Review: Space Invaders Infinity Gene (PSN)

The first thing you'll see in Space Invaders Infinity Gene is a carbon copy of Space Invaders, the seminal 1978 black-and-white arcade classic. A swarm of aliens march in neat rows toward the bottom of the screen, where your tiny spaceship with its peashooter cannon fights to repel the alien invasion.

And then everything just goes crazy. The screen flashes to a blank white and this message appears:

"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change."

— Charles Darwin

And just in case that message didn't establish the game's purpose clearly enough, it's quickly followed by this proclamation:

"THE KING OF GAMES STRIKES BACK!"

And really, in a nutshell, that's Space Invaders Infinity Gene. It's an attempt to take one of the most important (and old) video games ever designed and to introduce change after change into the formula through a series of "evolutions." It's as fascinating to consider from an intellectual perspective as it is enjoyable to play.

Frankly, it's surprising that Infinity Gene was ever made. Sure, Taito has made a few efforts to reboot the Space Invaders franchise before, but none of them has ever been as flagrantly bizarre as this one. That Taito was willing to take such a huge risk with arguably its most valuable intellectual property is something that I think deserves commendation, particularly because it resulted in a game that's surprisingly relevant today. Considering that it's the successor to a 32-year-old game makes it an even more fascinating case study.

The core of the experience is called "normal" mode, where you progress through 31 stages of increasing difficulty, length, and overall strangeness. What starts out as a two-bit homage to vintage arcade games rapidly evolves into an entirely different game, culminating in a wild, three-dimensional shooter. It's a strange concept that the slow-and-steady approach of the original Space Invaders is thrown out the window in favor of twitch reflexes, rapid-fire attacks and a heavy emphasis on cautious positioning — those are the sort of things you'd expect from a Cave-developed shooter. But as is explicitly stated at the outset, the name of this game is change. And to my surprise, it's one of the better shoot-'em-ups I've ever played.

Progression is also handled in an interesting way. While beating one level opens up the next in sequence, there's also a GENE meter that fills based on your score in each level. Fill that meter up and you'll unlock something new: a new song or sound effect for the sound test mode, the option to increase your maximum number of lives, a new bonus stage, and so forth. But the most interesting thing you'll unlock is a new ship, which basically amounts to a new style of play.

Each ship has its own unique weapon, such as a gun that automatically locks on to nearby enemies, a deployable black hole that sucks in enemy bullets, or a number of small drones called "options" that, just like in games like Gradius or Galaga, fire their own cannons whenever you attack. While not every weapon is balanced to be equally useful (I found the field-attack gun, which expands to fill the entire screen with your bullets, to be my weapon of choice,) each has its own applications and lends the game a much-needed sense of variety.

Besides the constantly-shifting perspective and visual effects, Infinity Gene also introduces clever new enemy ship patterns and boss fights at regular intervals. Each boss requires a distinct strategy in order to survive your encounter with it, which is a rarity in classic shooters like this. Across the board, they're engaging and a fun, gratifying exercise in quick-thinking and manual dexterity. So really, while 31 levels might seem short when each takes a few minutes to complete, the trade-off is that each stage feels distinct from the rest and the experience never becomes stale. And fortunately, there are a number of ways to continue the experience long after you've completed normal mode.

Bonus stages unlock occasionally when you fill up the GENE meter. These are unusual levels that are kind of like deleted scenes from the main game mode experience. There's also a challenge mode, which consists of 99 additional levels to complete for the hardcore shoot-'em-up fan. But the real standout is music mode, which takes music stored on your console and builds levels around the songs. In that sense, it's reminiscent of Vib Ribbon.

To try out music mode, I ripped a copy of DJ Shadow's The Private Press onto my PS3 and loaded up a few tracks in Infinity Gene. The result is a pretty cool experience where the beat is visualized in the background and enemy waves are generated based on the music. While your enjoyment may vary depending on your music selection, what I played felt like a fun, natural extension of the game.

There were a couple strange lag issues I encountered while playing through the game. Fortunately, these only occurred in the game's menus and never while playing through levels, but they were consistent and significant enough that I think they ought to be mentioned. The first problem arose whenever I first loaded up normal mode after launching the game — it would seem to hang for about fifteen seconds before finally displaying the level select screen. But there was another consistent problem in the after-level score screen, where it'd flash the message to press any button to continue but nothing would happen for up to ten seconds. They're minor gripes, and the game never once froze up completely, but they definitely interrupted the flow of the game.

I enjoyed playing through the different modes in Infinity Gene, but the broader experience is greater than the sum of its parts. It represents what's sorely missing from so many game series that pump out iteration after dull iteration, fearful of taking risks that might disrupt sales figures or draw the ire of shareholders. Essentially, it's proof that even the oldest games still have relevance, and with enough creativity and risk-taking, they can surprise us in ways we never expected.

The ending is clever and a little poignant, so I won't spoil it here. But I thought I should mention this dedication that appears after the credits roll:

"To everyone who loves games and Charles Darwin"

I'd say that makes for a pretty solid recommendation.

Recommended for:

  • Everyone who loves games and Charles Darwin, naturally
  • The fact that it stands as proof that innovation can be found within even the oldest games

Not Recommended for:

  • Anyone who lacks the patience to conquer a challenging, occasionally frustrating, classic arcade game

Space Invaders Infinity Gene was developed by Taito and published by Square-Enix. It is available on Xbox Live and PlayStation Network for $9.99. Additionally, an older version of the game is also available for iOS devices for $4.99 through the App Store. A copy was provided for review by Maverick PR. The reviewer played the game to completion on normal difficulty, finished about half of the available challenge levels and played almost every track from The Private Press in music mode, earning six of a possible twelve trophies.

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