Though some may think of the Xbox Live Arcade service as merely a conduit for classic or casual games, there is at least one game that defies all stereotyping of this kind. Originally a hidden minigame in Project Gotham Racing 2, Geometry Wars combines dual-analog space-shooting gameplay with futuristic minimalism in a game that's highly reminiscent of arcade classics like Robotron 2084. The objective is to stay alive while moving around an enclosed grid that's a little larger than the size of the screen. As you move and shoot, geometric shapes manifest and come after you, and you must evade or destroy them without making physical contact. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved might be one of the most simplistic games at the launch of the 360, but in some ways it's also one of the most thrilling. As a result, this inexpensive little game is one that you'll more than likely keep coming back to, long after you've had your fill of most of the Xbox 360's retail launch lineup.
From a top-down 2D perspective, you navigate a ship of two nested hexagons with one side missing, so that it's shaped something like a claw. You move the hexagons in any direction with the left analog stick, while you use the right analog stick to automatically shoot in whichever direction you're pointing. The enemies you encounter are different colors and shapes, and each one acts with slightly different behaviors. Purple pinwheels spin about randomly, only changing direction after colliding with walls and each other. The blue diamonds and green squares hone in on you, but the green squares move away once you turn to fire in their direction. There are also more complicated enemies, like intensely aggressive seekers, ones that split up into smaller pieces when hit, or tiny blue particles that fill up the screen almost faster than you can shoot them.
Eventually black holes appear on the screen (only in this game, they're red), which suck in the nearby enemies and even the grid (with no impact to the gameplay) before exploding into a virtually inescapable swarm of enemy shapes. It would almost be too much if you didn't have an ever-improving arsenal of weapons at your disposal. Most of the combat is done with the unlimited machine guns, which upgrade every 10,000 points. You also have a supply of smart bombs, which will clear the entire screen when set off. While you begin each game with only three lives and three smart bombs, you can gain more every 75,000 and 100,000 points, respectively. As the points tally up, so does the multiplier, which increases your point total dramatically. But each time you die, the score multiplier resets, so it gets extremely difficult to keep up the pace of point accumulation after your first death.
After a few short minutes with Geometry Wars, the game gets incredibly hectic as more and more enemies cover the screen. In an ideal world, you'd sit back and factor in everything mathematically, including the number of enemies and their movement patterns. But the reality is that you spend the whole time reacting viscerally to the action. This is due in large part to the visuals, which are particularly impressive in high definition. You'll notice that the weapon directly impacts the gridded background, giving it the look of the whole universe coming apart at the seams. The techno soundtrack is a short, simple loop, but when combined with the machine gun fire and the exploding silence when you release one of the smart bombs, the music really enhances the overall experience.
Whether you're just going for a high score, or attempting to unlock any one of the 12 achievements, the game always feels just a little crazy, like it's playing you instead of the other way around. Of course, when you get right down to it, there is only one mode in Geometry Wars, since the only other option is Retro, the unlockable minigame from PGR2, which is simply a lesser-quality version of this game. You won't be able to play other people on Live either, but high scores can be uploaded to a worldwide leaderboard. So while the gameplay is fast and fun, it has a fairly narrow scope. This makes it just about perfect for a game of its scale, and even though it's one of the most unassuming games in the Xbox 360's launch lineup, it's also one you'll probably get a kick out of playing for a long time.