When Xbox Live Arcade debuted the other month, pickings were pretty slim. A decent Arkanoid clone, Solitaire, $15 for old Namco games that could be bought cheaper at retail, etc. For a while there it looked like Live Arcade was going to be a good idea hobbled by mediocre content, and then came Mutant Storm.
Mutant Storm is a classic-styled arcade shooter done in the Robotron fashion, and brings all the ass-kicking energy of that influence to the table. Run around with the left stick, fire with the right, and mow down thousands and thousands of insectoid enemies while gunning for the highest score possible. Enemies teleport into the arena in waves, they get cleaned out, and it's on to the next stage to do it again. It all boils down to four simple actions: shoot, move, survive, score, in that order of importance, and it's as addictive a formula as anything sold by scary guys in run down buildings.
Originally designed for the PC, with a downloadable PC demo from PomPomGames.com, Mutant Storm makes the transition to the Xbox with flying colors. That's almost a literal statement too, with the game being one of the more colorful experiences available. Backgrounds pulse and throb (stop snickering) with patterns, the arena edges glow with light, and even the player ship color is customizable. The framerate is smooth as silk no matter how many dozens, possibly hundreds, of enemies are on screen at once, and never once did a single shot, enemy, or obstacle get lost in the graphic morass.
Control is equally slick. The player ship is zippy enough for any situation while never feeling uncontrollable, and it shoots in a full 360 degree radius. Pinpoint accuracy is easily attainable with a bit of practice, and that can come in handy when working towards a combo. This is a good thing, because it's in the scoring system where the game really starts to shine.
At the top of the screen there's a meter, and as enemies are killed it slowly fills up. Once it's completed a bonus multiplier is applied to all scoring, from the hundreds of enemies to end of level bonuses. Keep on shooting things and it refills again and again, up to 10x, but one death can send it straight back to the start. This also ties in with the difficulty level started at- the higher the difficulty the faster it grows. In addition, there's a combo system that rewards the player for shooting the same species of enemy. This leads to all kinds of player-imposed challenges, like when one lowly beetle enemy is being left behind a pack of charging, shooting spiders. Just firing into the pack will most likely kill any chance of a combo because the little guy's death will interrupt things, so the available options become-
1) Forget the score and kill indiscriminately.
2) Snipe the beetle, if possible, then rack up the spiders.
3) Circle around the pack and take out the beetle, then the spiders.
4) Lead the pack on a merry chase and hope the beetle evolves into a spider, so he can be added to the chain.
There's about half a second to sort it all out. Good luck with that.
It's not 100% wine and roses in the land of Mutant Storm, though. Because the score multiplier resets after a death, about three quarters of the final score is frequently earned in the first life. Also, though enemies do sometimes drop shot powerups, these wear off quickly, and as often as not just when it's needed most. A bit of strategy when the powerup is acquired can help sidestep the issue, but even then sometimes an extra second would have made a world of difference.
Minor quibbles aside, Mutant Storm is as close to perfect an arcade game as I've seen. The game is engaging, controls are intuitive, and it's very easy on the eyes. The challenge level ramps up perfectly from level to level, and new varieties of enemy appear at just the right pace. The best part is that the game always feels fair. There's a way out of any situation, if only the player can react fast enough to make it work and is smart enough to see it. Mutant Storm is a brilliant game, a justification of the Xbox Live Arcade concept, and a worthwhile addition to any gamer's library.