Copycat game development is always addressed by two opposing schools of thought. On one hand, it’s unoriginal and leads to people sometimes making large sums of money based on the work of other people. On the other hand though, it often leads to good ideas being reused in better ways to make excellent games. I think the latter idea is especially possible when modern-day developers choose to copy games from generations long past. It’s for that reason that I was interested in trying Near Earth Objects (NEO), released January 14th of this year, by Jay X Townsend for the Wii U. This is a recreation of the cult classic, Asteroids, with a few innovations and changes added in. Not the greatest game ever made, but also not a bad revamp of the original game. In fact one might even say that it’s a bit too true to the original for a modern-day audience.
The graphics in NEO are not great for 2016, but for a recreation of a game from 1979 that tried to stay true to the original, one can’t complain. The backgrounds, of which there are a few as you progress forward, are all done in pixel art. It’s actually rather good. All the settings are in space focusing on Earth, the moon, and later on other planets like Saturn. Death also gives you an awesome looking pixel-art skull. But the backgrounds in no way affect the actual gameplay. You could play over a black screen and the experience would be pretty much the same. The interactive objects are all 2D outlines of things similar to the original game. There is your spaceship, which is just a pentagon missing a slice, as well as lots of different enemies. Starting with the asteroids, you will meet new troublesome objects as you progress through the stages. Some of them are pretty standard like UFOs, but some are also quite interesting like floating skulls that expand as you damage them. In later stages obstacles that can’t be destroyed will also appear such as floating blocks. The game plays in a constantly changing set of blue, pink, and white. Objects strobe between these colors as you play and when they explode, it’s into a cloud of pixels mixed between these same three colors. The effects aren’t terrible for what the game is.
The menus are pretty simple. It’s just black backgrounds with both block and pixel text making use of a gradient of the same three colors as the gameplay. There is also a drawing of a space character on the side of screen for effect. The game can be played on the gamepad or the TV. On either screen the game is not full-screen. Gameplay takes place in a square in the center of the screen with a drawing of a space girl on the left and the game’s logo on the right. The HUD is just pixel text showing your score in the top left of the screen and your lives (ships) in the bottom right. It’s a simple looking game calling back to a much simpler time.
Playing NEO is quite simple on all counts, but it’s not easy to master. Your ship starts at the center of the screen at the beginning of every stage and your goal is to destroy all destroyable objects in one life. There are four different game modes, such as an endless survival mode, with varying rules about how many lives you get and what the start conditions are, but the game always comes back down to don’t make impact with anything or you will die instantly and destroy everything. In normal arcade mode you start with three lives and you are unable to get any more. Or at least I never found any way to acquire more if such a thing is actually possible. Your ship automatically shoots, making your only task to pilot and aim the ship. You can spin in either direction as much as you want and propel the ship forward by pressing any of the four main buttons on the gamepad.
The challenge is not shooting enemies or even not getting shot by the ones that can shoot. The hardest thing in the game is just controlling the ship. Once you get any momentum it’s incredibly hard to stop or even just slow down. You always over compensate when trying to change direction. More often than not you will die by running into something as opposed to having something run into you. And the field of play runs on Snake rules which means your ship, bullets, enemies, and power-ups can all go off the edges of the screen and come back out on the other side. The problem is that there is a considerable amount of dead space where you are not in the field of vision because you are still moving from one edge to another. You can even fly around in the dead space, making it impossible to adequately defend yourself. You get stuck in this area while trying to safely navigate fairly often. I actually found that the most effective way to play is just to sit in the middle where you started and spin around. You will have to make minor adjustments to collect passing power-ups and avoid certain enemies, but ultimately it works so much better than actually trying to fly the ship around the level. The only power-up you can get is scatter shot which takes you from a single continuous gun to three continuous guns. But unlike with many similar games, power-ups do not act as shields. If you take damage even once, you die and must restart the entire stage. Getting a power-up while already powered up nets additional points and nothing else.
The game is broken up into waves/stages. At the end of each wave, you are moved back to the center of the field with a screen blur and your power-up, if you have one, is removed. You must start each wave from scratch. Once you have destroyed everything that can be destroyed, the game will say “Wave Complete” and move you to the next one instantly. There is a score based on what you’ve killed and a high score is kept on record. But it can only be viewed when you get a game over. What I really liked about this game, which I wish more games like this would implement, is the ability to continue at your current stage when you get a game over in normal mode. You never have to go back to stage one unless you choose to start over. Even if you turn the console off, you can still continue at the last stage you reached during your next session. This is only for normal mode though. The game is challenging but fair. The only real issue I had was how the propulsion worked. A break button would do wonders for that system, but it would also make the game much easier so it’s 50/50 on what the best choice is.
The sound is very good in NEO, but like with so many other indie games, it’s not managed well. The effects are great. There’s really only the constant shoot sound, propulsion, and blowing things up. I felt that all of the effects were appropriate and mixed well. The music is great. It’s mostly house and techno with very catchy and active beats. Think Daft Punk with no lyrics. But it doesn’t play continuously. There are moments of silence all throughout the game. Even the main menu goes silent after sitting idle for just a few minutes. You have the option to turn the music off or shuffle it, but really what it needs is to play continuously and loop if necessary to fill the sound void. It’s Tharsis all over again.
There’s no writing to speak of in this game other than the name of each wave. Each of the many waves has a title that often tells you nothing about it such as wave six, titled “Diffy Cult.” There are no tutorials or any other actual text outside of menus and the HUD unless you count the credits.
Replay value is a big part of NEO as is true for most games of this type. But this particular game does not find its value in replay value. This $3 game has more than 120 stages, which again can be continued from, and four separate game modes. You will get your three hours’ worth of play long before you ever finish the normal mode, so even if this is a one and done, the time spent more than makes up for the price tag. The only recorded stat is your high score and there aren’t any leaderboards so it’s not really competitive or anything. It has a lot of play value, but it is an extremely repetitive game as is the nature of this genre so if it’s not something you’re into then save your $3. The game is definitely worth the price, but it’s not necessarily worth your time. I’ve definitely bought better games for less money on both PSN and Steam during sales.
Near Earth Objects is not a bad game, but it doesn’t really offer anything new to the table other than the ability to continue and thus actually complete an Asteroids style game. In the long run it will inevitably sink into the ever-expanding ocean of forgotten indies that we have now gotten so used to. This review was published less than a month after the game’s release and it’s already old news because that’s just the caliber of game it is. I definitely wouldn’t say buying it is a bad decision, but it’s also not the best budget game you can find. You won’t have missed anything noteworthy if you skip this one, but you also won’t regret buying it if you do.
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