Tempest 2000: Stuck

Even taking full advantage of my infinite continues, I can only manage to get to a level somewhere into the early-to-mid 40’s. At that point, I simply stop making progress.

To understand this fully, you have to understand a bit more about the game than I’ve yet described. First of all, dying even once means you have to start the level over from scratch. Things you killed before you died are resurrected along with you, and any powerups other than warp tokens are lost. (On the plus side, dying recharges your superzapper, the kill-everything weapon that can be used once per life per level.) Thus, the only way to make lasting progress within a game is to actually finish a level, and, although you’re given three lives (to start with), you have to do it within the span of a single life. To make progress within a series of games, however, you have to finish two levels (not necessarily with the same life). This is because of an odd limitation on the levels you can continue from — that is, you can only continue from the odd levels.

Now, there’s a substantial luck factor in this game, and not just because the granularity of crucial events is beyond the ability of humans to control, predict, or perceive. Powerups are very important, and (apart from the first one on every level, which always gives you a “Particle Laser” 1OK, actually it’s a little more complicated than that. If you manage to grab a powerup while sliding down the web on completing a level (the “Avoid Spikes” phase), your first powerup in the next level will be an AI Droid.) completely random. And some of them are much more useful than others. If you manage to get an AI Droid powerup, it’ll wander around shooting things for you so you can concentrate on defense, and on picking up more powerups. Even better, the rare Outta Here powerup simply ends the level immediately.

So, even when you’re out of your depth, there’s some chance that you’ll have an easy time of it, but it’s a crapshoot. In fact, since the entire state of the level resets when you die, each life can be regarded as an independent trial with the same probability of success. If it weren’t for the odd limitation, the number of lives you have would be unimportant. No death would have any impact on the next life’s ability to result in permanent progress. If you have a 25% chance of passing a level, it’ll take an expected 4 tries, and so will the next level, more or less (the difference in difficulty between successive levels being insignificant), for a total of 8 tries — more than you get in a single continue. But since you need to pass two levels at a time in order to get anywhere, it makes a big difference whether you have 8 lives in reserve or only 3.

Now, in the early part of the game, at the easier stages, one tends to accumulate lives. This gives the player a certain momentum. You eventually reach a point where you’re losing lives faster than you’re gaining them, but your reserves catapult you onward. Consequently, when the game finally ends, you’re not at the limit of your ability, but well past it.

1 OK, actually it’s a little more complicated than that. If you manage to grab a powerup while sliding down the web on completing a level (the “Avoid Spikes” phase), your first powerup in the next level will be an AI Droid.

Tempest 2000: Perception

Probably because of what I’ve been reading lately, I keep thinking of Tempest 2000 as some kind of experiment into human visual perception. There’s always a lot going on, only some of which is visible at any given moment. In extreme cases, you can lose a life to something that hasn’t even been displayed yet.

This isn’t even just because of particle effects covering things up, like I described before. Unlike the original Tempest, the camera moves around a little to follow the player, but doesn’t move as quickly. Sometimes part of the web is offscreen. Some of the webs are crinkly, with segments folded tightly around each other, so that, depending on the camera placement, some segments will be hidden from view. In either case, you can actually be on part of the screen that’s not being shown. On the other hand, when you get killed without expecting it, it’s hard to tell exactly why. Maybe it was something that was hidden from view by a crinkle, maybe it was hidden by an explosion, maybe it wasn’t hidden from view at all and you simply failed to notice it.

So, you basically never have complete visual information. On the other hand, that’s true anyway. The human eye isn’t nearly as perceptive as it seems; only a small region of the retina, covering about 6 degrees of arc, has the acuity we associate with normal vision. We get the illusion of a larger visual field from involuntary movements of the eye. The brain is really good at piecing together the fragmentary data obtained this way, and at extrapolating from it. If it weren’t, playing this game would be pretty much impossible. Tracking things you can’t currently see is a big part of the game, and I suspect that with enough practice, one might learn to see important objects in the game even when they’re completely obscured.

