In the 80s, arcades were hotspots filled with hulking cabinets housing challenging games. At those times, gaming wasn’t about beating campaigns or earning achievements; it was focused on high scores and competition. Difficulty, too, given how challenging games used to be in comparison to today. Needless to say, it was a different time and one that many still miss.
Every so often, a game will be released in an effort to remind us of those days, be it a remastered classic or something retro-flavoured. The latest in this lengthy line is Spectra, an 8-bit racing title that starts off challenging and gets even crazier as it progresses. It’s a game for those who miss yesteryear, as well as the masochists amongst us.
Playable over ten four minute-long tracks, Spectra is as much a twitch racer as it is a music game. In fact, much of it is music-based, as its tracks are actually randomly generated based on the beat and intensity of the chosen song. It’s an interesting design, and a ruthless one at that, but what really sticks out most is the fantastic soundtrack from chip-tunes artist, Chipzel. In fact, her thoroughly impressive music is the star of the show here.
That’s not to say that Spectra‘s gameplay is bad, because it isn’t. It’s just very basic and is better-suited for short sessions than long ones. It’s so fast, difficult and repetitive that it just doesn’t lend itself well to marathons, especially since things start to blend together after just a short period of time.
As for how things work: Think of the tracks as Guitar Hero fret boards, which come towards you at a set pace. That’s essentially what they are, and they twist and dive at will. The difference here is that, instead of aiming to hit buttons that correspond with different notes, you’re trying to make it from the beginning to the end, and doing so requires a lot of dodging.
You see, on top of reaching the end of each track, you’ll also want to try to earn and bank as many points as possible. This is done by picking up yellow, Pac-Man-like squares, which are generously scattered on each course. Collecting them is the easy part. What makes things difficult is the existence of many, randomly generated bumpers, which appear in the middle, left or right parts of the tracks. Crashing into one gets rid of any points you’ve amassed, and hitting one with speed or at a bad angle can result in your craft falling into oblivion. That’s never a good thing, especially when you’re at the 95% mark of a track you’ve yet to beat.
If it’s one thing, Spectra is challenging. That’s something those who try to best it will quickly learn. It’s full of bumpers, and requires incredibly quick reflexes. Plus, the only way to earn score multipliers is by going over boost pads, which also speed up your craft. They’re helpful, but are sometimes more of a risk than they’re worth.
Banking points also requires technique, because driving over a pick-up doesn’t permanently add it to your score. Instead, you’ll find yourself accumulating points in a queue of sorts. They bank only when you stop picking up squares for a few seconds and are quick to dissipate if you crash. You’ll lose a lot of points that way, too, because the controls are just a bit too floaty for their own good.
Another thing this game isn’t is long. In fact, its ten tracks could be beaten in less than an hour, but doing so would require quite a bit of skill. It’s unlikely that you’ll complete each one on your first try, let alone your second. Then again, it’s possible, and those who find the game’s default difficulty too easy will be happy to note that there’s also a hardcore mode that makes everything even more challenging. That option will only apply to masochists, though, and that particular sect will be unhappy to note that, while I did my best to locate them, I could not find any leaderboards.
All of the above is presented in a way that truly harkens back to 1980s arcades, thanks to Chipzel’s fantastic soundtrack and a colour palette that mixes the blacks of space with neon orange, yellow and pink. Space — or oblivion as I called it earlier in this review — plays a major role here, too, because, like Mario Kart‘s Rainbow Road, these tracks aren’t made with barriers. If you fall off and don’t manage to quickly correct yourself, you’ll plummet to your doom and a haunting game over screen will appear.
Going forward, if you’ve ever had a history with seizures, this is a game to avoid. It looks pretty, but it’s fast and pulsating, with a visual style that brings rave imagery to mind. After playing it for just a couple of hours, I feel as if my eyes are fatigued.
Now comes the tricky part: Rating Spectra. It’s a difficult game to review, because while it’s fun for short bursts, has memorable presentation facets and brings the great 80s to mind, it’s very repetitive and often frustrating. It’s well priced at $4.99, though, and is certainly worth picking up if you’re nostalgic for the days when quarters, body odour and difficult video games could all be found at the neighbourhood arcade. That said, its twitch gameplay and lack of real substance are definitely better suited for its mobile origins.
This review is based on the Xbox One port of the game, which we were provided with.
With visceral, retro-inspired visuals and a fantastic chip-tunes soundtrack, Spectra is a twitch game aimed at those who miss the 80s. It's solid, too, but is ultimately marred by repetition, frustration and a notable lack of substance.