It was early 2010 when I encountered a video trailer of this Xbox Live Indie Game, "Decimation X", via my twitter timeline, which I was reluctant to check so much as currently at that time. A week passed after its release, and I missed it until then, but immediately I turned on Xbox360, and pressed buttons to purchase it. (I usually don't download trials except for a case "whether I will pass it up or not", and whenever a game seems to be fun, I don't hesitate to purchase.) What the reason I bought it? -- I was fond of shoot 'em ups but not so frenetic, and moreover I had no slightest experience of bullet hell shooters, because I felt they were not my coverage and beyond my skill. Maybe Space-Invaders-like games require less new complexity to learn when you play them, and it will be not so lengthy game, so easy to begin or quit. I tend to prefer what gaming people call small games or short-span games, that's why I have picked it up. Also, I wanted to experience "extremity" which is unexpected by glancing its cover arts, with curiosity stronger than fear.
Those days, Xbox Live Indie Game (XBLIG) was unpopular section among Japanese Xbox360 owners, and eventually there are very few games rated highly. In Japan this service began on 11 August 2009, and I bought "Biology Battle" as soon as I heard it was available in Japan, and I played it about 50-100 hours. In August 2009, "Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved²" enjoyed its first anniversary since release, and I completely became a fan of multi-directional shooters since I got a couple of this sequels, and Biology Battle was a great and favorable game for me, too. But, I couldn't find the next indie game to buy; it was very unfortunate that the XBLIGs in early times were scrapheap in which we were forced to dig up and find out a treasure (though choosing games is fun to some extent), especially in Japan where we could get scarce information. What is worse, I was very selective in games, and no other screenshots, game titles, descriptions, and any trailer movies would draw my attention for a while. Thus I had to wait January 2010 to recover that attention to XBLIG -- to get Decimation X. When I met it at first, I wanted to know who the hell created this superb game.
So, first of all, I would like to introduce the developers of this game, Xona Games, though some of you might know of them better than I!
Xona Games, Inc. is an indie game studio located in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. Xona was founded by two people in Yarmouth, and recently incorporated (on 1 April 2010). The two co-founders of Xona Games are, as you know, the twin brothers: Jason Doucette, the lead programmer (Twitter: @JasonADoucette) and Matthew Doucette, the director and mainly does public relations. (Twitter: @mdoucette) Their first attempt to create a computer game was in the age of eight, and they produced games, web applications, and sometimes pursued a solution to a mathematical conjecture. And don't forget that they are intensive game players as well as game programmers. This fact influences their ways to create games.
(The movie is cited from XonaGames's developers' interview in March 2010 at San Francisco, with Matthew (left) and Jason (right).)
As I investigated about Decimation X and Xona Games, I found out the first article on Xona Games in Japan. It was in July 2009 that an article introduced Xona Games's very first incoming XNA title, "Duality ZF". This shooter features two dualities: "dual weapon" (wide and front ones) and "dual play" (known as double play, or DP in Japan). Some tough Japanese shooter kept expectant eyes on Duality ZF because of its unique and intriguing systems: (i) dual play is prerequisite; (ii) four people can join in a single game as other Xona's games can; and (iii) bullet pattern creating engine which enables smooth moves despite of the quantity of bullets. Keeping it in mind, it didn't raise any question that attention to the game which Duality ZF's staffs released first in XBLIG should be increasing.
In 2009 and 2010, Xona Games had participated in Dream.Build.Play, the XNA game studios' contest, and selected to the top ten best games among many competitive works all over the world consecutively. (Duality ZF was placed 7th in 2009, and improved to 5th in 2010.) Limited to the shoot 'em ups in 2010, top rated indie games were nominated as finalists, such as "Prismatic Solid"(awarded at the first time as a Japanese title; overall 3rd place), "Shoot 1UP", and "radiangames JoyJoy".
Cited from latest status as of end of 2010, Duality ZF will be released as an XBLA title in mid-2011, and we can't wait to fire. Until then you'll play "Score Rush", which unveils the fruit of "duality engine." We want to expect how this game is polished finally, with our hearts pounding.
