Lately it seems first-person shooters have been overtaken and outnumbered by retro styled indie games as the most prevalent subgenre hitting the market. Thirty-something year old developers who grew up on Atari and arcade cabinets are now old enough to build games of their own, and many of them are choosing to pay homage to a bygone generation of simpler yet engaging titles. Spectra
is the latest in that long line, offering arcade gameplay very similar to the most popular cabinets of the 80's. However, with little variation among levels and one glaring omission, the title can't stand among the greats, not now and not even back then.
Spectra is billed as an "8-bit racer", but neither of these words are really accurate. The main menu looks pixelated, but the game itself does not, and there's no real racing to be done in the game. Instead, players control a small yellow-orange space ship as it speeds forward through countless obstacles, much like an endless runner mobile game. The levels are procedurally generated, though during my replay of the game's ten levels, none of them felt very different from any other. The game could also be played one-handed, as the left stick does all you need, that being dodge the countless obstacles while staying on the dangerously narrow track. You could also use the bumper buttons or even the D-Pad but these felt clunky in comparison.
The game's color palette on the first level never changes for the duration of the game. All ten levels are presented in the same purple/pink/orange track with no way to really tell any of them apart besides some causing more difficulty. Each level is played to the chiptune music from Chipzel, famous for her use of Gameboys to create dance music. This is Spectra
's best feature. You can even listen to the music in the menus, free of gameplay, and I sometimes found myself doing that even though dance and electronica are not usually my type of music. Each of the ten tracks brings a unique sound and works well to create the arcade atmosphere the game is going for.
In the future, roads will be purposely littered on.
Because the levels are procedurally generated, they don't really play in tune to the music, beat by beat, as promised. Each winding, high speed level lasts for the length of a song, almost all of them fall between three and four minutes long. A timer counts down from the start of the song while a percentage meter informs you how close you are to finishing, rather redundantly. It was almost controller-breakingly upsetting when I kept falling off at 97% on one particular level. In keeping with the retro theme, your only concern is achieving the highest score possible. Hitting pick-ups is what increases your score little by little while flying over speed boosters will add multipliers that can tremendously increase it too.
This comes crashing back to 0 when you collide with any of the many obstacles in your way. There's a great risk/reward element in play, though. The only way you lose is by falling off the edge of the track. Speeding onward with a x12 multiplier into obstacles you can't see until they're right in front of you is an easy way to crash and plummet to the game over screen. I often elected to pass the speed boosters untouched because I valued finishing a level more greatly than reaching a higher multiplier. You still record scores for those times you don't finish the levels, but the best scores will come when you finish a song with minimal crashes and big multipliers.
"Two roads diverged on a purple track, and I took the one with more speed boosters." - Robert Frost in space
These scores, sadly, ultimately fail to garner the attention of their arcade counterparts, however, due to one huge omission: leaderboards. The lifeblood of an arcade from decades ago was the competitive spirit among gamers, each looking to climb the high score rankings with their three letter initials. Despite all of its attempts to blend in with those old school games, Spectra
comes with no leaderboards. You can try and retry to better your high scores for as long as you want, and in the end you won't have anything to which you can compare them. Of course, the Xbox One comes built in with some leaderboard integration of its own across all games, but this seems like a huge missed opportunity for a title selling itself on being an arcade cabinet revival experience.
The achievement list is a mixed bag. I received one for completing each of the ten levels, another for a high score of over 9000(!), and another for doing something that readers here will love, simply looking at my stats. There's also some that reward you for excellence
and even ineptitude
. There are several listed that will take a lot of patience and retries. The hardest is probably the appropriately named Completionist
which requires you beat all ten levels on Normal and Hardcore difficulty. Of the 600+ gamers currently playing this game on TA, no one has completed Spectra
yet. With more patience than I have, people surely will finish the list, but it won't come leisurely.
I'm going to pick up some yellow cubes, do you need anything?
If you aren't inclined to focus on high scores and achieving perfection like arcades used to promote, Spectra
doesn't offer much for you. It'll be fun for a brief while, and the music is worth coming back to alone, but the game runs out of steam too early for anyone but the especially numbers driven. Even if you are among those arithmomaniacs, the lack of online leaderboards means you'll be competing with no one but yourself. The game does work well as an homage to the 8-bit era, even if it isn't actually 8-bit itself. The gameplay could've been pulled right out of a decades-old arcade. This is ultimately a problem too, though. In the 1980's, when you were in an arcade, you were a visitor. The games available were great for small consumption. They were social and fun for the extent of your brief stay -- maybe a few hours at most. Console gamers carry different expectations than their arcade gaming predecessors. They expect longevity and replay value. In its devotion to mimicking those retro experiences, Spectra
reminds us why they faded away.
- Excellent chiptune music
- Classic arcade gameplay
- Short experience
- Repetitive aesthetics
- Lack of online leaderboards
The reviewer spent approximately six hours dodging blocks, hitting speed boosters, and repeatedly failing level eight, earning 15 achievements for 285 gamerscore along the way. This review was done with a code provided by the developer, Gateway Interactive.