Project X Special Edition (Team 17 game, Commodore Amiga, 1993)
Some things carry a virtual guarantee of quality. If you eat in a French restaurant, or buy a Swiss watch, or a German car, you will be rightly confident that your money will be well spent and you will not be disappointed. I place Team 17 in the same company. For four or five years they had the Midas touch when producing Amiga games. Offerings such as the Alien Breed series, Worms, Superfrog and Body Blows all carried a trademark veneer which stood them apart from most other developers. Graphically the games had a crispness that others couldn’t match and the soundtrack was always of the highest quality. Gameplay was normally well balanced and their products were consistently greeted with a near universal approval. So, looking back, it is such a surprise that with the release of Project X in 1992 that they managed to get things quite so wrong.
Game difficulty is a subjective thing. One person’s ‘far too hard’ is another’s ‘intensely challenging’. Pitching the difficulty curve must be a major headache for programmers and it is often those that get this element spot-on that find their games selling by the truckload. However, subjective view or not, there was little debate that the original Project X was far too hard.
Project X was a side scrolling shoot-‘em-up that looked and sounded amazing. Unfortunately the majority of the game was inaccessible to all but the most committed players because of the extraordinarily high difficulty level. Your mission was pretty standard for a game of this type; to pilot your ship and shoot down waves of enemies. Taking care of an entire wave would result in a small ‘P’ being dropped, which, when collected (and you had accumulated enough), enabled you to select from a series of power-ups and guns that were listed across the bottom of the screen. These included speed-ups for your ship, increasing your firepower by powering up or changing your main weapon, adding side-shooting and homing missiles to your armoury and, if you collected enough, you could select a temporary shield.
Losing a life would result in a drop in your ship’s accumulated firepower, so upon continuing with your next life your ship would need powering up again to be able to deal with the continuing enemy onslaught. However, the guns were depleted to such an extent that after a death it became almost impossible to clear waves and collect the power-ups, making it hugely difficult to survive. Inevitably you would die again and your ship would be powered down once more. Losing the first life began a vicious cycle from which it was virtually impossible to recover, effectively making it a one-life game.
Team 17 had never shied away from improving a game; they did it in 1992 with Alien Breed Special Edition, which was released to fix reported bugs in the original 1991 release, and they did it again with Project X. Project X - Special Edition (SE) was released in 1993, with some levels adjusted for difficulty and, crucially, your ship remained more competitive upon losing a life. This made all the difference with the revised edition being significantly fairer while still hugely challenging.
Graphically the game is exceptional. It is beautifully drawn and the artwork is colourful and striking. In so many shoot-‘em-ups (even some of the highest rated titles for the Amiga such as Xenon 2 Megablast and R-Type) it is easy for the screen to become cluttered, with so much going on and clashing colours that the player could be overwhelmed, crashing into background they didn’t know was there, or missing incoming fire amongst the chaos. Maybe this affects me more than others because I am ‘shade’ colour blind, (in my case red/green which is the most common type) but as this condition is shared with about 8% of the male population you would hope that game designers would factor this into their palette choices and drawing styles. Not all do though, so it is a pleasure to say that in Project X SE everything is very clean and defined and you can clearly see what to shoot and what to avoid.
The sound is excellent too with fantastic techno type introduction music delivered by the inimitable Allister Brimble and great sound effects along with an atmospheric in-game voice reminding you to fly around the landscape, warning of oncoming asteroid belts and informing you of the next available weapon power-up. The voice was provided by Allister’s brother, Chris (following in the family tradition, after his mum provided the computer voice in Alien Breed!).
The gameplay is solid, albeit still hugely challenging. This certainly isn’t a game for the easily frustrated but a little care and a lot of persistence will see you progressing far further than you would have done in the original version. Waves of bad guys are interspersed with single ships which take more effort to destroy. This format breaks the levels into mini stages and once you reach the end of a level there is the traditional boss to deal with before you can move on. Careful selection of the various power-ups can make a big difference, as does learning which waves and individual enemies drop them. In between some levels are bonus stages where you have to pilot your ship through narrow twisting passageways, proving a real test of your reactions.
There are still some small things that irk. One method of selecting a weapon is to move the joystick right then left quickly. Unfortunately, in the heat of battle it is quite easy to do this while manoeuvring, thus accidentally activating something you didn’t want. You can select a weapon with the space bar, but there is no way to turn the ‘waggle to select’ off, which would have made life much easier.
You have a choice of ships to start with each with its own characteristics, with varying firepower, speed and ease of control, but in truth they don’t act sufficiently differently to make this feature work well enough.
Finally, and despite the tweaks, it has to be said that this is still a tough test. Absolutely perfect for those that like a challenge, but maybe greater starting options would make life a little easier for the less skilled player.
Nonetheless, this is still an excellent game. The positives significantly outweigh the negatives. There aren’t that many stand-out shoot-‘em-ups on the Amiga. I never warmed towards Xenon 2 and R-Type for the reasons stated above, Swiv was decent and Banshee (although 1200 only) is a quality game paying more than a passing nod to the classic 1942. Project X certainly sits alongside those in the top bracket of these games. It is stunningly beautiful, possibly one of the best looking Amiga games made, well crafted, with a great selection of enemies and levels, and as tough as a well-done steak in a Harvester. Fans of the genre should certainly have this in their collection.