Long regarded as one of the true classic arcade games, the shooter-that-wasn't-quite-a-shooter called Tempest was given a new lease on life back in 1994 when it was released for the ill-fated Atari Jaguar. Most people were too busy snickering at Atari's final console to notice that it was home to perhaps the greatest classic update ever made. Fusing the frantic and in-your-face-gameplay of the coin-op original with modern graphics and one earth-shattering soundtrack, Tempest 2000 quickly became regarded as the prime reason to get a Jaguar.
Unfortunately, the Jaguar died an early death and it appeared that the majority of gamers would never experience Tempest 2000's majesty. Let's face it; having to buy a console just to play a single title is something most people just aren't willing to do, especially when that system is the Jaguar. Not to take anything away from Atari's electronic feline (Alien vs. Predator remains a favorite to this day) but it didn't exactly set the world on fire. Much to my personal delight, however, Interplay decided to port the game over to the PlayStation and Saturn. Perhaps now Jeff Minter's classic would get the attention it deserved, with twice the potential audience to impress.
Wait. You've never played Tempest?
Well, one would usually be hard pressed to find someone out there who has never played Tempest in any of its incarnations but there are an unlucky few. They're not missing much, story-wise, as the game never had much of a story to begin with. It's the same as it was back in 1981: defend the "web" from an army of oncoming alien creatures who wish only to see you dead. Simple, isn't it?
Though the story may be bare bones, the playing modes aren't. There are a multitude of game types, each with its own take on the concept. Traditional mode emulates the arcade classic, right down to the simple vector graphics, although there seems to be something off there. It looks and sounds right but I can't put my finger on what's off. Maybe it's the lack of that spiffy rotating knob from the arcade cabinet.
Plus mode is a mixture of old and new, with a new A.I. droid that helps you out a bit. You can also play with a friend as a team and share lives. This sounds better than it actually is, however, as two ships running around makes things more confusing than they should be. A few rounds of this will send you back to playing by yourself.
Duel mode pits you one on one against a buddy and adds the ability to reflect shots back at him with a mirror (he can also reflect yours). Again, while it sounds nice, it gets old pretty quick. Tempest is primarily a single player experience and though the reason for adding these new modes is clear enough, they falter somewhat in execution.
The meat and potatoes of the whole package is, of course, Tempest 2000. Here, all the gameplay from the original has been left intact but everything else has been significantly upgraded. You still have the Super Zapper found in traditional mode but you can now also jump. This changes everything, as you are no longer doomed to be pinned in a corner without any escape. Once you get the power up, you can leap over foes and shoot from high above. Just be careful where you land!
Finishing all 100 levels (!) in 2000 mode opens "Beastly mode" where your shots are slower and in smaller bursts but enemies shoot faster and more often. Point rewards are much higher, though getting there is easier said than done. Things really pick up in difficulty around level 30 and you will be quite thankful for the "keys" you get after completing every odd-numbered level (after level 17), which allow you to save the game in a sense, and come back after you stop trembling.
If you should manage to collect three warp power ups in 2000 mode, you will be transported to a relaxing bonus stage where you can rack up big points. Completing the stage will grant you a 20,000 point bonus and transport you five levels ahead. There are three bonus levels in all and I hope to see that last one before all motor skill escapes me.
So, if everything is so similar, why should you get the Saturn version? Though the differences between all three versions are not outright noticeable, they have a huge impact on gameplay and the experience in general. Pop the disk into your Saturn and you'll find yourself wondering what makes this version so special. First off, you'll notice that the soundtrack is red book! You can go to the status screen and listen to all the awesome tunes or you can hear it in any stereo. Neither the PlayStation nor Jaguar versions had this feature (you had to buy a Jaguar CD unit to get the soundtrack on CD) and this is quite appealing, considering the incredible quality of Tempest's raging techno score. Playing this game in full stereo with the volume up is the only way to enjoy it fully. There are a total of eleven tracks, all masterfully done. I cannot emphasize just how much the soundtrack adds to the game. It's something you just need to experience for yourself.
The aural excellence of Tempest 2000 seems to have been a trade off with some of the graphic effects found in the PlayStation port. Gone are the psychedelic cloud formations that whipped by the fringes of the web. The empty space of the Jaguar version is what you'll find here. Does it make a difference? Not hardly. You will be too busy trying to stay alive to notice it. All the huge "two to warp!" and "1up!" explosions are intact, and while they tend to distract you a bit when things get hectic, they do add a very arcadey feel to the game. The Saturn version is almost graphically identical to the Jaguar edition, albeit a crisper, brighter graphic look . That would put it more or less on par with the PlayStation port (I haven't played it on PC so I can't comment there), with only the aforementioned cloud effects missing.
If there is one area where the Saturn port stands head and shoulders above all others, it's in gameplay. Nothing would be better than playing with the rotating knob used in the coin-op but the Saturn D pad does quite nicely. Not as stiff as the Jaguar pad and much fuller than the PlayStation's crosshair, the yummy Saturn controller makes playing Tempest 2000 easier than one would think with a controller. I did find it difficult sometimes to change direction quickly but this is present in all versions of the game and doesn't affect gameplay too much. Playing with a Virtua Stick makes things even better though it takes a bit getting used to.
One question I hear a lot concerning this game is whether or not Jaguar owners should upgrade to the Saturn port. Probably not, since those who have it on cartridge have probably become accustomed to it and are most likely partial to the original. I do strongly feel that the game plays much more intuitively on Saturn and those interested in a cleaner-looking and better-playing version, as well as those who want to hear the red book audio, should head that way. It's the superior version (yeah, I said it!) of an incredible game that deserves to be played. The overpowering sense of urgency and panic felt in the original as enemies slowly but surely advanced up the screen has been completely retained (and given a steroid shot in the arm). A few hours of play will leave you drenched in sweat and panting, with a massive smile stretched across your face. That is what Tempest was all about back in 1981 and Tempest 2000 continues that tradition in grand style.