What did Argonaut so after developing the Super Nintendo’s Super FX chip and helping to debut Starfox? Well, they followed it up with Vortex – A game that is both similar and not so similar to Fox McCloud’s maiden voyage.
Developer: Argonaut Software
Publisher: Electro Brain Corp.
Released on: SNES
Original Release Date: October 1994
Released in 1994, the year after Starfox and Stunt Race FX, Vortex was the next game to use the groundbreaking Super FX enhancement chip. Argonaut Software was once again looking to show the world what they could do on the Super Nintendo, offering a much more complex game from the previous two Super FX releases. While it shares Starfox’s space setting, it’s a mechanically different game, where the player must pilot a craft with the ability to transform into a mech, car, plane and more. If only there was a word to describe such a craft, one that could transform. I dunno….what about…Go Bot?
This game is incredibly difficult. When playing this game for review, I started on Normal and found even the first stage to be crushingly difficult. I moved the difficulty settings down to Easy and barely found it any easier – And it’s this difficulty that colours this entire review, unfortunately. Ultimately, I had to review this game somehow, so I ended up using passwords to try each level out, before eventually resorting to using an invincibility password so I could actually play the entire game.
As mentioned earlier, your craft can transform in order to suit various tasks – Your main form is a mech with configurable weapons on each arm, a jet craft for airborne dog fighting, a wheel-based vehicle for getting from point A to point B as soon as possible, and a vehicle with an almost invulnerable coating of armour, but barely anything in terms of offensive maneuvers.
There are various button combinations that not only swap between each of the four forms but also when it comes to changing weapons and also your camera angle – And this is all on a standard six-button SNES controller. The result is a complex controller configuration that players have to wrestle with, and although there are some decent training levels to help ease you into how to pilot your craft, during periods of manic gameplay moments, it’s all too easy to do the wrong thing, and it’s another thing to add on top of the insane difficulty.
Even with a password system, Vortex is an incredibly frustrating game. The first level is a slow, boring tread through a straight space corridor, with a boss at the end that is so ridiculously tough for such an early stage. It’s enough to seriously turn you off to the rest of the game, which is a shame because the rest of Vortex has some great variety (apart from the fact that the first level of the game is reused later on with tougher enemies). As the game goes on, you’ll use your land-based vehicle to race to a destination before a timer runs out, explore free-roaming environments in your mech, and even go into a first-person view to navigate underground corridors.
However, all of this variety is negated somewhat with the snail-like pace of the game in general, and that’s not entirely due to the limitations of the Super FX chip. Slowdown is, of course, a regular occurrence, but it’s the lack of speed in which your craft travels being an issue, especially when a seemingly endless horde of much faster and more manoeuvrable enemies constantly block your path.
The main reason that Vortex lags behind Starfox is a sense of character. As you know, Starfox was filled with a cast of characters that interacted with you, whether friend or foe. Meanwhile, the only interaction you ever get in here is a short mission briefing in-between levels, and the occasional in-game message to warn you of low health, etc. A message that obscures your view of the in-game radar for no reason whatsoever, which is great when you’re relying on it to find who the hell is shooting at you (a clue – everyone). Still, at least the game is backed by a decent techno-style soundtrack that works well with the sci-fi setting, although the other sound effects are a bit generic.
Vortex is a decent showcase of the Super FX chip, although most of the levels in the game aren’t really too much to look at. Other than your mech and the game’s bosses, it’s really hard to make out what most of the enemies and objects are meant to be.
Apologies to mention this again, but Vortex’s difficulty is really out of line. One particular level requires you to memorise a sequence of patterns and fire at boxes in the order shown, which is OK when it’s a string of 3 or 4 patterns to remember, but when it’s 10 – That’s more than a little unfair. You don’t really expect an action game to require you to write down strings of patterns in the middle of a game. This game is not hard in a well-designed difficulty curve. It’s hard because every aspect of the game is against you, and that’s very strange coming from the co-developers of Starfox, a game that was very accommodating of player ability.
Highlights: Free-roaming areas are a great idea, as is the various forms your mech can take. The pumping techno soundtrack is pretty damn good as well.
Low Points: Awful controls, stupidly hard difficulty and slow-paced gameplay are not what makes an enjoyable experience.
VERDICT: While some brilliant ideas almost elevate this to the level of a Starfox-beater, the prohibitive difficulty completely ruins any chance of Vortex being enjoyed by all but the most dedicated of players.