Developed in the UK by PomPom Games, Mutant Storm is a sensory masterpiece of visuals, audio and gameplay. It pays respect to what ’80s arcade developers certainly would have accomplished if the technology was available. Mutant Storm is the product of two guys–Miles Visman(programming) and Mike Michael(graphics & sound)–that clearly know gaming history and know what makes games fun.

Mutant Storm follows the tradition of the classic arcade giants of Defender, Galaga and, the mother of all arcade games, Robotron. Those classics could open your adrenaline glands like a spigot, slam your ego into a pathetic putty and make you beg for more. Those classics would consume quarters at an alarming rate and seemed “unfair” but they all are, theoretically, beatable.

Note the present tense. Those classics and others have stood the test of time. They are just as fun as they were over 20 years ago. Retrogaming fans would insist that they are better than anything out today but that’s them. Fanboys are a strange breed.

Mutant Storm requires a minimum of a Pentium III-400 MHz CPU, 64MB of RAM, 16MB of video RAM on a card supporting 3D acceleration and Windows or Linux for your operating system. If you don’t know what the hell the requirement sentence means to you, then any computer made within the last three years should be able to handle this game. Download the Windows version to be on the safe side. The 89 level game sells online for US$20. A 9 level demo can be downloaded from PomPom.

FYI: There is also a Macintosh version. Visit PomPom Games for more information.

As the developers state in their site, ambition kills. Games today are a male-dominated, “realism” jerk fest full of pompous features that require a seminar for ordinary people to figure out. Part of the appeal of the ’80s arcades was universal access. With socially detached constructs like Pac-Man and Q*Bert and primal ideas that space shooters presented (shoot aliens to rescue humans/Family/Earth), any social strata and both sexes could enjoy a coin op game.

Mutant Storm is simple: shoot “beasties” and stay alive. The only person you need to save is yourself. You have bombs but you don’t get points for using them. You get bonus points for not using them. It doesn’t really get more complicated than that.

Mutant Storm has three major design components:1) the control scheme, 2) the gameplay and 3) the belts.

The control scheme requires two hands. One to control the movement of your ship and one to control the direction of fire. PomPom suggests a Sony Dual Shock gamepad or an equivalent analogue gamepad. Sony controllers can be easily interfaced to your PC with a PS2 adapter from Lik Sang.

I use a Devastator 2 arcade control panel. The trackball controls the directional firing and the right-side stick controls movement. It’s a very comfortable setup that leaves me free to focus on the action instead of handling a flimsy gamepad.

Most people, however, have only a keyboard and a mouse. This setup works well enough. While movement won’t be as precise as analogue, the directional fire(mouse control) will be extremely accurate. Since the goal is to kill beasties, there’s no problem.

One note: I strongly recommend against using the keyboard for both movement and directional fire. Keyboards do not react well to multiple button presses. They aren’t made for gaming and you will eventually break it. Use an arcade panel like the Devastator 2 as an alternative.

The gameplay is survival. Live long enough and your scores will rumble upwards through the multiplier bar. This bar fills up as long as you keep killing beasties. Each time the bar fills, your points increase by a multiplier (2x, 3x, etc.) Die once and the bar empties. It also decreases by a multiplier.

Losing one life brings on brutal scoring penalties but staying alive offers serious rewards. It can be frustrating to earn your way to a 3x multiplier, near 4x, and lose a life. This aspect of the game is truly hardcore and may turn off players after a few times. Considering that half the difficulty of the ’80s arcade games was intended to keep the player pumping quarters, the developers may want to consider easing up in this area. Perhaps simply dropping one multiplier would be sufficient to keep players in the game.

The two player mode of Mutant Storm is where the real enjoyment in this game comes from for me. Since each level lasts approximately 30 seconds, it’s a great way to liven things up. The range of ammunition in the two-player mode is half of single-player mode so cooperation is essential. The developers claim that strategy is impossible but that’s simply not true. You and your friends will find ways to defeat particular levels in particular ways.

As mentioned earlier, avoid the keyboard for all your controls. Considering that your keyboard will spaz on single player using both movement and directional fire, your keyboard WILL take a complete dump if you attempt to burden it with four hands slamming buttons. Definitely consider the developer’s recommendation of analogue gamepads or my recommendation of a Devastator 2 arcade panel.

The final aspect of Mutant Storm is the belt system. The game starts at white belt–like martial arts. As you stay alive and pass levels, your belt percentage increases in the lower left corner. As this percentage increases, beasties move and fire faster. Needless to say, the game can get very wild very quickly. When you die, your belt loses percentage points and the beasties slow down and ease up because they know you suck. Every nine levels, you reach a checkpoint that allows you to continue from the following level.

Without these checkpoints, the game is impossible to defeat.

I am currently an Orange belt in two-player mode and still a stinking 32 level white belt in single player mode. You must defeat all 89 levels at a particular belt to earn the right to start games at that belt. This is another hardcore aspect that might turn off casual players. You fight your way through 84 levels without a death, die 5 times, defeat the game but you were thrown from green to down to Orange in the process. You don’t advance belts–tough luck.

That scenario can be truly angering. Because belts advance only 3% per level, you cannot start at 80 to defeat the game and advance one belt. You have to start around 50. That fact takes away from the arcade approachable nature of Mutant Storm. Furthermore, since the belt percentage affects difficulty, strange balancing problems occur around the middle of Orange belt. Some creatures move so fast that it’s simply beyond human ability to survive.

Some folks insist that they can play beyond this point. I think they are cheating and will leave it at that.

I’ve played video games for as long as I can remember. Never have I come across something so polished and addictive– certainly not by a two man studio. The control scheme might keep some players away but this is *easily* a multi-platinum console game and I’m floored by the fact that no publisher has signed these gentlemen to a contract yet. Given the way that the publishing industry works and given the nature of the Internet, it could be a blessing in disguise. Still, Microsoft’s XBox division is in the best position to take a risk on the PomPom studio and their Mutant Storm title.

It will take one more patch and many more informed reviews to accurately convey to the public what Mutant Storm is about but there’s no doubt that their time will come. There are many more ’80s games that I would like to see updated and PomPom seems to be the studio with the Midas touch that can pull it off.

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