Jamestown – Review
The PC probably isn’t the natural home of the old-school vertically-scrolling shoot ‘em up (note: at no point will I be using the popular contraction of that phrase, as it irritates me beyond tablets), and yet it’s your best bet if you’re a fan of the genre thanks to MAME (the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) offering up all of your old Cave and Raizing favourites (if you’re hardcore), as well as the Western coin-op classics by companies such as Capcom and Taito (if you’re a bit more casual). The alternative is running the gauntlet of import taxes and region-locking whenever Cave graces 360 owners in Japan with a port of one of their classic titles. Still, there is a question of legality when it comes to emulation, and new examples of the genre are thin on the ground – especially since Cave deemed them “too expensive” to produce.
So when Jamestown showed up on the front page of Steam offering retro-flavoured bullet-spewage, I was intrigued. The promo trailer and screenshots (in-game screenshots, oh how I’ve missed you!) were like a checklist of what you want from this kind of game. Hand-drawn pixel graphics? Check! Bullet patterns that would make an American high school student gasp? Check! Screen-filling bosses? Check! Most discerning shoot ‘em up fans would buy it on general principle, and the short version of all this wordy bollocks is that they would be right to. But if I don’t reach the word requirement Mark and Lorna will sacrifice me to the Great God Wiiu, so I’d better get describing.
Jamestown, even by typical shoot ‘em up standards, has an awesomely bizarre plot-line. You play as Sir Walter “rather-a-wally” Raleigh, who has been scheduled for execution by his king in 1619 (presumably the Bible-editing King James). He escapes to Jamestown, a small community on British colonial Mars. However, this turns out to be quite the frying pan/fire scenario, as it is under siege by “betentacled Martians loyal to the Spanish.”
If that isn’t the best thing you’ve ever read then you’re lying. Anyway, the bizarre plot-line allows Jamestown’s look to cross over from neoclassical to steampunk to straight up Japanese-style sci-fi (albeit the tentacles here are just for show and not perversion). Everything is lovingly crafted in hand-drawn pixel art, and it looks wonderful, in an authentically late ’90s kind of way. Crucially the action is always clearly presented, meaning less “what the hell hit me?” moments, and the game avoids slowdown even in its most hectic moments. And there are plenty of those on offer.
Yep, this is bullet hell gaming as you know and love/loathe it, but thankfully it takes its cues from the best examples of the genre, perfectly straddling the line between hectic and cheap. Unless you are playing on the highest difficulty settings, Jamestown offers a fair challenge with the game itself being quite easy to complete, but a lot harder to maximise your scoring on. That’s always the best way to do it, as it caters for both the hardcore and the people who aren’t hatefully good at shooters. There is a smooth difficulty curve through all five of the game’s main levels, and they’ve wisely decided to avoid horrendous difficulty spikes during the boss battles.
The later levels of the game are only accessible when playing on some of the harder difficulties (not the very hardest ones though; you know, the ones that are usually played by that nation of cyborgs-in-waiting, the Japanese), which means you can’t just razz through the game on the easiest setting when you want to do a low-pressure score run or anything. In fact this is a common theme throughout the game, with everything seemingly needing to be unlocked from different modes, including bonus levels and extra ship types. The latter of which is a little bit curious, if you want to play four player co-op from the off with each player having their own type of ship.
That said, unlocks do come quite quickly, and the additional content is welcome. Sure, the different ship types seem to get less useful as you unlock them, but they are a good way of mixing up the core gameplay. The bonus levels are expertly crafted, requiring more skill, patience and strategy than the main levels. Some of them are particularly brilliant, from the Space Invaders-styled one, to the short-but-dramatic bullet hell survival ones. They are also a fair bit tougher than the main game as well.
The aforementioned four player co-op mode is a nice and unusual addition to the genre, and it works reasonably well, although it does lead to your eyes needing to take a hot bath, as well as making the keyboard and mouse controls (especially the mouse) a bit too compromised for top-level bullet-dodging antics. You can plug in four actual controllers I guess, but four players cramped around one PC monitor isn’t the most practical way of playing anyway. Two players seems to be the best balance on offer. Unfortunately co-op mode is local only, not even supporting LAN play. This is a shame as online co-op would make this game completely essential. If EDF: Insect Armageddon can do online play, anyone can.Pros
- Authentically old-school graphics that stand up in 2011.
- The best soundtrack I've heard on a game since Bully.
- Perfect difficulty curve.
- Plenty of additional content to make you feel better about the seven quid this game costs.
- Betentacled Martians loyal to the Spanish.
- Maybe a little short (apart from level two which is maybe a little long).
- Co-op is local only.
- Three of the four playable ships are a little compromised.
- Some of the Steam achievements (yeah, I know, whatever) are insanely tough.
Niggles aside Jamestown really is a tremendous effort, and when you’re blasting away at the Martian hordes with the game's magnificent soundtrack blaring out, this really is gaming the way it's meant to be. If they ever find a way to implement online play, and maybe add to or tweak some of the game's features, this could be truly essential.
I'm a recent convert to the charms of Steam, taking a holiday from my achievement whoring malaise on the 360, and with Xbox Live Arcade currently showing the quality and value for money of Ant and Dec, titles like Jamestown could see me extending my vacation. If this is the sort of output that we can expect from a first time indie dev then the sky is the limit.
I give it eight Total Recalls out of ten.
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