The Laser Guide to Video Games - Review - Syd Mead's Terraforming (PC Engine)









In Memory
Sean Pettibone


The Laser Guide to Video Games

Syd Mead's Terraforming (PC Engine - 1992)

An elaborate and moody cinematic introduction sets a distinctive tone for Syd Mead's Terraforming. Setting a darker, murkier tone than most arcade titles, it draws you into its world that subverts the usual heroic message. Instead of fighting aliens in space, you're the invader attacking them, which gives the player an interesting motivation. This sets the stage for a surprisingly innovative, strangely beautiful shooter that's unlike anything else released on the PC Engine plarform. Distinguished developers Right Stuff took on a challenge to create something unique by partnering with the legendary designer Syd Mead, well-known to cinemaphiles for his masterful conceptual work on brilliant movies such as Alien, Blade Runner and, Tron. Design elements of these films can be glimpsed throught the game, in its ship and enemy design, also peeking through in different styles and forms that give Terraforming an immediately bracing appeance that creates a world all its own. This extends to all the enemy creatures that feature an unmistakable aesthetic, with Syd Mead's signature biomechanical designs giving the game a surpsingly coherent and engaging visual style throughout.

This visual polish extends to all elements, even the scores display in a unique font-approach reminiscent of the Tron logo, which gives the game an immediate differenitator from its contemporaties. Its character animation is excellent by PC Engine standards, though it might appear a little rough to modern eyes. Terraforming's plot is surprisingly elaborate, almost cinematic in approach. Starting with a descent towards the surface of the planet you're conquering until you crash on the surface, encountering exploding volcanoes, and massive waves of enemies along the way. Under the sheer number of enemies you encounter, the pressure seems to build until you reach the anticipated boss encounter. These don't unfold in the typical manner, as these massive foes typically fall apart under your attack, shedding elements instead of merely ezploding. This gives the boss battles a kind of dramatic flair most shooters usually eschew. Its a fairly unique approach that help to immerse you in the action, in somewhat more elaborate fashion than is typical. Pulling all these elements together is a somewhat discordant hard rock soundtrack that punctuates the action effectively, highlighting the onscreen action with burning gasps of bleeding guitar riffs taken from the outer reaches of the galaxy.

Significantly, the game doesn't trade exclusively on its visual style and delivers solid mechanics underneath its polished surface. Its surprisingly difficult by most standards. There are four main difficulty levels, labelled variously as Slash and Metal which tells you what you're about to get into. Even Normal difficulty presents a challenge that tests reflexes and skill. Building up your endurance and increasing survivability takes a bit of effort, and probably many replays before proficiency arrives. This approach can be frustrating, but there are some important companions that help you along the way. You can select different ship speeds on the fly, slower-speeds allowing you more precision with the faster speeds better suited to the more chaotic sections where you need to stay on defense to avoid enemy formations. The power-up system is relatively straightforward but quite effective once you gain proficiency. Additional weapons stack nicely allowing you to upgrade in power and effectiveness quickly, while maintaining a steady flow of bullers on the screen. There is a slight pause before the weapons upgrade, but this is easily anticpated and can be mitigated without much effort on the players' part.

Collecting and implementing power-ups helps to unleash the additional advantage of giving you an an extra collision, when you hit a foe when powered-up at higher levels, your weapons go back to the previous level, but you aren't penalized with a lost ship. This can be used strategically in certain areas where you can sacrifice the weapon power to gain through some of the more difficult sections. This leaves you vulnerable to additonal hits, so you need to use this approach carefully. While most shooters feel redudant on multiple plays, Terraforming's patterns are somewhat predictable, and it pays to go through its levels, memorize the locations and patterns of your opponents. Once you've surveyed the layouts, progressing through Terraforming's stages becomes much easier. Its not an easy task, particularly on the harder difficulty settings,where you face many additonal onscreen foes, faster projectile attacks and more complex patterns. Keeping yourself safe isn't the easiest task, but you can find pathways through the enemies and find a relatively effective strategy with practice.

Its not the most obvious gameplay mechanic, but a key element to making progress in Terraforming involves avoiding the enemy formations, allowing some of the waves to pass you by without instinctively destroying them at first appearance. You can't always shoot your way out and sometimes, it's better to hold back a little. This provides a great deal of challenge that gives the game a surprising amount of depth ans strategy that many other shoot-'em-ups seem to miss. It makes for a deeper and more satisfying game that doesn't hew closely to the usual conventions. Later stages feature increasingly elaborate and harder to anticipate enemy patterns with makes for a challenging and surprisingly durable title. Its unusually layered approach to the genere is refreshing, combining elaborate, interesting visuals with an interesting set of play mechanics that's deceptively simple yet provides an elaboate set of obstacles and foes that are difficult to defeat, but makes for an all-the-more satisfying experience when you emerge victorious from its elaborate battles. Syd Mead's Terraforming takes some intersting chances that pay off for the most part with artistic experimentation matched with interesting twists in standard gameplay mechanics to create a truly unique experience. Its an unusual, but sucessful collaboration results in an engaging and original shoot-'em-up that stands apart in quality and execution.

- Michael Palisano