Thursday, August 22, 2013

Super Xalaxer

Super Xalaxer is a crowd control game with a perfect, bite-sized idea at its core. You have two ships. One is controlled by the keyboard, the other by the mouse. You can only move horizontally, and your ships fire automatically. You are constantly beset by hundreds and hundreds of tiny popcorn enemies, and if enough of them get past you in a short span of time, you die. What a pure, lovely premise for a flash game.

Have you ever tried to rub your stomach and pat your head at the same time? It's not hard, but there's certainly an element of confusion to moving your hands in such different ways simultaneously. That Super Xalaxer causes that confusion is interesting on its own, but that it actually harnesses it towards making a genuinely fantastic action game is incredible.

Most of the game is made up of moving your two ships back and forth, trying to hold back the hundreds and hundreds of enemies. Beyond that, there's very little variation throughout its eight levels. There are only a handful of truly different enemy types, and only two stage layouts.

This simple approach is a good thing. Layering too many ideas over that core dynamic would only muddle the game's appeal. And while there are a few gimmick moments that focus more on obstacle avoidance than crowd control, the game never dwells on them. A lesser work would have focused exclusively on sequences like the asteroids at the end of the level three, or the escape sequence after the final boss, but in Super Xalaxer they're just a pleasant bit of spice between the more meaty enemy segments.

The highlight of the game is easily the climax of level seven, where you independently hold back vast numbers of enemies with one ship while fighting a boss with the other. Instead of running both ships back and forth across the screen trying to take out as many enemies as possible, you have to use each of them independently in very different ways. It's mind-bending, exhilarating, and the hardest part of the game.

Interestingly, the last level, while more visually intimidating, is significantly easier (much like Ikaruga, one of Rhete's documented inspirations). It's an elegant twist of pacing that delicately eases the player out of the experience, and it's one of the many subtle touches that elevate Rhete's work over conventional browser game fare.

Rhete has been making games for years now, and this is his most mature work yet. Like his recent game Bullet Maze, it drops the dialogue-heavy approach of his older games in favor of a focus on pure mechanics. And while his seven-hour epic Hunters: Relic of the Stars was filled with brilliant moments and ideas, the scale of smaller games like Super Xalaxer and Bullet Maze seems to better suit his design sensibilities. I can't wait to see where he goes from here.

(Yes, it's been a while. I've been funneling all of my creative energies into my inverted Metroid game, which should be done in early October. Look forward to it!)