Well, let's focus on the main subject, the review of Decimation X, and firstly I'll introduce its history. History? What lies about the game released just the last year? -- However, please watch out that there is a prototype of Decimation X revealed in thirteen years ago! It's "Space Invaders '97", made by Jason in August 1996, as a result of his pastime. Space Invaders '97 was a variant of the original "Space Invaders". Yet its identity "as Decimation X" was already established: You have lots of power-ups to fusillade enemy and enemy arrays come to fire more fiercely as you delve into further levels. Additionally, the icon shower bonus exists. And finally, up to four players can play in the same game in Space Invaders '97 like its descendent. Actually, Decimation X is a carefully polished version of Space Invaders '97, with some broken items removed (which are strong enough to crumble game balance), and the order of item appearances changed for more comfortable play.
Some of you might get surprised with that its prototype was born more than a decade ago, although it's no mystery. It is said that the burgeoning of contemporary bullet hell (danmaku) shooters began in mid-1990s with the release of "DoDonPachi", but other precedent shooters imply the evolution in terms of intensity of barrage. For example, some trace of bullet hells, such as smallest hit boxes and strong fire of player and enemy ships etc. can be found in "DonPachi" (the predecessor of DoDonPachi), or in "BATSUGUN", the last title from Toaplan brand in 1993. Besides Toaplan and CAVE, "Battle Garegga" and "Recca (Summer Carnival '92)", developed by the same programmer, were made in pursuit of multitudes of bullets within the hardware limitation. Moreover, if you look back even in 1980s, you can find an unbelievably lot of enemy bullets shooted toward you in the fifth stage of "Salamander" (or "Life Force" in North America). (If you can read Japanese, you will find a detailed relation between Salamander and manic shooters in Japan at the series of articles in K-HEX's blog, "One Thousand and One Nights with Shoot 'em Ups" issue #145. These abundant pieces of evidence are enough to suppose that manic shooters could be come up in mid-'90s.
Decimation X is completed in Xbox360 which has sufficiently improved processing capacity, and once you have only an Xbox360, then you can play it in a console, with the same conditions as all other players. Running in a universal game machine is important, though it's less significant advantage than hardware improvement.
The most appealing point of Decimation X, to me and other Japanese users, is very simple to describe: developers make out a quality "intense retro", the concept of retro game with a powerful enhancement. In other words, Xona succeed to adopt features of shoot 'em ups in '80s through '90s, mix them in an exquisite composition while leaving some constraints, and provide exhilarating gameplays. You decimate a formation of enemies seen in other Invader-type games with the extreme firepower, but you also dodge enemy bullets; that's all what you have to do, and no other complex features will made beginners anxious.
Not only with exhilaration, Decimation X challenges you to choose a proper power-up strategy. This game balance might be the chance discovery, or developers' scrupulous investigations, but no idea for us the ordinary game players. Anyways this game seems to be too strategic to say dismissively "exchange of ultimate firepower." For instance, you will encounter green dots in Level 57, but their hit boxes are very tiny and certainly torture you; or you will remember the skull-head shaped aliens in Level 25, that flickers and becomes almost invisible periodically. Enemies' hit boxes are as large as you see, and extremely small enemies are very difficult to defeat with an only single swipe. To get rid of them safely, you must defeat enemies from a proper position to scatter enemy's shots, to make the path in the bullet rain. In addition to self-defense, if you want scoring and going higher levels, the order of picking up items is an important factor. At the beginning of the game, you should get power-ups of your weapon -- in particular, A(Auto Fire) items should be maximized to 6 in the very first part of the game, finding a good spot of icon showers in a second. From the middle game, items have more importance in scoring. You can choose one from three possible ways to go: (i) keep items as many as you can, for sure survival, (ii) abandon them to earn a huge annihilation bonus, or (iii) make a desperate assault aiming items and/or time bonus. Whenever your item strategy doesn't match, you'll be tortured to death; becoming a expert player is very tough in Decimation X.
Frankly speaking, what makes this games so fun is the simplicity of scoring system. You only do kill a enemy, take an item, and annihilate the array of enemies quickly for high score. Dodging or shielding of bullets just helps your score jump up. Shields are used very often for a makeshift defense, which is used an utterly different manner in original Space Invaders. That's because shields are completely destroyed until enemy forces moves forth once, even without going back in deeper levels, but taking the side opposite to enemy's move is required to survive. Sometimes a shield item becomes so irritating you as you want to get higher score, because shields block your bullets as well as ones from enemies. The quick kill bonus is growing quadratically, and you can earn much more points by kill them all very quickly. Taking or discarding shield items is an interesting choice in Decimation X's scoring system.
