Crashin' it old school.
Approximately two decades ago, when video games were still a rare instance and most likely to be stumbled upon in smelly MIT dorm rooms that were even more likely to be inhabited by weird, greasy and hyper intelligent male (occasionally female) kids, a single clever idea was all that was needed to create a fun game. With games more and more turning into sophisticated mammoth projects, it seemed like the industry would not look back and instead become a hostile ground for smaller budget developments that built upon nothing more than that one single idea and the blood, sweat and tears of a few brave souls. We all couldn't have been more wrong, could we? Alongside the triumph of download only services like Xbox Live, Steam and the PlayStation Network came the rise of the independent, low budget, small team development scene. And what a rise that is. Download-only games like Q-Games' PixelJunk Series, or Jonathan Blow's ingenious Braid are only a few examples of small indy games making triple A impact.
However, Just Add Water's Gravity Crash is more of an homage to the classic 8 bit era of PC gaming, than it is a reinvention of conservative gaming structures and concepts like the aforementioned bunch are. With that being said, neither is Gravity Crash just a rehash of old ideas. It has a mind of its own. And it feels unique enough to deserve your attention over the course of its rather lengthy single-player campaign, even if that means that you need to look past a few minor and some major missteps along the way.
The main idea behind Gravity Crash is a rather simple one; you have to maneuver a small spacecraft through a futuristic looking 8-bit, two dimensional, vector environment full of neon colored goodness (kinda' like Rez, only 2D and much simpler architecturally), find some kind of enemy building, blow it up, and get the hell out of there. Sounds easy? Well, you have to pull off all of the above without ever touching another object. What makes things even more tricky, is the fact that gravity constantly pulls your spacecraft towards the ground while your fuel resources are severely limited. Fortunately it's not all bad news. Once fuel runs out, you can shoot a yellow crystal which in return refuels your ship's tank. In addition, your spacecraft has a shield that can be turned on manually (it can also be set to work automatically) plus two weapons, one being the standard automatic rapid-fire with infinite ammunition, and the second being the “special” gun one has to choose at the beginning of the campaign from a list of five weapons, each having a surprisingly unique explosive effect when fired. Each of the secondary weapons is limited to three shots per mission, with more ammunition found in only a couple of rare instances.
Luckily, you don't necessarily need to make use of that special gun in order to have a fair chance at beating a level. After all Gravity Crash's game over screen is nothing more than a small annoying window that pops up after you've slammed your spacecraft into a wall for the third time in a row. The only real consequence dying has is that you lose your score, and therefore your chance of ranking high in the leaderboards. In fact, after agreeing to reset your score in exchange for three more lives, you can continue at the exact same spot in the level that you've died in, with none of the enemies that you've managed to kill before your temporary doom respawning. That turns an at first incredibly difficult, seemingly hardcore game into a...well, at times annoyingly forgiving experience. It just feels like dying could have been solved in a more elegant manner.
Speaking of elegance, as much as I love the overall feel of the game, I just can't help it but be somewhat disappointed with Just Add Water's lack of creativity when it comes to the way missions are set up. In short, the only variety that can be found in Gravity Crash's single-player campaign are the different environments one has to navigate through. Each and every mission feels exactly the same; find a certain number of objects (mostly some sort of enemy building or fuel depot), destroy them, get the hell out of there. Alright, here and there you need to find four orange diamonds instead, but in the grander scheme of things there isn't much that will surprise you or keep the inevitable from coming; boredom and a lack of motivation. Sure, trophies motivate, but they shouldn't be the only thing that makes you come back to a game, right?
Without doubt Gravity Crash will find its audience. Some might even end up falling in love with it. Claiming that Just Add Water's little indy offering doesn't have its moments would be doing it injustice. Its basic ideas are all executed very well. Controlling your ship is responsive, accurate and almost always fun. The physics engine does a great job of feeling right and the presentation with its neon colored futuristic looks and its mostly impressive visual effects definitely does its part in underlining the developer's capabilities. Heck, even the soundtrack with its funky mix of old school electro/techno tunes can be considered a full on success. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the level creator. It's actually quite a surprisingly powerful tool that Just Add Water included with their little download. Furthermore the ability to share user created levels is commendable. It's just that there isn't much creativity to be found beyond the initial concept. And as much as I want to like the overall package for what it is, I just can't ignore its faults. Let's just hope that Just Add Water takes a good hard look at its flawed and yet sympathetic debut in order to get back at us with their next project. We definitely wish them all the best.
Second Opinion, by J.D. Cohen
I may not have been smart enough to get into MIT, though I did have a disastrous stint as a physics major at a lesser tech school, and I do feel a certain kinship with the greasy weirdos whom Mr. Holtz describes. I was instantly tickled by the fact that Just Add Water had the crazy idea to make a cave-flyer, a largely extinct type of punishing skill-based game, for the PlayStation 3.
It is even crazier that it coincided with PixelJunk Shooter, which also borrows heavily from the genre, though Gravity Crash sticks much closer in style to its forebears, such as the arcade classic Gravitar, and the popular home computer game Thrust. (I highly recommend the recent Vectrex port of Thrust if you get your hands on one of those elusive machines.) Aside from the more strait-laced shooting action and the vector graphics, the thing that most strongly plants Gravity Crash’s feet in the true blue cave-flyer realm is the “classic” control mode.
The classic controls are an alternative to the now overwhelmingly common Robotron-style dual joystick configuration. In classic mode, the ship handling is straight out of Asteroids, with one axis for rotating the ship, and a button that applies thrust in whatever direction the ship is facing. Add to this a primarily forward-firing gun, and now do it all in a confined cave with gravity constantly threatening to smash your ship into the ground. Staying alive requires a good sense of your ship’s inertia so that you can compensate with properly directed force.
This is just as infuriating as it sounds. Sure, as Parjanya points out, you can brute force your way through the game in a manner equivalent to feeding quarters into an arcade machine, but that won’t do if you’re the kind of gamer who likes big numbers. Playing for score rather than survival makes gravity crash shine, and that quest for the high score list is really the most retro thing about it. If your goal is to work your way up the leaderboards, rather than seeing what happens next, you will get a lot more out of it.
When I started playing Gravity Crash I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere, but when I saw that even with less level completion under my belt that my campaign score was higher than that of my esteemed colleague, I got a huge morale boost and instantly felt the urge to rub it in his face. Maybe that means that I’m a competitive jerk, but that feeling made me want to keep playing to see how badly I could trounce him. He’s probably surpassed me by now, but that just makes me want to play even more so I can reassert my dominance.
Gravity Crash is not for everyone, but if you have ever become emotional about the high score list on an arcade machine, it could be the right game for you. If you’re a whippersnapper to whom arcades are an ancient myth, then it may just piss you off.