode takes three-and-a-half minutes to clear. The goal of the mode is to get the highest score you can. Your ship has unlimited health. Collisions with enemies or projectiles reduce your multiplier but don’t cause you to blow up. Shooting down enough enemies with your regular weapon charges a laser that can be used to shoot down chains of enemies, again for a multiplied score. The game doesn’t adapt to how well you play as radically as Leave Home, but it still does so noticeably. Surviving long enough charges your “overdrive”, or bomb, which will clear the screen of projectiles for even more points. The result is a game that scratches the SHUMP itch perfectly and probably for exactly as long as most people can stand to have that itch scratched. “Infinite Range” mode is the more classic experience. The goal is to survive as many rounds as possible. In infinite range your ship has limited health that replenishes a little at the end of stages. There are also a few powerups in this mode including more health. While the stages don’t adapt to your skill as they do in the short range mode they are randomized in a way I haven’t quite figured out. Needless to say they get progressively harder and faster. The pseudoachievement list suggests there are at least 100 different stages, the mode title implies they are infinite in number; I doubt I will ever see many beyond 60. To continue the evolutionary analogy, if the features Revolution360 borrowed from Leave Home are webbing between fingers, its rotational mechanic is a set of gills. There have been a few notable, novel attempts to rework the basic SHUMP mechanics over the past decade; Ikaruga, Triggerheart Excellia, and Galaga Legions just to mention the example that can be found on XBLA. All of those attempts change the way you fire at enemies; Revolver360 changes the way you interact with your world. Imagine the entire playfield existing in a cylinder and you having full control of its rotation. Imagine a screen filling barrage of enemy bullets heading your way and rotating your perspective so that they instead form a single, avoidable line. Revolver360 is a 2d representation of a 3d world. I guess the reason it seems so, if you’ll excuse me, revolutionary is that this is how we perceive the world we inhabit. Our eyes gives us two-dimensional representations of a three-dimensional world, it’s our brain that does some stereoscopic trickery to give us our three-dimensional visual representations. It’s usually the features about the things right under our noses that surprise us the most to learn about and Revolver360 taps into, and makes us aware of, a sort of primary cognitive function that we’re constantly, but subconsciously, utilizing. The addition of this feature to a SHUMP is one of those “why didn’t I think of that?” moments of brilliance. That it’s integrated into the game without removing any of the traditional SHUMP challenge is what makes it absolute genius. Rather than dodging and weaving your way through projectiles you now have to dodge, weave and twist the screen around so that you can dodge and weave. As you get better at the game the rotational mechanic becomes less a means of evasion and more a means of lining up enemies into larger combos. It’s as much as you can change the game while staying within the genre and, I suspect, it’s as much as you can change it while retaining the specific feel of exhilaration that you get from playing SHUMPS. It’s also one of the best uses of a 3d world in a 2d game I’ve ever seen. It’s the kind of gaming epiphany I don’t think I’ve felt since Jet Grind Radio, something entirely new in a familiar skin. It’s the most salient innovation the genre has seen in over two decades. There’s an obvious divide present in the scrolling shooters available on XBLIG.Most are clearly made by people who haven’t played many scrolling shooters or, at least, not many good ones. A rare few are made by people who really know the genre, or can at least fake it. Revolver360 definitely falls into the later category. Besides its novel rotational and dynamic level mechanics Revolver360 also has the SHUMP basics down really solidly. Enemy patterns and bullet patterns are reasonably diverse and very well thought out. The controls and pacing have, the admittedly subjective, right feel to me. The scoring system is rewarding and extremely challenging. The balance between normal movement and rotation and between normal and laser shots is great. The only complaint that can be leveled against the game play is that some of the enemy patterns are a bit cheap. As is indicated by the inclusion of a lifebar, rather than ship stock, there are times during the game when collisions with an enemy or projectile are just unavoidable. This is generally seen as bad SHUMP design because it means that rather than setting the enemy patterns up so that there is at least one route around them it allows some design laziness by just throwing enemies at you with the assumption that, if you survive, you can replenish your health later. This approach to survivability is not a huge detraction for Revolver360 because its sensory-overload approach to visuals and the
extra dimension of the rotational mechanic demand it. Given the flow and difficulty of the game, something that would generally count as a strike against it actually works in its favor. I don’t see how this game would work without a lifebar. In terms of addictiveness and the invigorating feeling attained from playing really fast, precise games Revolver360 easily tops all the other SHUMPS on XBLIG and rivals many of the better commercial SHUMPS of the past 20 years.