Shot enemies, grab lots of items, destroy an alien formation with an overwhelming firepower..., and dodge an onslaught of bullet rains to survive hardships. These thrilling continuous battles make you excited and strained. Xona Games's shooter games in XBLIG are made in common with this primeval entertainment, and their policy is very firm in the subsequent works. (This strong policy is, however, possible to lessen differences among their games.) Based on this policy, we'll take a look at "Decimation X3", the next sequel of Decimation X in XBLIG. (Decimation X2 is a title for WP7, and not available here in Japan when I'm writing this article.) The most crucial changes are minor but important fixes for inconveniences in the previous title. For example, you can move your ship slowly by holding LB/RB, which enables more precise movement, and then prevents you from being killed by an accident. Precision of your movement will also expand your strategies in the order of attacking enemies and in the way of capturing items. Additionally, your ship can earn more power-ups than X1, because more items fall as you get more icon showers. Not only icon showers, but some items, P(Spread Power), B(Extra Bullets) and S(Shields), will be tripled as well as doubled as in Decimation X. These items helps novice player to defeat enemies so easily.
There's other changes that some of you might not like: Playfield becomes wider but the distance is shorter than Decimation X, and it forces you to dodge shots come from closer position. Yet some formations are very wide, and if you remain enemies at both corners, you can carefully get rid of them without fear of a desperate attack. However, if you choose Challenge: No Shields mode (without any S and I(I-Beam)), items will boost your firepower so that you can annihilate them in a single wipe of shots, leading a concrete pattern to earn high bonus points. At this case, you should rather care of the timing of icon showers or getting items avoiding enemy bullets at once. Drastic power changes the game bit boring until the certain level, but the bosses appear at the fourth level each time, and they do not stop firing until they die, so you must dodge boss's bullet to switch your position, fully utilizing a brake button, to kill it fast. In 60 Level or higher, enemies withstand your powerful weapon, and falls heavy rain of bullets. You will achieve higher levels than Decimation X, but it becomes much more difficult. Concluding the changes in Decimation X3, precise movement enables them to implement the new and intense No Shield game mode.
We've looked through what is Decimation X, and what is good in Decimation X and X3, but we don't want to ignore some complaints to these great games, because it's great game in terms of potential, too. First drawback is the support of movement of ship in a lower speed. In X1 it's not supported and there's almost no way to manage to survive in the density of bullets. On the other hand, X3 has brake buttons, but it's not mentioned in any place of the game, without operation manuals. (We have to go Xona's website, or devs' twitter to get the information of this most crucial change!) I think that this happened because the Xona developers have been investigated the essence of the genre of shoot 'em ups quite well, but they happened to miss adding an explanation of that, as they know this very well. Skilled players can hardly get where novice players stumble, and being conscious of their tribulations are surprisingly difficult. You can also point out that the item appears randomly and sometimes it depends on your luck to progress the game easily or not, though this is a slightest flaw.
However, the biggest drawback in Decimation X is the lack of online scoreboard. This is so serious that some reviewers deducted score "only because" of this. Current XBLIGs do support online leaderboard but this must be a hand-to-hand relaying system via peer-to-peer technology. This is seen in Biology Battle, or more recently, radiangames (from "Fireball") and "REVOLVER360". Then why Xona Games abandoned implementing this fashion of leaderboard? The answer from Matt in Score Rush forum explains the reason in detail, quoted below:
We could have used a poor, frame-skipping, sharing method (no way) or menu-only sharing system (in practice it shares but misses lots of scores, espeically[sic] in the amounts we needed to share), or just local boards. We choose just local boards.
According to Jason, the new scoreboard system will take time so that they can accomplish a thorough project, so this can delay further projects critically. Basically, the best solution will be that scoreboard systems are available in XNA development, but it's difficult to expect Microsoft for taking huge costs. However, I think, if only they dare to adopt this relaying connection for online leaderboards, this will lengthen the lifespan of the game, because that are all of us miss, and the very developers miss it. This problem must be dealt with because leaderboards (competitions) are one of the spiritual aspects of retro games.
