Space Invaders Infinity Gene [iPhone] Review

Boot up Space Invaders Infinity Gene for the first time, and you’re welcomed by the attract screen from the 1978 original Space Invaders. A tap of the screen and a brief load later, and you’re playing, well, Space Invaders,or a variant with no shields, at least, with tiny black and white graphics that would make an Atari 2600 blush. Fortunately, ten seconds in, and just as you start to believe you’ve been had for 600 Yen for a sub par thirty year old arcade conversion, the game flashes in colour and clean, sharp lines. A famous Darwin quote from the ‘Origin of Species’ appears, and things kick off for real. For the first time, Infinity Gene has changed the rules of the game. It will do it a lot more, and there’s rarely, if ever a time when said change isn’t refreshing and welcome.

 This isn’t the first time Space Invaders  has been released to a newer generation of hardware and consumers. In it’s thirty one year lifespan we’ve seen a number of reboots and re-releases. 1991’s Super Space Invaders was a diversion, but one that was quickly forgotten, 1994’s Space Invaders- The Original Game on Super Famicom wasn’t really worth the cost of the cartridge it came on and the least said about Invasion Day on the PS2 the better. It wasn’t until 2008 and Space Invaders Extreme that Space Invaders seemed relevant again, the age old concept of Invaders finally being updated with giant boss invaders, power ups, hard hitting electronic music, and more neon than Shibuya on international ‘we hate epileptics’ day. It seems like a fair starting point to compare Infinity Gene with Extreme, especially as Space Invaders Extreme 2 hit DS earlier this year, but these are different approaches to the same ‘breathe new life into a bloated corpse of a game’ mission statement.

Where Extreme is blazing pyrotechnics and colour, a game where while playing you can almost smell the llama tinged breath of psychedelic game designer/hippy Dave Minter on your neck as he whispers ‘look at the lights man, the lights..’ (especially on the XBLA version which he had a hand in) Infinity Gene is minimalism and sharp lines; monochrome for the most part with  vector styled graphics and explosions. This may seem like a criticism, but  you’d be wrong to think Infinity Gene doesn’t impress. Ships and invaders shoot in from background to foreground, waves of enemies whizz by in dizzying patterns at high velocity and things explode into blazing lines of light. While technically iPhone is capable of tougher feats, artistically there’s little to match Infinity, and few games of any format more sure to have bystanders look over your shoulder on the train.

The main game is themed around evolution. Things start off with a few basic rounds of, well, Space Invaders, but as scores improve you level up, and at each ‘evolutionary stage’, you gain a perk. These can vary from simple concept art and background music tracks to extra boss levels to, more interestingly, items that change the way the game is played. A massive shift early on is the ability to move anywhere on screen. Suddenly the fixed, defensive Space Invaders format becomes more aggressive as you plunge your ship into the carnage of retro chic space death, and things start to feel more like a marriage between Space Invaders and Treasure’s bullet hell shmups. There are also a series of different ships to unlock as you progress, each with different weapons; some shooting waves of vector death, some launching black holes that suck in enemies and some stopping time, allowing you a split second to manoeuvre. Everyone is sure to settle on a favourite, but which you pick depends on your style, and it’s a pleasant relief to see new trinkets daring you to think outside your comfort zone and try new play styles as they unlock, rather than simply obscuring the main game mechanic. Indeed. Infinity’s evolution tree is incredibly well thought out, with new levels and enemies subtly teaching you how to play the game without the need for tedious tutorials, risky and highly rewarding techniques like the ‘Nagoya attack’ (Infinity Gene’s version of which dictates that enemy shots are ineffective for a split second after they’re fired, affording you a brief window in which to dash across their bow and fire back, netting a healthy score) becoming all the more rewarding to pull off when the game guides you to discover them for yourself rather than expressly telling you what to do.

As you level up, you’ll be surprised at the volume of new stuff, weapons, extras, enemies and challenges the game throws at you. The main game will take a while, and completists can go back to beat high scores. But where Infinity Gene comes into its own is with Music mode. Here you select a track from your ipod playlists, and the game generates a level based on your selection of music. This may be easy for tech heads to poo-poo (really the game is only generating a random run of enemies with difficulty and spawn rates determined by the bpmof tracks) but it’s extremely impressive in practice. The game can generate unique levels on the fly with only a ten second-or-so load, and it adds huge variety to the game, making it as large and varied as your music collection, from metal bullet hells to progressive mazes of walls and gates. The music generated level element combined with the cool straight lines and minimalist chic of the art style brings to mind NaNaOnCha’s Vib Ribbon on the Playstation, and it’s here that Infinity Gene’s biggest similarity to Extreme hits you: you’re not playing a shoot-em-up per se, but a music game, a game with a finely tuned sense of rhythm that can be as stressful or relaxing as the sounds it plays. As good as Rock Band or Guitar Hero is in note matching and giving the rock star experience, Infinity Gene lets the music influence gameplay, rather than dictate it, and does so in what this reviewer believes to be an even more compelling manner than arthouse gaming favourites like Lumines and Rez.

Negatives? Few and far between. The art design is disorientating in early plays, especially when more hectic designer levels, or heavier tracks on your ipod create a confusing array of lines and vector trails, with window dressing confusable with threats and lasers, but this is something that’s easy to get used to after an hour or so’s play- in fact learning the subtle difference in shade between back and foreground effects is essential to mastering the tricky Nagoya attacks. Slightly more troublesome is slowdown- it is there, but it is rare, and likely rarer still on a 3GS (I’m playing on a bog standard 3G iPhone). The frenetic action of heavier music created levels  seems most likely to bring it on, with most of the regular mode levels I’ve played so far being smooth and steady- arguably you’ll be grateful for the natural bullet time effect the slowdown creates if your game’s busy enough to induce it.

From the moment I started playing Infinity Gene, my expectations of the game evolved from retro fan service through flashy curio to format, and arguably 2009 so far, favourite. This game not only helps the likes of Space Invaders Extreme in keeping a venerable classic relevant, it manages to be new again, a crowning achievement, and at the time of writing, iPhone’s finest gaming hour.

Addendum-I played Infinity Gene on a standard iphone 3G, performance is likely different (read: probably even better) on a 3GS. The review’s based on version 1.0.

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