There’s a new digital Lord Voldemort in town, a “Game That Must Not Be Named” in Space Giraffe reviews for fear of being attacked by a rampaging hit-llama. We’ll see how I do with this challenge later.
Unsurprisingly, 1980s bedroom coder maverick Jeff Minter (a rural-dwelling eccentric with a camelid fetish who appears to be shit-scared of scissors) was never likely to give us a generic and terribly plotted, WWII based third person shooter as his first Live Arcade project. He was, of course, previously responsible for the underrated music visualiser Neon in the 360’s innards, and true to form he has given us another bizarrely hypnotic visual overload of trippy hippy happy psychedelia to argue over.
And argue we will, given the pisspoor nature of the initial tutorial that fails miserably to explain some of the more important mechanics of the game, and will no doubt put many people off from ever laying down their 400 points of Microsoft pretend-but-it-isn't money.
Possible retinal scarring notwithstanding, the initial head-pounding visual noise abates via a combination of time and newly-found eye skills to reveal a highly addictive retro-styled shooter. Your titular malformed autofiring giraffe traverses left and right across the 3D vector-based play area with Neon-based background squigglings distracting you, while various enemies head towards your position in an attempt to kill you. Or fire difficult-to-see shots, accompanied by a handy audio cue to help you avoid them. Or make the screen go all trippy – sorry, trippier - when you shoot them. Or rotate the playing surface disorientatingly when they reach you, just for shits and giggles. Surviving all the enemies on a particular level takes you to the next one of a hundred. So far, so familiar.
This old llama comes equipped with new tricks, however; in particular, two innovative game mechanics which bring the game right up to date. The first of these is “bulling”, a technique where if you allow the standard enemies to get to your end of the web while the "power zone" is intact (glowing lines on the game surface that fill up when enemies are killed) a small sweep of the analogue stick will lemming them off the play area, increasing your score multiplier and enabling big points.
But wait… not all enemies can be bulled. Advancing flower stems, for example, may reach the end of the web and prove to be impassable objects. An invulnerable flower head may eject from the stem before then and kill you as you pathetically attempt to shoot it. Additional foes such as certain forms of the "Boffins" cannot be bulled either, and this is where jump pods come into play: collectables that not only extend the power zone when activated, but allow you to soar above the play area for a brief time and take out previously impregnable foes. Unfortunately, on certain levels the enemies adapt to this tactic, and besides, not using the pods enables you to garner those all-important extra lives. There is an ingenious risk-reward structure in the game, where bulling gets you the big points but choosing not to shoot things because of an ill-advised greedathon can lead to a quick downfall. This digital matador lark is a dangerous business.
The game’s high score mechanic is the other innovation, so simple that it’s amazing nobody has thought of it previously. Every time you get to a new level with three lives remaining you can start from that point again in a subsequent session with your best score intact. This works incredibly well as a continue system, and ensures that you don’t have to play old levels ever again if you don’t want to, unlike – say – the otherwise fantastic Geometry Wars, where you have to go through that initial slow period over and over again like being Clockwork Orange-d in front of a “Two Pints of Piss and a Packet of Unfunny Mediocrity” BBC Three marathon.
Of course the opportunity to revisit earlier stages as you gain more experience - in order to achieve ever-higher starting scores for later levels - often proves too tempting to pass up. Space Giraffe offers the expected online leaderboards to compare scores with your friends and randoms, and much of the game’s long-term appeal comes from bettering your old performances and rising up the ranks. (At the time of writing, the leaderboards are set to be wiped due to a high-score exploit being discovered since the game's release, but hopefully normal online service will be resumed soon.)
Where the game succeeds most is in the sheer amount of variety in level scenarios. While the core experience never changes bar the introduction of new enemy types from time to time, the skills required to complete each level differ greatly, as attack patterns and the background visualisations shift to present new and unique challenges. It’s true that sometimes you’ll get killed by something you couldn’t possibly see - which will annoy some to the point of game deletion - but the headfuck of visual and aural information that Space Giraffe swamps you with is compelling enough for this ordinarily game-destroying flaw to somehow matter far less than it otherwise would.
What we have here is not so much a Marmite game, as many have described it, but more of a Radiohead one: an experience that can initially seem impenetrable, pretentious and wilfully obtuse, but for the faithful is revealed to be a deep, long-lasting and fulfilling slice of entertainment, affection for which makes you feel like you’re part of an exclusive, all-knowing “club”. The Psychedelia Brotherhood, if you will. There’s nothing wrong with not being a fan of Space Giraffe - indeed, many will hate it - but this Tempestuous voyage into the mind of one of modern gaming's few remaining characters is very far from being a bad trip. Shit, I said Tempest. Fail.