Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s next gaming journey has come to XBox Live Arcade. Mizguchi’s prior exploits include many cult classics, including the iconic Rez (also bound for XBLA), with which E4 shares a few traits. Both games have a heavy basis in music, or might more correctly be described as expertly using music to substantiate and enhance the player’s experience. E4’s primary game mode actually integrates a rhythm element, though at a much simpler level than games like Boom Boom Rocket or dancing games.
Like its predecessors in the Every Extend Extra series (for let’s face it, so it has become), E4 places the player amidst a drifting field of enemies. In the primary game, again like prior EE titles, the player has no means of attack save to intentionally destroy their own avatar. The placement and timing of such suicides must be extremely careful, however, as the resultant explosion, if set precisely enough, can cause massive chain-reactions as it spreads through the encroaching waves of attackers. For readers who happen to be sci-fi fans, think of the MD Device in Ender’s Game; it’s the same effect. E4 ups the ante from prior games by incorporating a timed musical element. At the bottom of the screen, a beat gauge shows the soundtrack’s rhythm peaks. Timing a self-detonation right on the peak results in a larger explosion and a bigger score multiplier. Several power-ups are released as different-colored enemies are destroyed, allowing the player to briefly extend their invincibility on respawning, increase the rate of enemies’ movement (and the soundtrack’s BPM), enhance their score multiplier, and add time to the clock. The timed element creates a very enjoyable dialectic as players must balance their scoring drive with keeping the clock full. There are no lives, only the diminishing timer; when it runs out, the game ends. Players can intentionally interrupt a chain of explosions to respawn sooner, allowing them to grab precious power-ups before they escape the screen. As one gets better at the game, the chain-reactions get much longer; bonuses get higher, and onscreen action becomes quite frantic as the music’s beat races faster. Background visuals, though minimalistic, are superbly handled, with trippy multicolored visuals spiraling through random shapes and occasionally forming the silhouetted face which has become the series’ emblem. If it sounds simple, that’s because it essentially is, but it’s also extremely addictive. Mizguchi’s long experience with this aspect of gaming has made him a master of his craft.
As a bonus, there’s also a much more prosaic shooter mode. This has somewhat the feel of Geometry Wars, though it’s much easier. Players control the same icon, this time armed with guns; in an interesting touch, you’re given the choice to have 4-way axial fire or a focused spread from one point of the avatar. Each has distinct advantages, though traditional shooter fans will probably gravitate to the focused-fire mode. Movement speed is also customizable; faster isn’t necessarily better. Music is just accompaniment in this mode, but the player does increase their bonus multiplier (and firepower) faster by shooting the pulsing colored enemies. In a nod back to Konami’s Time Pilot, once enough enemies are downed a boss appears; killing this moves the player to the next stage. The stages do actually loop in terms of the type of enemies and bosses encountered, but the core gameplay is fun enough to overlook such a “flaw,” especially given that this mode is in essence a bonus.
There’s really no describing Mizguchi’s game experiences in words; attempting to do so makes one either sound like a hopeless fanboy or an LSD addict. Suffice it to say that even if you aren’t great at the game, E4 is thoroughly enjoyable, and it’s accessible enough that anyone can attain some level of visible skill. Regardless of any points obtained for one’s gamer score, it’s fun to get better at E4 just to experience more and more of the visual and aural chaos. Even at the heftier $10.00 price tag, this is almost an essential Live Arcade purchase.