On the other hand, the same phenomena work against the player too. The reason that the brain is good at filling in the gaps is that the eye doesn’t see everything even under normal circumstances. I think the most striking experiment I’ve heard of in this regard is one that involved a system that tracked a person’s eye movements as they looked at words on a computer screen. Whenever the subject’s eye was moving, the words would change. To anyone else observing, the screen was in a constant state of flux, but to the subject, it looked completely stable, just like the words you’re reading right now. Now, think about what this means for a fast-paced game with incomplete information. Obviously the screen isn’t tracking your eye movements, and appears far from stable, but given how much is happening, and how fast, some of it is bound to occur in ways that simply slip past conscious experience, even for a well-trained player.

But that’s what extra lives are for, and the game is pretty generous with them. It’s like Robotron in that respect, only less cerebral.

Tempest 2000: Bonus Levels

At level 17, the background music changes and the web changes color, from blue to red. Since there are 16 blue levels, it seems likely that there are 16 red levels as well, but I haven’t confirmed this. All I know is that the next change (to yellow) happens somewhere past level 30, and when it happens, the level shapes start repeating from the beginning, but with more difficult enemies. Obviously 100 is not divisible by 16, so what happens when you approach the end? Does it just continue in the same pattern, or are there four special levels? I don’t know yet, but I kind of suspect the former. There’s some indication in reviews I’ve seen online that reaching level 100 doesn’t even end the game, but just switches it automatically to excessively difficult mode (which is unlocked thereby) and keeps on going.

I haven’t yet managed to get into the yellow without using continues. I’m not considering continues to be dishonorable in this game, but it seems to me that seeing how far I can get without them is a reasonable way to gauge my skill. I’ve managed to get pretty close to the yellow, getting past level 30 at least and possibly up to level 32, just short of the expected transition. But I’m not sure just how far I’ve gone, because the game doesn’t display level numbers, and even when I try to keep track on my own, the bonus levels confuse the issue.

So let me talk about the bonus levels. Here’s how they work: One of the powerups in the normal levels is a “warp token”. After you collect three warp tokens, you get a bonus level. Thus, they have no fixed place in the level sequence, although the content of the bonus level seems to be determined by what level you were at. Bonus levels are unrelated to Tempest gameplay, except in that they seem to all keep the flying-down-a-tube motif in one way or another. For example, the first few bonus levels involve flying through a series of rings. Each ring you fly through gives you a certain number of points, which I frankly wouldn’t care about except for the fact that points give you extra lives. Miss one ring and the bonus level ends immediately. If you manage to get all the way through a bonus level, you get another large bonus and skip ahead five levels.

It’s that “skip ahead five levels” that makes things unclear. Does it mean “add five to the last level you played”, or does it mean “add five to the level you would otherwise be playing next”? I could figure this out by taking notes about the web shape on each level, but I haven’t bothered.

Now, I’ve said before that there’s a distinction between completism and perfectionism in games. I haven’t really articulated that distinction. In most games, it’s pretty subtle — a completist and a perfectionist will, in most cases, pursue the same goals. But this skipping ahead strikes me as one of the few game mechanics that separate them. To play perfectly is to clear every bonus level without making a mistake, which means skipping levels, which means not playing completely. Of course, the fact that the game repeats webs affects this — you’d have to be a pretty extreme completist to complain about skipping content that’s basically identical to something you’ve already seen. But if there actually were 100 distinct webs, and I skipped some towards the end, I wouldn’t be completely satisfied.

Tempest 2000: Controls

Tempest had a knob. Rotary controllers of this sort weren’t uncommon in videogames of the day — why, the very first videogame to hit it big, Pong, used a pair of knobs. But they’re not common on today’s home computers or gaming consoles. (As far as I know, the last console to provide knobs as a standard feature was the Atari 2600.) I suppose the steering wheel controllers sometimes used for driving games are effectively a knob variant, but that seems cumbersome for the purpose. (If you’ve actually tried using a steering wheel to control a non-driving game, I’m curious about how well it worked.)

The usual way to compensate for this on a PC is to substitute the mouse, which works pretty well — like the knob, it’s effectively an analog device, allowing quick and precise movement by mapping motion on the screen directly to motion of the controller. It doesn’t work quite as well as for Tempest as it does for Pong and its ilk, though. Pong maps the rotary motion of the controller to linear motion on the screen, so switching to a controller that uses linear motion actually makes the mapping a little simpler and more direct. Tempest, on the other hand, has genuinely rotary motion on screen. Any mouse-based control scheme is going to wind up either (a) moving the player in the opposite direction from the mouse motion some of the time, or (b) being more complicated than the simple two-direction spinning of the original.

