Before rag dolls had anything to do with physics, before anyone cared about the difference between diffused and ambient light, even before there was a third dimension, gamers used to move little green squares around their TV screens avoiding little red squares. If you miss those days but don’t feel like digging out the old Atari 2600 or Vic 20 then Sony’s new offering on the PSN may be a little of what you need.
While not quite going all the way back to "red squares versus green squares" days, developer Just Add Water has put together an engaging homage to the 1980s with their retro shooter Gravity Crash. Taking control of your little green triangle, you have to navigate around 35 levels of caverns, water, enemy turrets, erupting volcanoes and alien jellyfish while collecting fuel, shields and the odd stranded survivor. It’s complicated in the way games aren’t complicated anymore, hard in the way games aren’t hard anymore and because of this is challenging, rewarding and intensely frustrating.
Piloting your spacecraft means subtly balancing thrust and direction while fighting against kinetic energy. Like navigating a ball baring around those little tilting mazes you get from the $2 shop, in Gravity Crash you are always fighting against momentum. To help, you can choose from two control systems. You can use the dual-stick method where the left stick controls direction and thrust while the right stick controls aiming and shooting. The alternative system uses the left stick to steer while thrust and fire are handled with the face buttons.
Using the two-stick method gives the game a more fluid feel. Small movements of the stick will change direction, while larger movements will increase your thrust. Using the right stick for aiming and firing means you can fire in any direction at any time. The lack of independent aiming is the biggest limitation of the stick and button controls, where you can only fire in the direction you are aiming although this is tempered by the power-ups which can see you shooting multiple lasers in multiple directions. The other issue with the stick and button system is the way it slows the game play. Using this method you find yourself tapping both direction and thrust, stopping, lining everything up and then moving forward making the game feel more like a thoughtful puzzler. With the dual-stick control method you’re slipping and sliding all over the screen, firing continuously and avoiding cavern walls and enemies alike. In this mode the game plays like a frantic, slightly out of control shooter.
Choosing and mastering your control system is important because Gravity Crash is full of dangers. While the merest of touch of any wall will reduced your ship’s shield, there are also showers of meteors and lava, a wide range of enemy turrets and ships as well as plenty of alien plants and animals. If you choose to control your shields manually they slowly regain energy when they are turned off. If however you choose to have them on continuously then you can recharge them by shooting enemy fuel stores. However, this means swooping low over the refilling station, usually with dangerously low shields, again highlighting the overriding importance of controlling your ship and avoiding collisions.
Every stage has goals such as collecting crystals and destroying enemy targets. Although there is some variety in the levels, there are no drastic departures in either gameplay or design. There are sections where you have to fly under water and these change the dynamics somewhat, with the water providing resistance to thrust and the ship wanting to float up rather drop down. However, the water levels are widespread and overall there is nothing that dramatically changes throughout the game other then its difficulty.
It is good then that Gravity Crash lets you build and share your own levels. The level creator is well designed and is certainly more successful then the game’s multiplayer component which is limited to split-screen competitions like Salvage and Race. The multiplayer element is disappointing and adds little to the game that you can’t get by just comparing times on the leader board.
Gravity Crash is an old fashioned two dimensional fight against inertia. While there are a few things that bring it into the 21st century such as the bright neon colour palette, the online/multiplayer components and the build-a-level editor, it’s a simple game (simple in a good way) that is engaging, interesting and hard. Just like games in the olden days.