The Torturous Taste of a Magnificent Neo-Retro Light Show (Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved)

June 12th, 2009


Making the Selling Point

Bizarre Creations sparked it’s own mini-renaissance of the arena shooter a few years back with their Xbox Live Arcade and PC hit Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved. I played the Steam version on PC recently with an Xbox 360 pad hooked up and it’s clear to see why this game caused such a phenomena among the enthusiast community at the time. Geometry Wars was one of the first ground-breaking “neo-retro” games and its influence over this old-meets-new convergence can’t be understated. Even on Xbox Live Arcade alone, it’d be fair to say that Geometry Wars set the precedence for Pac-Man Championship Edition, Galaga Legions and Space Invaders Extreme, among a wide range of similar revivals.

Geometry Wars was such an prominent flag bearer for neo-retro-themed games for two key reasons. The first is for visual appeal which is full of bright, fluorescent colours ripped straight from the 80s; the rise of arcade culture. This colour palette mixed with the gaudy likeness to fluorescent lighting is visually indicative of the era, and therefore resonates. The visuals provide the initial grab for attention, it’s the surface level of success which is only exacerbated by the way the lights explode on screen with magnificent finesse.

The second element is the feel. So once a player is drawn into the bright lights, the gameplay reels them in for the catch. This is achieved by balancing the familiar elements (retro) with the fluidity of modern design and technology (neo).

The premise itself is directly ripped from the arcades – you’re locked in a contained field and need to thwart off an increasingly intense amount of beasties to increase your score. Consistentcy is rewarded with multipliers, and you are provided with a handful of lives and bombs, the latter of which acts as the panic button, clearing all geometric drones on screen. The simplicity of design and emphasis on high score tallies harken back to arcade-style play.


The technology adds a twist by allowing the game to render massive swarms of enemies on screen at any given time, all dancing to their own attack patterns. The more shapes on screen, the greater intensity of the game. Geometry Wars constantly dips in and out of scripted moments of intensity where armies of ships will suddenly spawn and rapidly enclose on your position. This design (death by massive spawns) concentrates the intensity of the game into controlled instances and delivers these moments of overdose in a way that effectively triggers euphoria in the player’s consciousness.

The combination of a uniquely apt aesthetic mixed with gameplay that constantly provides huge hits of flavour, forms Geometry Wars‘ provocative selling point.

Breaking the Skill Tester

My main gripe with the game is that it all essentially amounts to an endurance test of who can withstand the painful flashes of coloured lights for the longest possible time. As you play Geometry Wars, the player’s field of concentration continually shrinks as the more objects on screen, the less mentally able the player is to track each individual unit. Therefore the player has no choice but to concentrate on their immediate surroundings, since the closest units obviously pose the greatest threats. The problem with Geometry Wars is that it becomes difficult to concentrate on the limited amount of space surrounding your ship as the extravagant explosions from neighbouring ships act to hinder and distract the player’s vision.

While I admire Geometry Wars for the reasons listed above, the jarring intensity of on-screen action lessens Geometry Wars credibility as an arcade skill tester and I feel betrayed because of it.

This mark of betrayal forces me to take the side that Geometry Wars is nothing but a lustrous gimmick, which is usually the opposing argument for neo-retro games of this vein. The real test of Geometry Wars is who wins out in this game of visual torture, so I’d like to end on this sour note by referencing a video that summarises the Geometry Wars experience.

(NB: This footage may be shocking to some viewers)

YouTube Preview Image
  • Have you tried Space Giraffe? Reason I ask is, I feel like the visual distortion is markedly less in the Geo Wars series than in SG. In Geometry Wars, after I got into the groove of the game I could always see exactly what was going to kill me. The field is obscured but no opaque. In Space Giraffe, giant clouds of distortion will flit in front of you and prevent you from seeing anything at all. SG makes this forgivable by giving you something like three lives and letting you restart at the beginning of each level, while Geo Wars punishes you by taking you back to the beginning.

    I don’t really know if I’d say this game is any more of a “betrayor” or a shoddy test of skill. The entire genre is about memorization. In the case of Geo Wars, you have to memorize a pattern for each spawn noise. Each kind of spawn has its own little ping of sound, and there’s a flying pattern you need to enter to account for each. Not much different from a bullet hell game that has you memorize levels.

  • I assume you mean the remake of Space Giraffe, right? Unfortunately not. It sounds like a suitable contrast though.

    I partly agree and partly disagree. While the movement patterns are constant, Geo Wars is much more dynamic than a regular bullet hell shooter in that it isn’t linear. In say Ikaruga the stages are preset obstacle courses, in Geo Wars the environment unfolds more dynamically – to the best of my interpretation. Therefore I see Geo Wars as more about skill than memorization, even though some memorization (such as your example) is required.

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