Now, Tempest 2000 has the additional handicap of having been developed primarily for the Atari Jaguar, a machine that had no knobs, no mouse, not even an analog joystick. It was built with a digital D-pad in mind, and the port supports nothing better. I might as well use the keyboard; switching directions is slightly faster that way. It’s probably not as bad as it sounds, though. The art of using digital controls to simulate analog ones is well-developed by now, and probably familiar to most gamers, if only subliminally. But it does suffer the inversion problem already noted about mouse controls. Pressing left moves you clockwise and right moves you counterclockwise, even when you’re at the top of the tube, where clockwise is right and counterclockwise is left. One gets used to this, but it’s easy to get momentarily confused, and every moment of confusion is a potential death.

Not every level in the game actually involves a closed curve — about half of them have endpoints, and are equivalent to lines. They’re lines bent into various shapes (one of the early ones is in a V shape that always makes me think of the Videlectrix logo), but motion on these levels is essentially linear rather than rotary. Does this make it easier? Not always! Context and perspective are important here. Some of these levels put the line above the middle of the screen, so that the monsters are below you — think of the normal tube-like view, but with the bottom half of the tube cut off. Or rather, don’t, because if you do, you’ll expect the controls to be inverted, like they are on the top half of a full tube. They’re not: left means left and right means right, just like you’d expect. The fact that I find these levels so confusing shows something about how quickly intuitive expectations can be changed.

Tempest 2000

tempest-zappoI had intended to get back into Etherlords his weekend, but I just didn’t feel like it. Sometimes the brain wants a rest. And so I choose a game that the spinal cord can play by itself. Tempest is of course the original fast-paced shoot-em-up-in-a-tube, and Tempest 2000 is its by-now-also-retro remake with a toe-tapping techno soundtrack (played directly off the CD, olde-style).

There was a brief but substantial wave of these remakes of “classic” arcade games around the turn of the millennium: re-imaginings that took advantage of 3D hardware and new innovations in game design, or, to put it another way, attempts on the part of the new IP holders to cash in on nostalgia by bolting on texture-mapping and power-ups and rudimentary storylines. Tempest 2000 wasn’t really part of this trend, having come a few years too early — despite the name, it was originally released on the Atari Jaguar in 1994, and its PC port in 1996. Because of this, it doesn’t quite fit the template. It has the powerups, sure, but it thankfully avoids spoiling the abstract purity of the original with a storyline. And (outside of the bonus levels) it doesn’t have texture-mapping — it uses Tron-esque solid-filled polygons instead of the bare wireframe of the original, but that’s as far as it goes.

Instead, the graphics technology it wants to show off is particle effects — there’s a constant spray of rainbow confetti in the background, and there’s often enough explosion debris and floating word residue on the screen that it’s hard to see what you’re doing. Seriously, check out the screenshot. The thumbnail doesn’t do it justice. It all reminds me of the complaints about Space Giraffe, a game which I’ve never played and don’t know much else about. Well, as you may already know, but I did not, Space Giraffe is in fact a remake of Tempest 2000 by the same designer. I’ve been vaguely aware of Jeff Minter since Llamatron, but somehow didn’t notice that he was involved with this game, probably because it doesn’t have some kind of quadruped in its title.

Filtering out the visual noise is of course a skill that you can learn. Some have gone so far as to call it the fundamental videogame skill. And this is very much a skill-based game. The day’s practice has seen me make substantial improvement already — I can now consistently clear level 20 (out of 100) from a standing start — but it’s not because I’ve made discoveries or varied my tactics or anything like that. I’ve been hesitant to start games of this sort since starting this blog, because they provide no guarantee that I’ll ever be able to complete them. With an RPG, there’s always the option of level-grinding until it’s easy. With a FPS, you can generally get through the hard bits by saving more often. With an adventure, there’s always walkthroughs, or, failing that, reverse-engineering the data files. But if a level in a twitch game is beyond you, there’s not much you can do. Tempest 2000 effectively provides infinite continues — within a session, you can always start a new game at or near the level you died. I expect I’ll be needing that.