Before I will conclude this review on Decimation X and X3, I'd like to remark something important for me. I love Geometry Wars and Decimation X since I had Xbox360, and I'm very enthusiastic in them, but at the same time I'm stunned when I notice a shocking fact. I get that these two games developed by studios outside Japan, actually embodies the words of two of the most respectful game founders, Mr. Hiroshi Yamauchi (former president of Nintendo) and the late Mr. Gumpei Yokoi (former Nintendo developer and the founder of Koto Laboratory).
As I and you know that Yamauchi's way have both merits and demerits in his career, but I greatly appreciate him because of his impressive statement: "Even small and compact game products can be sophisticated, thus entertaining" that leads Nintendo's current success. Compactness was mentioned as a counterstatement against great and lengthy works dominant in mid-1990s in Japanese game console wars, and sometimes it implies a sarcasm to the silly little minigames. But, what Yamauchi really wanted to say would be that developers can't make a quality huge game without creating a sophisticated small game, I assume. Both of Geometry Wars and Decimation X are "compact" in an apparent framework of game system, and the games continue until your remaining ships run out, aiming for higher points. The core of games like them lies in delicate adjustments of innumerable parameters. Take scoring system for example; if any one of feature deserves excessively higher points than all other features, they are no longer meaningful in the game and it kills the diversity of gameplays. The same is true for the strength of enemy. At the point that enemy comes drastically strong, they might discourage players to continue and try the game again anymore if the degree of difficulty increases is too high. Games which players can continue as long as they have remaining lives is difficult to keep balance, not to lose it (in the state enemies can't stop players). Rather, it's much difficult to adjust a game that leaves a room to players to break through a difficult stage in any levels.
Finally, Yokoi, the man of great ingenuity in both of gaming devices and conceptions that the limited number of people can achieve, once replied in a certain interview: "(... The major advantage in Nintendo's game products is) that people can get fun in our games, even if the characters in them were converted to just simple shapes or symbols." These words were reiterated in my mind when I played Geometry Wars series at first in my life. "The characters in Geometry Wars are... full of only shapes; say pinwheels, rhombi, circles, and all like that! But I see, that thousands of people are frenetic this symbol filled games, and it's true in Japan... OMFG!" It was very stunning thing that I realized that Yokoi's words are true and it's proved by a game studio in United Kingdom, not by Japanese. Considering deeply, this sense somewhat resembles "intense retro" mind that Xona Games pursues. Their works have a root in the idea of old school (8-bit, 16-bit, or so forth) games to which decent visuals, sounds, and ridiculous quantity added, which is possible only by hardware improvement. (Note that there's an implicit assumption that most of shoot 'em ups are very good in all of sounds, music and visuals -- people will prefer even the silence to not cool music. But I'd like to mention the main theme: "Theme of Decimation X" by Imphenzia really matches the games well, and lift up our excitement.) The quantity of object can be replaced with "the difficulty that's enable by the processing capacity of the console", convinces us to perform an exciting battle. That's the main reason why I played Geometry Wars for at least 500 hours, including all the titles of this series, trying not to waste a minute. In Decimation X and Score Rush, there seems to be no characteristic decorations of characters, and enemies are mere targets to score. This is the very sense of "intense retro," isn't it? There's an opinion that games like "intense retro" is aimed at very limited range of people such as seasoned game player, but such a game can be memorable for the people if its core of enjoyment is fully emphasized. Gamers like me will turn on their console, play it casually, and then turn it off for many hundreds or thousands of times. That's why I love smaller games and I won't underestimate minigames. It's along this line that "Retrofit: Overload", following Decimation X as a intensive variant of "GAPLUS", is accepted in favor in the Japanese XBLIG market.
Looking back on the last year 2010, I seldom buy games generally, but I will spend time to play them if I found the game like Decimation X by chance. Personally speaking, my only purchase of packaged software last year, "Super Mario Galaxy 2" was a slap-up game, and I'd played it for more than 40 hours without obsession with criticism. Yet, the impact of Decimation X was more remarkable, which was found as a gem of games. I'm very glad if any of you readers have an interest in this game, and thank you for reading so much.