Wow. If you don’t know who game design guru Jeff Minter is, run away. This is not for you. If you do know Jeff, and loved (as we have) his previous games: Tempest 2000, Attack of the Mutant Camels, Gridrunner, and pretty much any game that mentions four-legged mammals in its title, prepare for either heartbreak or wish fulfillment. Minter’s psychedelic blastathon Space Giraffe is here. It is both fresh and timeless, both derivative and unlike anything you’ve ever played. And there's a 95% chance you will either love it dearly or absolutely hate it.
In general terms, this is a hyper-trippy, arcade-style shooter that looks at first to be nearly to Atari’s classic arcade shooter Tempest. You’ve got a vaguely C-shaped, geometric thing – your "giraffe" – that skitters on tiptoe around the rim of 100 differently-shaped levels like a cat trying to swipe a goldfish from its bowl.
But your supergalactic neckbeast isn’t fishing. In an impressive display of alien physiology, it’s constantly auto-belching glowing burbles of explosive goop in the general direction of various other geometric shapes that clearly wish you harm.
Right about here is where Space Giraffe flips the script and makes clear that this is not Tempest - not even close. There’s a white line around each level called the Power Zone - think of it as the water level in the fishbowl, if you like - that constantly rises closer to you, but that you can push back down the tube by killing enemies or by jumping (enabled via power-up).
As long as the power zone is visible, your cosmic mammal has two extra abilities: you can aim its shots using the second analog stick, and if any enemies have made it up to the rim without getting a faceful of space giraffe spit, you can “Bull” them off the edge by running into them, earning mad crazy points.
Thus, Minter has succeeded in crafting a shooter in which you score higher by not shooting. This gives the game a totally different feel, and while game aesthetes will surely admire the subversiveness of it, many players will likely find it too non-intuitive and confusing.
Speaking of confusing, here’s the bad news: Space Giraffe’s fun-factor and mainstream accessibility are virtually crippled by two simple faults. First is the graphical design, which takes psychedelic abstractia to a whole new level at the expense of visibility.
Huge, pulsating nebulas of disco color are everywhere, and virtually every single thing is refractive, translucent, or both. Couple that with tons of fast-moving objects and searing explosions that obscure huge swaths of battlefield in a sea of neon particle effects, and you have a problem. Add in the second big fault: a camera that too often positions itself exactly edgewise, so that your own universal starmammal blocks your view of what’s coming toward you, and you have a super-chaotic shooter in which 90% of the time, you literally won’t have any clue what killed you. Not because you suck, but because the game is okay with the idea of handicapping your senses with poor viewing angles and so many visual effects you simply can’t see the things you’re supposed to shoot or avoid.
Can you learn to play Space Giraffe and love it? Yes. Devoted fans can come to terms with the hybrid scoring system and train their eyes to pick out certain bits of pulsating color from the psychotic visual morass, listen for audio cues when they can’t see, or learn to just avoid certain blind parts of a level. But it will require effort and time that the majority of players simply won’t want to put forth. Jeff Minter as a game creator has created the same type of product that aviation pioneer Howard Hughes crafted when he built the Spruce Goose. It’s absolutely functional and undeniably one of a kind, the product of a truly creative mind - but it’s so atypical and requires so much effort to appreciate that very few will find it truly worthwhile.