I have to say that I’ve always had something of a love-hate relationship with Project X. Of course, I’m talking about the side-scrolling spaceship shooter developed and published by Team17 for the Amiga in 1992, and not the completely unrelated 2012 teen comedy film!
I adore the visuals, presentation, and music of Project X. The sprites are colourful and beautifully animated, the hostile aliens are varied in appearance and sometimes wonderfully exotic, and some of the scrolling sci-fi backdrops are just gorgeous. The sound effects are nice and meaty, and the digitised speech gives the game a real arcade quality. Team17 certainly managed to squeeze a lot out of the OCS hardware.
And, of course, there are two awesome title screen tracks from Amiga music maestro Allister Brimble — the pumping, thumping, dance melodies of “rave mode” and the fabulously chilled-out panpipes and flute sounds of “old-timer mode”, also known as Thesmophoria.
In an interview with Gracious Films (part of the bonus content from their Amiga Years film), Brimble confesses that he was asked to write a dance-style track for Project X despite having no experience of the genre and having never been to a nightclub. He had to get a friend to send him some examples of “modern rave music” to help him compose the track. Well, I think he did a fantastic job of nailing the early 90s rave vibe.
However, I’m not a huge fan of Project X’s gameplay. It’s frustratingly hard and unfair and a poor imitation of its arcade influences, such as the likes of R-Type and Salamander.
Many of the enemies are bullet sponges and the waves often come too thick and fast for you to react to and dispatch.
Even with the better weapons, I seem to spend more time dodging the aliens than shooting the bastards. And from level 2 onwards you also have to contend with surface collisions, water sections that dramatically slow your ship down, and environmental hazards such as storms, rockfalls, and lava eruptions.
And you lose most of your upgrades upon dying, which feels unnecessarily punitive and puts you at a massive disadvantage during tough wave sequences and boss fights. Sometimes it’s simply better to restart than carry on after losing a life. The boss fights, by the way, are very tedious, uninspired and anticlimactic.
Paradoxically, despite the fast action, the pace is strangely plodding. The levels just drag on and don’t throw up enough variety — they feel very stretched out and repetitive. I mean, how many times do we need to go through that bloody asteroid field on level 1? It doesn’t add any value.
And while it’s nice that Team17 put in multiple ways to select weapons upgrades, waggling your stick from left to right shouldn’t have been one of them. It’s far too easy to do unintentionally, especially in a game where you’re constantly moving your ship back and forth.
Project X is certainly a game that would have benefited from more thorough playtesting. However, Team17 did follow it up with a “special edition” in 1993, in which they recognised and addressed some of the issues.
They retuned the difficulty somewhat, largely by significantly shortening some of the levels and letting the player keep more of their upgrades after losing a ship. You also start with a few power-ups to help you through the early waves.
But, I’ve still never got past level 2 in either version without the use of cheats. Also, they never fixed the accidental weapon select problem, but at least there’s now a WHDLoad hack to prevent that from happening.
And these SE tweaks don’t disguise the fact that Project X is an average shooter at best. The level designs lack imagination and the action fails to reward or engage in the same way as the classic shumps of the period, such as the far superior Thunder Force games on the Sega Mega Drive.
I also find it slightly bizarre that Project X gives you a choice of two tunes to listen to on the menu screen but no music plays in-game except for an unrelated track during the boss fights. Presumably, this was because of memory or sound channel constraints?
The Thesmophoria track was removed from the SE version, which is a shame because it’s a great piece of music.
Still, the visuals and Allister Brimble’s soundtrack keep bringing me back to play this game. I listen to the music, play for 5-10 minutes, and then ungraciously rage quit. As I said, it’s a love-hate relationship.
If you’re a fan of Allister Brimble, you should definitely check out his 2013 album The Amiga Works, which features remakes, using modern samples and equipment, of his best tracks from the Amiga era, including both tunes from Project X. The Alien Breed tracks are especially good. You can buy the album at http://www.amigaworks.com.
You can checkout my classic video game music playlist on YouTube.