The story of how Tempest 4000 came to be is as interesting as its visual style and arcade gameplay, and possibly even moreso.
The game is the sequel to the 1994 Atari Jaguar game Tempest 2000, itself a reimagining of the 1981 Atari Arcade hit. Widely considered to be the best game released on the ill-fated system, Tempest 2000 was a psychedelic experience as much as it was a frenetic arcade shoot-em-up. That new element came entirely from the game’s lead programmer Jeff Minter.
A legend in the British microcomputer scene, Minter first made waves with his thoroughly unique Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum games like Hover Bovver, Attack of the Mutant Camels and Psychedelia, a computerized light synthesizer. His interest in light synthesis and trippy color effects led him to Atari, with whom he worked on both Tempest 2000 and Virtual Light Machine, an updated version of Psychedelia that was bundled with the even more ill-fated Jaguar CD. While the Jaguar was a bomb, Tempest 2000 is still well regarded owing to its fantastic visuals, fun gameplay and how it showed off what the system could do way better than stuff like Cybermorph, its ugly pack-in title.
Minter has tried to make a sequel to the game for some time, first with Tempest 3000 for the somehow even more ill-fated Nuon in 2000. In 2014, he began work on TxK for a variety of modern home consoles on his own after the newly reconstituted Atari showed no interest in officially releasing a new Tempest game.
Sadly, after the game was released on the PlayStation Vita, Atari stepped in and blocked its production and sale. The game was pulled from the PlayStation store and Minter swore off ever working with the company again.
And yet, four years later, here we are: A new, Minter-led and designed Tempest game for PC, PS4 and XBox One. Tempest 4000 has Minter’s thumbprints all over it, no mistake about it. The neon colors and wireframe vector graphics often swirl and distort after picking up certain power-ups or completing a level, giving off a sense of surrealism found in his light machines.
The game also plays like a true Tempest sequel. The playfields are fun to navigate, the difficulty curve is challenging without being impossible and the new features are invigorating without straying too far away from the mechanics of the arcade game. It’s a beautiful, visually stunning game that should have been a welcome update to a classic arcade game much in the same vein as Pac-Man Championship Edition or Puyo Puyo Tetris.
What stops Tempest 4000 from reaching those heights are a handful of significant flaws that can make gameplay frustrating. The biggest of these are the controls. Tempest is an unusual game to update for any console because the original arcade version was controlled with a rotary spinner. The playfield was designed around rotating your ship in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction, with completely horizontal or vertical play appearing in only a few stages. Even Tempest 2000 found a way to successful translate the game to the Jaguar’s awful controller, but Tempest 4000 often feels floaty and awkward on a modern gamepad. Rounding corners or angles on the playfield is irritating at times, with the game not sometimes not exactly registering your diagonal movements.
On the PC version of the game, there is no option to remap buttons and there is no built-in support for controllers other than a gamepad or a keyboard. The keyboard controls are even worse than the gamepad and the gameplay feels slower and less responsive. Movement is locked to the arrow keys and there is no way to rebind them. There is no way to find out which keys translate to gamepad buttons, which means during gameplay, you might find yourself pressing random keys to find out which one activates jump power up.
The game claims to be locked at 60fps, but if you’re playing on a PC that meets the lower end of its system requirements, you may experience less frames than that on levels that feature a straight vertical or horizontal playfield. There are some spots where the ship’s movement will have enough of a delay to it that, if you’re navigating to the other side of the screen, you might miss the power-up you were trying to collect or enemy you wanted to shoot.
Beyond those flaws though, there are still element to enjoy about the game aside from its exemplary visuals. There are plenty of cute references to the Jaguar that count as the first time in decades that Atari is willing to acknowledge its existence. The game also includes the option to play both of Tempest 2000‘s excellent original soundtracks, although the option to switch between the three audio tracks isn’t exactly intuitive (press the Y button on the level select screen) and could have easily been a menu option.
Tempest 4000 feels like 75 percent of a good game, but that missing 25 percent includes things that are crucial to its enjoyment. Tempest 4000, regrettably, has too many issues to warrant a recommendation to shmup or classic arcade fans – at least on the PC, at for least right now – and it’s certainly not worth the $20 price that Atari is asking for at the moment. Those issues could probably be fixed with a patch, and Minter has indicated that may be coming.
Loyal Jeff Minter fans who want to experience the latest creation from one of video gaming’s greatest iconoclasts will find the trippy visual style they have come to expect from him, but they’d also probably be better off buying his much better Polybius whenever it makes its way from the PS4 to the PC.
In terms of new installments of Atari-controlled series, Tempest 4000 is in no way as significant of a let down as the horror show that was Rollercoaster Tycoon World, but its flaws count as another example of one of the most important companies in the history of video gaming dropping the ball when it comes to their legacy.
Release Date: July 17, 2018
Review copy provided by publisher