It’s amazing how music can make a game. Would Katamari Damacy be anywhere near as pleasantly mad without its eclectic soundtrack, or Final Fantasy VI as moving without its 16-bit orchestral score? They, and many others like them, would be good games, but they wouldn’t be anywhere near as memorable without their musical energy wiring the experience into your skull. Spectra may not be quite so timeless as those two classics, but its music elevates the simple score-run gameplay into something compulsively playable and bursting with energy.
Spectra was an album by chiptunes artist Chipzel, released back in September 2013 and composed on a fat-body green-screen Gameboy. It was an impressive enough album that it inspired the developers at Gateway Interactive to hang an arcade game off it, also called Spectra, and much like the previous game Chipzel provided the soundtrack for (Super Hexagon) it turned out pretty simple and far more fun than the basic description makes it sound.
In Spectra you pilot a rocket-powered Gameboy down an endless course that’s procedurally generated each time you re-enter the level. When you’re in the level you can die and restart the same track as many times as you like, but once you exit the course that particular layout is gone forever. Yellow cubes are ten points apiece, hitting the walls that can appear on the left, right or center of the track does ugly things to the score, and turbo pads rocket you ahead while adding to the bonus multiplier for a brief period. Collect points, don’t hit anything, and survive to the end of the song by not falling off the track. Brushing up against the walls without hitting them gets a score bonus, as does grabbing some air time, and that’s just about the whole of it. As it turns out, when you’re flying down the course making subtle adjustments at high speed trying desperately to bank a few thousand points before pinballing off a wall, that’s plenty.
Spectra is simple because you’ve got two things to worry about and don’t need more than that dragging you down. Survival means you get to hear the whole song, score means you didn’t suck at it, and between those two considerations there’s a lot to pay attention to. Careful maneuvering as the track auto-scrolls towards you, harvesting points while dodging, takes plenty of attention, and the movement and music can get almost hypnotic once you sink into the controls. I actually found myself not even seeing the ship after a while, instead only paying attention to the track ahead while knowing I was dodging the oncoming walls and steering into the best lane for point gathering. Everything on the track is a decision to be made, but when you’ve only got the choice of dodge or collect it means you can slip into meditative state once the ship handling becomes second nature.
While there are only the two options, that doesn’t mean each decision is simple. As points are gathered they sit in a pool below the score, and until the timer on that pool runs out they aren’t officially collected. Each yellow cube has a base value of only ten points but, when you’ve collected a few dozen in a row and gone through a speed-pad multiplier or two, it adds up. Spectra is the kind of game where a 9,000 score earns an achievement, so carrying a load over 1,000 points that has yet to be banked makes for some tense steering. Run through a string of ten yellow cubes and add another hundred to the points pool, unsure if you’ll be able to keep it? Take the safe road and blow past them? Have a series of walls railroad you into a string of pickups that just keep inflating the score but who knows what’s further down the track and if you’ll be avoid that one critical slip as the next section comes into view? Decide you just don’t care that much because the music is pulsing and the track is flowing and the points will take care of themselves? They’re all valid considerations, with no one choice being better than another.
Spectra is a fantastic little track-racer with a killer beat and instantly accessible gameplay. Each song is long enough to provide a good challenge as the track gets more cluttered the longer you play, and the percentage bar showing how much song is left means you’re never left wondering if it’s ever going to end. There are only a limited number of track pieces but the random nature of the walls makes every section different, and once you’ve learned the ship handling well enough for precision each wall is both a potential score-killer and scoring opportunity. The surface simplicity masks just enough technique to make Spectra incredibly replayable, but not so deep that you’d need advanced study to pick up all the nuances. Steer left and right, pick up the cubes while playing chicken with the purple walls, grab all the boost you can and learn when to bank your points, and that’s everything. The normal mode tracks are great for sinking into a meditative state while hardcore will test your precision skills, but no matter which mode you’re in the mood for, the gameplay and music merge together into an inseparable and fantastically playable whole.