Learning is tough. Going from a state of complete ignorance to detailed knowledge of a complex system is never an easy task, but for the price of a little effort you can reap some seriously impressive rewards. Space Giraffe is simple-looking game with a surprisingly steep learning curve, but the payoff for mastery is one of the most fun and challenging arcade shooters in years.
First, though, a disclaimer- Space Giraffe is Tempest in the same way that DoDonPachi is Ikaruga, or Quake 3 is Unreal Tournament. There are undeniable similarities, but only superficial ones. Trying to play one like the other is only going to lead to heartache, frustration, and people laughing at your pathetic spot on the leaderboard.
Space Giraffe is the kind of game that sinks into your brain and doesn't let go, even if it does take a bit of time to work its magic.
It's probably self-defeating to describe Space Giraffe as Tempest turned inside-out, but it's the best frame of reference we've got. The space giraffe runs along the top of a web of lanes, with white speckles swirling around at the far end. Those white dots are enemies, and they're constantly rising to the web and then running to the top in an attempt to turn the giraffe into a lovely display of fireworks. Giraffes, even the space breeds, aren't much for being exploded, so it constantly shoots back an endless rain of sparkly auto-fire bullets. The shots from the giraffe's head travel straight down the tube, but the dual hoof-shots can be angled with the right analog stick. Once the Power Zone is gone though, the hooves no longer fire and you're left with the relatively weak head shots.
The Power Zone is one of two major gameplay elements setting Space Giraffe apart from Tempest. It's indicated on the web itself by a bright line of light, frequently with nifty swirly effects in the lanes, and it grows and shrinks constantly. Kill an enemy or jump and the Power Zone extends, do nothing and it shrinks. No Power Zone equals a weak giraffe, quickly becoming a dead one. Fortunately, even a little Power Zone is enough to enable both hoof shots.
Enemies at the top of the web in Tempest are a bad thing. They will kill you dead in half a second, then make rude remarks about your ancestry. Enemies at the top of the web in Space Giraffe, on the other hand, are the key to some truly ridiculous scores. So long as there's a bit of power in the Power Zone, the giraffe can push enemies off the web by simply bulling through them. Bull several at once and the game lets out a bellowing MOOOO!!!! while a transparent image of a highland bull fills the screen, signaling an increase to the score multiplier. The multiplier goes all the way up to x9, and it even covers the end-of-level bonus. Getting killed at level's end and seeing the multiplier shoot right back down to x1 is a cringe-inducing experience.
Get used to dying in Space Giraffe. The sheer amount of stuff flying around the screen can dazzle anyone. Audio and visual cues cover every danger, but it's still easy to lose track of a random bullet when shooting down a flower growing up a lane, using it to gain enough of a Power Zone for a bull run, all while timing a power-up rising from the bottom of the screen and hoping that a bouncy spiky ball doesn't show up. Learning to read the board involves sorting through an incredible amount of data, but everything is there once you do. Until that time though, there will be plenty of mystery deaths from unnoticed dangers.
Nailing that high score is a wonderful thing, and Space Giraffe keeps track not only of the overall score but also on a level by level basis. At the end of a game, a chart shows up tracking current score, a set line showing a "good" score, and previous best. You can always go back to a previous level and replay it in an attempt to prop up a section of the graph, and if you play well enough you can even carry that score over to the current start bonus. Each level has a start bonus calculated by the last high score earned on the previous level when it was beaten with three or more lives. For example, if you beat level 20 with three lives and 30 million, that's the start bonus for level 21. Every time you start 21, you'll get that 30 million added to the score on level's completion, unless you replay some earlier levels and score even higher. It's a great way to turn a 100-level marathon game into a series of bite-sized chunks, and competition on the leaderboard is fierce.
Fighting for a spot against the rest of the world (including Jeff Minter himself) is fun enough, but the real competition is yourself. Space Giraffe does an incredible job of tying score to performance, and the feeling that there's always a way to squeeze a few more points out of a level provides amazing replay value. Space Giraffe is the kind of game that sinks into your brain and doesn't let go, even if it does take a bit of time to work its magic. Give it that time and a bit of effort, though, and you'll be rewarded with one of XBLA's best titles yet.