Three in One
When game designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi puts together a soundtrack, he doesn’t just find some techno songs he likes. Rather, he turns the game’s sound effects into pieces of melody, and as a result, gamers feel like they’re creating music while they’re working through his levels. Some call this effect “synesthesia,” but after spending time with his Xbox LIVE Arcade titles Every Extend Extra Extreme (E4), Rez HD, and Lumines Live!, we’ll just call it awesome.
Publisher Atari has just released all three of these titles, which cost $10 apiece over XBLA, on a single $20 disc. That disc bears the title Qubed, presumably because Mizuguchi’s development company is called Q Entertainment. For those who haven’t yet explored these games, Qubed is a terrific buy.
Of the three included games, Every Extend Extra Extreme is our favorite, because it’s the most unique. At first glance, it seems like it might be a space shooter along the lines of Geometry Wars, but in fact, there is no shooting at all (except in one game mode, cleverly called “The Revenge”). The only way to hurt your enemies is to blow up your ship on purpose, setting off waves of explosions. Each explosion creates a sound effect that interacts with the background music, and each stage has different music, effects, and enemies.
Beyond this unique setup, the brilliant thing about E4 is that it presents one risk-reward scenario after another. Let’s say you get a pretty good chain of explosions going. As the explosions continue, you earn more and more points, but there are benefits to canceling the explosion (which you can do at any time), too. Most important, the clock is running down. In one mode you can build it back up by grabbing power-ups before they disappear, and when your time is fixed, you can’t afford to waste precious seconds on an explosion that isn’t burning through enemy ships fast enough.
Then, when you cancel the explosion (or it peters out on its own), your ship becomes whole again, and you’re given a few seconds of invincibility. There are three things you have to do: collect power-ups, get your ship to a good place to explode again, and explode before your shield runs out (the screens are hectic enough that, without invincibility, you die almost immediately). If you don’t get enough power-ups, you won’t get very many points, and you won’t extend your play time. If you don’t get to a place on the screen where you can set off a big chain of explosions, you waste time and points. If you run out of shields and crash, you return to the beginning of the level; this means there are fewer enemies, and they move slower, making it harder to create big explosions. Every choice you make can pay off handsomely or cost you dearly.
There are lots of options, too. E4 features four different single-player modes: you can play with extendable time, with a fixed time, with music you have stored to your Xbox 360, and as a traditional shooter with 100 stages. The levels have target high scores, which serve as concrete goals. The sadistic can try to top leaderboards, and those interested in multiplayer can head online for matches (we were unable to match up when we tried, but hopefully this will stop happening as more people buy the game). Bottom-line, E4 is a great buy, on XBLA or as part of Qubed.
Our second-favorite game in the collection is Rez HD, a rail-shooter that takes only a few cues from Star Fox. It’s an updated but faithful version of Rez, a classic and underappreciated PlayStation 2 and Dreamcast title – the new and superior version boasts high-definition and widescreen support, but the old, standard-def 4:3 version is included here too for the nostalgic. The graphics are amazing and quite trippy, with wireframe environments and bizarre enemies. Gunshots and explosions form the melodies that accompany the background music. The story is that you’re a hacker trying to infiltrate a computer network.
At its most basic, Rez HD is about flying around, locking on to enemies, shooting them, and collecting power-ups. The controls are extremely simple, involving only a joystick to aim, a button to shoot, and a second button to use the “overdrive” power-up (which delivers some damage to everything on the screen). Taking out targets is as simple as holding down the shoot button, dragging the cursor over one or more enemies, and letting go. The first four levels each have ten smaller stages within them, and the fifth is a long and complicated final challenge. Power-ups make you “evolve” from a sphere into a humanoid figure, and taking hits from enemies makes you evolve in the opposite direction. If you devolve completely, you’re dead.
We did have a few complaints about Rez HD. It has a rather obnoxious loading time at the beginning, and it runs a little jerky at first each time you boot it up. The long and sometimes hard levels (especially the boss fights) can be a bit much; you have to start them over each time you die, even if you made it almost to the end. Still, once the visuals smooth out and you get used to trying the same levels over and over, it’s a great game. The shooting action provides lots of mindless fun, the graphics and sound are some of the most creative we’ve ever seen, and despite their difficulty, the boss battles are epic and inventive. You can play with no game-overs to learn the stages (though, unfortunately, you can only play the stages you’ve unlocked in the real game), and there are leaderboards and achievements. Coupled with Every Extend Extra Extreme, Rez HD easily makes Qubed worth the $20.
We’re a little less excited about Lumines Live! Whereas the other two games stand out even with the sound off, the synesthesia element is the only thing that really makes this title unique. Lumines Live! is a falling-block game in the vein of Tetris. Square blocks of four pieces each fall from the ceiling. The pieces are different colors, and your goal is to group four like-colored pieces in the shape of a square (or six in a rectangle). A line moves from left to right repeatedly, and when it passes through a solid square, the pieces in the square disappear.
To be fair, no other falling-block game we’re aware of uses this exact setup, the music is great, the artwork that moves behind the game screen is amazing (if distracting), and the pace is fast. Also, originality aside, the basic gameplay can be addictive, and there are a lot of fun game modes. For example, you can make designated shapes instead of squares, face off against the computer, or complete assigned missions (such as creating a column with no blocks within a time limit). There are also local and online multiplayer modes, leaderboards, and achievements. The Qubed version of this game includes not only the $10 XBLA game but several extra content packs that, for downloaders, cost extra.
Hardcore puzzle fans will find (and on XBLA have already found) a lot to keep them entertained. It’s just not quite as groundbreaking for the puzzle genre as Rez HD is for the rail-shooter genre and E4 is for… well, whatever genre that game belongs to.
What about the folks who’ve already downloaded the games from this compilation? There is an extra here, but it’s not worth the full $20 on its own. That extra is a video interview with Mizuguchi, but you have to read subtitles, and music from the games (which is surprisingly annoying out of context) plays the whole time. By and large, people should buy Qubed because they missed these three games on XBLA, not because there’s something here they couldn’t find elsewhere.
For $20, Qubed provides three games worth $10 apiece, two of them classics and the third a solid title with add-on content packs included. To boot, it won’t take up space on your hard drive and doesn’t require a high-speed Internet connection to download. It is, in short, a winner.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.4 Graphics
Each of these games looks great in its own way. Rez HD has fascinating wireframe environments, Lumines Live! has great artwork, and Every Extend Extra Extreme competes with the best HD two-dimensional shooters. 4.8 Control
No complaints here; everything is simple and tight. 5.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
These games all stem from the brilliant idea of turning sound effects into melodies that enhance the music. 4.7 Play Value
None of these games is perfect, but all of them will draw you in, and for $20 most gamers would be insane to pass this up – provided they didn’t already acquire these titles through XBLA. 4.7 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.