Last year, indie developer Gateway Interactive launched a chiptune-driven "racing" game called Spectra on Windows 8 and Windows Phone. The phone version got pulled from the Store for some reason, but the Windows 8 game remains fairly popular. Back when those games were released, the developer promised an Xbox One version would come as well. This month, Spectra finally arrived on Microsoft's premiere console.
Spectra: 8bit Racing (ahem, that should be spelled 8-bit) is a single-player racing game that plays a bit like an endless runner; players don't control their speed or compete against other racers. Racers will zoom across space on procedurally generated tracks while chiptune songs from British artist Chipzel blast away. And at $7.50, it won't break Xbox One gamers' wallets.
Are attractive neon visuals, a catchy soundtrack, and low price reason enough to grab Spectra? Read our detailed review with video to find out!
Race in space
Spectra started its life as a mobile game, and (as far as I can tell) very little has changed in the transition to Xbox One. The game has no story or cinematics to speak of. You just choose Continue (even before you've played the game once the menu reads "Continue") and start on your journey through Spectra's 10 tracks. You play as a red and orange rocket-powered GameBoy, in fitting with the game's chiptune (a retro style of music) theme.
The goal of each race is not to beat other. Instead, you mainly want to survive until the music ends. Along the way, you'll also try to earn as many points as possible. Disappointingly, the game lacks online leaderboards. So you're really just racing to beat your score.
The "Rocket Boy" automatically zooms forward at all times. You just steer it left and right using the stick, d-pad, or triggers. These controls make sense for a game played on phones and tablets, but they come up short against console standards. I really, really want accelerate and brake buttons!
As you race across the track, you'll collect yellow cubes for points. Other ways to score points include catching air and "Nice" bonuses. The game awards Nice bonuses for grazing barriers without actually crashing into them. The bonus can often be frustratingly tough to get intentionally, but you're bound to collect them by accident throughout the course of a race.
The single best way to rack up points is by passing over boost arrows. These temporarily increase your speed while also initiating a score multiplier. Boost arrow multipliers stack, so passing over several in a row will really pile on the points. Spectra even offers an Achievement for reaching a 15x multiplier from boost arrows (I've only scored 14x).
The catch with score bonuses of any type is the game doesn't immediately add points to your score. Any points you get from cubes and other bonuses will reside in a holding area for several seconds. If you don't hit any obstacles or pick anything up for a little while, they get "banked" and added to your score. Strike anything (as happens very often due to the lack of speed control) and your non-banked points get lost forever.
The score banking mechanic creates a risk-reward scenario to grabbing cubes and especially boost arrows. You're never very far from bumping into something, so it often makes sense to avoid collecting more cubes in order to keep your points. Boost arrows make it even harder to avoid collisions, but you need them to get a high score.
About those collisions… Spectra only has one kind of object to bump into (other than the very scarce walls): barriers. These barriers appear all over the place, often requiring players to weave back and forth to avoid them. Hitting a barrier bounces your Rocket Boy away. It might even bounce it right off the track, in which case you fail the race and have to start over from the beginning.
See, Spectra's tracks have virtually no walls. Make a wrong turn or hit an unlucky barrier and you'll fall off into space. Other racing games typically have walls or grassy areas that slow the player down when he or she goes off course. Futuristic racers might have areas in which players can fall entirely off-track, but this usually results in a time penalty rather than complete failure. Here, you never have any control of your speed and you're always one wrong tap or bump away from dying.
Spectra's not impossibly hard on the default difficulty, but you're still bound to wipe out and lose more often than in other racers. I can't tell you how many times I've failed with 90+ percent of the track completed. That gets really frustrating. You can also unlock Hardcore versions of each track, just in case you really like falling off the track.
The tracks in Spectra are procedurally generated. Once you arrive at a track, you can play that variation again by failing and choosing to restart. But the next time you load the song up, you'll face a whole new track. In theory, this provides unlimited gameplay variety.
Procedural generation makes great sense for a game like Audiosurf that creates tracks based in the player's own music. But here, I don't think it adds much to the experience. You don't get the personality that comes from hand-designed levels, and nothing really changes between procedural variations other than obstacle placement.
Adding to Spectra's lack of variety are its visuals. The game looks pretty enough the first time you race a level, but every level looks identical to every other one. We get ten different music tracks here, so why not ten different visual themes? A different color scheme for each song would provide some sorely needed visual variety.
The Xbox One version of Spectra offers 27 Achievements worth a total of 1,000 Gamerscore. The one that frustrated me most is ' Show Off,' for completing a track with 50 "nice" bonuses. Scoring 50 bonuses is way too hard, and then you have to finish the track on top of that. Ouch.
Completing a track without any collisions is also unreasonably difficult due to the aforementioned lack of speed control. And finishing all tracks on both Normal and Hardcore difficulty will be beyond most players. Some players have discovered a little trick to complete levels by staying in place, but in my experience that has proven nearly as frustrating as playing normally.
One of Spectra's Achievements is currently broken: collect 100 pickups while maintaining a score buffer. That one would be easy to get if it worked; hopefully the developers fix it soon.
Spectra should have been a fun retro-themed racer. The soundtrack is catchy, and the neon visuals look cool at first glance. Unfortunately, I found the game too repetitive and frustrating to be fun. If the track was designed so that you could only fall off every now and then instead of anywhere, the lack of speed control and respawns wouldn't be such an issue. And boy does this game need multiple color themes and more variety in general.
Some players have enjoyed Spectra more than me, so don't think the game is a complete train wreck. But even if you don't mind the challenge, there isn't much game here – just ten music tracks with races that always look and play the same. If you're looking for a cheap Xbox One racing game, you could get a lot more content from the similarly affordable Beach Buggy Racing or Riptide GP2.