Genre: Side-Scrolling Shooter Platform: PC Developer:: Kris Asick License: : Freeware: www.pixelships.com Should You Play it? YES

My heart's pounding. I've beaten a rare ship, collected it and scooped it into my reserve slot. I've got one more coin to collect, but my main ship is almost out of energy... and I just got enough exp to upgrade it. If the mission doesn't end soon (or if I don't find a Ship Switch) icon, all my hard work will be lost.

Ever wonder what would happen if you crossed Defender with Pokemon, removed the sound and most of the story, and increased the speed? You'd get Pixelships, an awesome freeware horizontal shooter programmed and published by Kris Asick that's all about flying, collecting, and upgrading "Pixelships"-- spaceships a few pixels in size. Its free, its fun, and it combines the skill of a shooter with the replayablity of a good collecting RPG

Gameplay: 4 (out of 5)

Pixelships is a great example of a good idea done well. Its combines the skill requirements of shooters with RPG elements, upping the additiveness factor with experience points (gained for each ship) upgradability (ditto), and collectibilty. The various elements add strategy and tension to an already tense genre.

The game is mission and campaign based. Each campaign (there's 10,000 in all) consists of 10 missions, split into 4 types: Raid, (Destroy a certain number of targets), Collection (collect coins), Warp Zone (get to the end of the level alive] and Seek & Destroy (kill or capture a "rogue" Pixelship).

Before each mission the ships you fly are chosen and used to fill up to 5 reserve slots. You start the game with one ship (chosen from 5 possibles-- shades of Pokemon again), but gain more during the missions. Its best not to fill them all, though-- if you do, you can't capture any new ship you find, and some are quite rare. Two or three extra ships is a good 'buffer' (when you die, you switch to a reserve ship). Most ships can be upgraded, so that factors into it-- if you fly a veteran ship, you've got a guaranteed success, but you won't get the chance to see a weak, common ship turn into a more powerful, more rare one.

Each of the 150 ships has different characteristics, and they're all noticeably different. One of my personal favorites was a slow mover that carried two plasma beams. Durability, size, speed, and weapon loadout all play a factor. There's no ammo, but some shots recharge faster then others. Ships can carry up to 3 weapons, though not all do. Value is also an issue-- the better a ship is, the more valuable it is (usually), and nobody wants to lose a rare ship.

Each type of mission demands its own strategy. In Raid and Collection, there's no set expectations-- you might encounter a new ships, you might not. I usually fly a good ship that needs upgrading, with one strong and one weak ship in reserve. This gives me two slots free for collecting any ship I win. Warp Zones demand fast, expendable ships-- the Pest is good. I fill all my slots with ships I don't expect to survive, since I'm not a very good flier. With Seek & Destroy, I take two or three good ships, so if I lose one I can get another and have a good chance of capturing my target.

Not all ships can be captured, though. Most enemies in levels are bots -- glowing points of light or plasma beams used mostly for target practice. When another Pixelship is spotted, the screen stops scrolling and its health bar appears. At defeat, the Alt key is held down and the ship's pixel's are collected. If you get them all and you have a free slot, you get another ship. It takes a bit of skill to collect all the pixels, and there's nothing more frustrating then losing a ship you defeated in honorable battle.

Graphics: 3/5

The graphics do their job and do it pretty well. Ships have recognizable shapes and colors, and there's a nice progression with the upgrades-- you really get a sense your ship is muting and changing. Bots are very sparkly. The game is in 2D, and its quite charming. The particle effects are very well done, though the number of backgrounds is lacking. Weapon effects are very sparkly, which is important, though its a bit hard to tell different ships apart (which leads to problems with choosing what to capture.

Control: 3/5

The ships handle well (except when they aren't supposed to), though the ship selection screen takes time to get used to (one click to select your slot, then one to add a ship there). A right-click menu would be better. There's no weapon switch key, which is annoying-- even with a WASD setup and only 3 weapons it was a bit annoying to select them manually. This was fixed in the latest version by letting you fire individual weapons with the the Z, X, and C keys.

Sound:N/A

This is a serious problem, and one of the most annoying things about the game. Pixelshps calls out for classic bleeps and bloops, a Defender style weapon noise, and maybe a pounding techno score. Heck, even a MIDI tribute to the games of yesteryear would be nice, and a Metroid-style collection sound would increase the pleasure of getting new ships. There's none of that, and no fan-made soundtrack, either. A sequel is planned, but it seems to be a longtime coming. As it stands, the lack of sound would be a serious mark against this game were it not free and very fun.

Story: 4/5

From the manual:

In the future, around 2049, a new type of toy was created to appeal to all ages called the PixelShip. Each PixelShip is about one to three feet long, and each one is composed of numerous components which are held together by micro-magnets. Each PixelShip can emit and detect holographic weapon signatures, harmless to Humans, that allow each ship to record damage and respond accordingly. When a PixelShip runs out of recorded shield energy, it falls apart, each component slowly loses its anti-gravity from the disconnection, and the opponent must then tag each piece of the disassembled ship in order to claim it.

Its not Planescape: Torment, but it explains the gameplay mechanics perfectly (it later mentions that the ships have a 'restructuring method' that lets them be upgraded) and sets the tone well-- its 'only' a game. The emphisis is, again, placed on collecting, which is the most unique thing about the game... and I find the story charming. Not a huge factor, but it adds to the sense of care that goes into the game (along with full descriptions of every ship on the official website)... and I like knowing what I'm doing when I hit the collect button.

Replayability: 4/5

10,000 missions that can be completed quickly? Check. 150 ships, many quite rare, to collect, fly, and upgrade? Check. Multiple difficulty levels? Check. The only things missing are a multiplayer trading mode and a larger variety of level backgrounds. Plus, the gameplay doesn't really change, though your strategy differs depending on your ship and your skills.

Nitpicks:

Its impossible to destroy ships in your reserve slots during a mission (without flying them and letting them die) which can get very frustrating if you find a ship you like but are out of slots. Lack of sound, lack of Mac and Linux support, and slightly repetitive gameplay are more bad bits. Still, they're tiny gnats on the side of a freeware classic.

Secrets and Tips:

Press 'Escape' to quit a mission and gain back any ships you lost. This will let you fly your ultra-rare ships without worrying about losing them.

Press the 'R', 'N', and 'D' keys at the title screen and you'll find a campagin browser that lets you scroll through all 9999 campaigns in search of a ship you like. Or you can put in your birth year or whatever and see if that mission is worth flying.

Go to the website and familiarize yourself with the ship database, keeping a special eye on which ships can be upgraded. Some very rare ships can be upgraded into even rarer ships with careful flying, and some ships that seem like they can be upgraded really can't.

Put in some good music while playing. Igor Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring' worked last night; the Propellerheads 'Deckanddrumsandrockandroll' was good the night before. Anything dramatic and moving, really.

Look through the tips on the website; they're all mostly right.

Related Links: Home of the Underdogs: www.the-underdogs.org Find this game, and tons more like it. Pixelships website: www.pixelships.com

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