I have been a long standing champion of retro gaming. You can throw in as much 3D modeling, bump mapping and dolby surround as you want into a game, it doesn’t necessarily make it a good play. The beauty of retro gaming is the necessity in the design of the classics, these are games that were developed in a time where gameplay HAD to come first, because you didn’t have the luxury of winning people over with high end graphics and sound. A certain amount of finesse had to go into designing the gameplay experience. A game had to be easy to learn, easy to control, and most importantly, fun to play.
Fast forward 20 years, to the age of XBOX Live Arcade and downloadable games and you can tell that the standard set in the age of the NES is just as, if not more important today. Games have gotten harder to develop and infinitely more complex, but what makes a game fun to play has more or less stayed the same. Which is the real beauty of console online services like XBLA, PSN and Wii’s Virtual Console. In the age of disposable first person shooters and glorious HD sports games, console makers still provide an avenue to find some entertaining and innovative games that retain that fun factor of older games, but with updated graphics and sound. A few years ago the market for titles like this on any console was next to nothing. Flash forward and retro gaming is back, in a very big way.
Schizoid is one of those types of games. The kind that grabs you immediately, and makes you wonder where the time went. Developed by Torpex Games, the game is the first to be released on XBOX Live Arcade that has been fully developed using XNA Game Studio Express, Microsoft’s free game development toolkit. Upon first playing the game, you can really tell that Microsoft is putting a lot of power into the hands of their Arcade developers. A few minutes of Schizoid and you’ll remember why retro gaming was so much fun.
The game describes itself as ‘the most co-op game ever’, and this is no exaggeration. On the surface, the game appears fairly simple to play: you pilot a blue ship through a series of levels, and the object of the game is to destroy all the glowing enemies that share the same color as you. Unlike other Top Down shooters like Geometry Wars and Mutant Storm, Schizoid technically has no single player campaign. With you at all times is a 2nd red ship, who you need to help in clearing the level of red enemies. As you progress through the game, you quickly learn that you and your red counterpart have to act together in order to survive. Your ship is vulnerable to enemies of opposing color, which makes it handy to have a second ship watching your back, and vice versa.
Graphically the team at Torpex Games have gone quite a ways to distinguish the look of Schizoid from other comparable games. Enemies take on a very microscopic, biological feel, like protozoa and under a powerful microscope. Breeder enemies spawn eggs which hatch into nebulous Flitts, Skulks and Scorpios target you with claw like mandibles. Even the level design is highly organic, with swaying, fibrous walls that trap enemies and swirling energy obstacles to avoid. You really wouldn’t need this level of detail to enjoy the game, but it goes to show how well crafted Schizoid is over other Live Arcade releases.
Another oddity amongst games of this type is that there is no shooting involved. players destroy enemies by touching them. This makes the control system as simple as it could possibly be; one analog stick is all you need to play this game. Naturally, the game gets harder as you go along, which is why teamwork is such a necessary aspect of the gameplay. Staying together to kill enemies of your color will allow you to get through levels unscathed, which in turn, gives you gold medals for progress. Power ups are scattered throughout the game, which again rely on teamwork. In order to activate a power up you have to bring the two ships together so you can both benefit from increased speed or a powerful bomb attack.
Another innovation is the automatic skipping of levels you have already passed through with no lives lost. This is, in my mind, one of the attractive features of Schizoid. There are hundreds of examples of games out there that force you to trudge through stages you have already passed in order to retry those harder to beat areas. Schizoid saves your progress stage by stage, so you can decide whether you want to play just particular level, or retry all the stages where you may have lost a life. For those of us who enjoy short bouts of gaming, this save system is a welcome feature.
Where this game really shines is in it’s Play Modes. You can choose you have your counterpart’s ship controlled by the computer, or by a friend in Local Co-Op, as well as over XBOX Live. Not to be left out, you can also play the game in Uberschizoid mode, controlling both ships at the same time with the same controller, using dual analog to control each ship. Let me just say that this mode is called Uberschizoid with good reason. It takes a master control jockey to pilot two ships in completely different directions, while fending off enemies and whenever needed provide help for each other. I tried it for a few levels, and I must say, it gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing!
Overall the game hits it home in every category. It’s easy to learn, incredibly easy to control and, after 5 minutes of play, becomes wonderfully addictive. The negatives are very few and very minor. The single player campaign is great with an AI controlled wingman, but casual gamers who rarely play online or with friends might not get the full effect of this game’s play modes. The real enjoyment that comes from playing Schizoid is the teamwork factor that comes with playing the game with a friend sitting next to you or over XBOX Live. People who get bored easily with this kind of release might end up unfairly passing it up based on it’s single player campaign. This explains why the clever ‘most co-op game ever’ marketing for the game. Achievements also cater better to a two player campaign, which might get the Gamerscore junkies a bit frustrated. But overall these are very tiny complaints, and don’t really detract from enjoying the game as a whole.
The days of 8-bit gamin may be long gone, but retro gaming may be alive and well again, reshaping itself into an entirely new entity. As games get easier to develop and distribute, we’ll be seeing more games like Schizoid, which fulfills in every way spirit of old school gaming: Fast, simple, great fun.