The chunky aliens who first caused a worldwide sensation with the arcade release of Space Invaders in 1978 have come back with a vengeance during the past few years, with 2008's Space Invaders Extreme and its sequel cleverly updating the shoot-'em-up classic for a whole new generation of high-score fiends. The good news is that this latest invasion shows no signs of flagging. Space Invaders: Infinity Gene is the most exciting entry in the series yet. It starts out as a Space Invaders game through and through but then evolves into something that looks and feels quite different. Yet, it never stops feeling fresh and never loses sight of the simple thrill of blasting the attacking onslaught to smithereens.
Space Invaders: Infinity Gene starts off playing very much like the 1978 original: You move your ship from left to right along the bottom of the screen, zapping away at the distinctive, pixelated UFOs and invaders from space that fill the screen. But as you complete the first few stages, new elements are introduced, which the game calls evolutions. UFOs start dropping power-ups that make your weapon more effective; you earn the option to start with five lives instead of three; and more. Most significant of all, you soon unlock the ability to move in all directions, freeing you from the bottom of the screen and completely changing how the game is played. The freedom to move about the screen is essential to survive, as you'll soon be zipping every which way to avoid the invaders and other enemies constantly coming at you from all directions. And in these early stages, there's a little thrill that goes with finding out what useful ability each new evolution might bring.
Unfortunately, the thrill of discovery that accompanies the early evolutions is soon watered down by too many disappointments. It's something of a letdown to finally earn enough points to trigger your next evolution, only to be rewarded with a new music track to listen to at your leisure (excellent as the music is) rather than something you can use in your battle against the overwhelming alien force. And, eventually, hollow evolutions like this become the rule rather than the exception. This is balanced out a bit by the fact that some of the later weapons you unlock, like a field that surrounds your ship and automatically attacks anything within its radius and an array of four laser cutters that vaporize most enemies on contact, are extraordinarily useful. Some shooter purists may find a few of these too useful, but of course, you don't need to use them, and many will relish the opportunity to finally annihilate the scurrying invaders by the thousands with relative ease.
Of course, these evolutions alone do not a good game make. You need a good excuse to use them. And in the 30 stages of the main game mode (called Normal mode), you have one great excuse after another. These stages are frantic, spectacularly unpredictable, and utterly absorbing. The distinctive space invaders of old are only modest foot soldiers here in an attacking force made up of crafts whose appearances and behaviors are very different. They include armadas of small ships that fly across the screen in formation, octopus-like enemies that grab your tiny ship with their tentacles; UFOs massive enough to span the width of several screens; and so much more. It's the kind of wickedly fast-paced, constantly changing action that leaves you time only to react; not to think. And, it induces a state of pure shooter bliss.
The relentless enemy invaders come at you from all directions, and sometimes, they just blip into existence right in front of you. Yes, a certain amount of memorization is required, and you may curse the game the first time that wave of enemies catches you off guard as it comes zooming up from the bottom. But when you're caught off guard for the fifth time, you know you have only yourself to blame. When, however, the screen fills with activity and you die because you couldn't tell a deadly enemy projectile from a harmless background element, you can justifiably blame the game. Still, while the game can be very challenging, it never feels punishing. On the contrary, the new weapons, extra lives, and other tools you unlock as you play create the sense that the game wants you to succeed, but it wants to make you work for it. And you can always restart from any stage you've reached, so the "Game Over" screen is never a very significant setback.
Space Invaders: Infinity Gene is a thing of mesmerizing minimalist beauty. It looks like a game from 1978 kicked into overdrive. All the ships and projectiles are made up of gray and white in a nod to the extremely limited colors of the original game, but the backgrounds of constantly changing, vivid color make the action consistently eye catching. As you progress, objects gradually shift from appearing to exist purely on a 2D plane to looking 3D, and during the fifth and final set of stages, the game goes all out. It frequently shifts the perspective so that your ship appears to be moving forward rather than up, making things bear a closer resemblance to Rez HD rather than Space Invaders. The music, by turns eerie and exhilarating, is a terrific assortment of electronica with often relentless beats that are a perfect accompaniment to the equally relentless action.
In addition to the Normal mode, there's a series of very tough bonus stages, as well as a mode that generates levels from music on your hard drive and a mode that creates 99 different, increasingly challenging stages each time you play. These randomly generated and musically generated stages aren't as compelling as the expertly designed Normal mode, but even if you just stick to those 30 stages, you get so much great shooter for your 800 Microsoft points ($10). It's not quite infinite, but it is one of the most inventive and flat-out fun space shooters of the past few years.