There are a few irritants in the game play. Some enemy patterns presumably require tricks to get around, but even after several hours of game play I haven’t mastered them yet. I don’t think it’s humanly possible to beat the boss in short range mode without taking a lot of hits. If you’re too close to a boss in infinite range mode when it goes down you’ll take damage and I have reason to suspect this is more of a bug than a feature. Avoiding some enemies requires a sort of precognition of where and how they’re going to approach. These irritants seem like an artificial challenge, but with enough practice I’m finding they can mostly be overcome. I’m also inclined to chalk them up as a learning experience. Not many people, if anyone, have tried to use this kind of 2d plane/3d cylinder setup before. There are bound to be a few hiccups here and there in its first incarnation. Hiccups are really all that these complaints are, none of them make the game something I don’t want to play.

The innovation present in Revolver360’s gameplay is brilliant, the quality of its presentation is bordering magical. With the possible exception of Arkedo’s Pixel this is, as far as I’ve seen, the best looking game on XBLIG. The backgrounds are fully 3d rendered and well detailed. They rotate as you rotate the playfield. They look gorgeous and are a full mix of cityscapes, forests, volcanoes, oceans, outer space and even a cathedral. While there aren’t a ton of them, and they wiz by quickly, in infinite range mode the overall color palette of the backgrounds changes every time they’re presented. This is always done in a jaw-dropping and tasteful way, but also in a way that manages to make them really look different each time you fly through them. Enemies, and your ship, consist of basic geometric shapes. There are only a handful of enemy types, but their color changes to match the background. Revolver360’s art style makes great use of blurring, lighting, and particle effects. It does a nice job of showing off the kinds of modern eye candy that haven’t made their way into the XNA domain very frequently.

This is one of those games that gets me a little bit high when I play it. While I have a fondness for sensory overload, to some this may be the flaw of Revolver360’s presentation. It suffers from a bit of Jeff Minter syndrome. While it can be a little annoying, it should be remembered that one of the basic premises of modern SHUMPS is sensory overload. Revolver360 delivers this and it manages to do so beautifully. There will be times when you will say to yourself “What just happened? Where did that come from?” If you “don’t think it, feel it” these blindspots actually reveal interesting things about perception. As an example, I found myself intuitively dodging the blue plasma globs being fired at me even though they were almost indiscernible from the blue sky/ ocean background. After thinking about how I was able to do this I realized that I was picking up on the movement speed of the projectile a lot more than I was the subtle color difference between it and the background. As another example, there are some stages where the background is very dark as are the enemies. I found myself hitting the enemies even though they weren’t particularly visible. A little reflection here revealed that what I was doing was instinctually shooting at the source of enemy projectiles and not so much at the enemies themselves. Having been forced to notice this I came to realize that I was doing a lot of it even on stages where the enemies were completely distinct from the background. Besides being a great game, if you let it, Revolver360 can also be a fascinating experiment in phenomenology. In terms of music, there are at least four tracks; one for each mode (with a second track in infinite range mode starting up at level 51, that most people will probably never hear) and one for the menu. They’re not super-memorable, but they are perfect shooter music.

Revolver360 is amazing. It’s the best example I’ve seen on XBLIG of adding a novel feature to an established game type and, in so doing, creating a genuinely novel experience. It’s the best scrolling shooter on XBLIG by far and arguably the best on the console. I have a personal bias towards shooters so I’m also inclined to think that it’s the best game on XBLIG simpliciter. It’s the best looking game on XBLIG and is the first example I’ve seen that really shows off what the XNA toolkit is capable of in the right hands. It’s a textbook example of how much can be done with limited resources. One person is responsible for all of the graphics and programming. The total file size is under 80 megs and you get as much out of that as you do with many commercial games. That’s the kind of clever efficiency I haven’t seen since the standard media for videogame distribution switched from cartridges to optical media. The game is 240 MS points and at that price it is a substantial bargain. I’ve clocked roughly six hours so far and am not even starting to get tired of playing it. While I found the game to be nearly perfect, people who aren’t fans of the scrolling shooter probably won’t be made converts. Those who are will find it to be deep, satisfying and refreshing. Those who thought Space Giraffe was terrible probably also won’t be particularly moved by the look of Revolution360, but if you don’t mind a high degree of visual flash it will blow your mind. The only things that could improve this game would be a better instruction manual and a stage select/ invincibility cheat so that you can appreciate how beautiful it is without the distraction of needing to deal with how difficult it is.

Game Score: 10 /10.

Download a free demo of the game here.

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One Response to “XBLIG Review: Revolver360”

  1. FMsaziri says:

    “by far and arguably the best on the console” *cough*… maybe that goes a little too far?

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