'Tempest 4000' Review: The Battle of Fun vs. Frustration

Tempest was one of the most popular arcade games of the '80s. The vector graphics were new at the time, and the gradually scaling difficulty lured gamers everywhere to continue plunking quarter after quarter into the machine. The nostalgia is back in Tempest 4000 for modern consoles, but do the updated changes make revisiting the classic worthwhile?

Tempest 4000 is here, but is it any good? Atari

Tempest 4000 plays like a mix between a shooter and a puzzle. Just like in the original, players control a spaceship, blasting away at enemies crawling from the center out toward your ship at the edge. Each of the 100 levels is different, usually resembling a basic geometric shape, like an oval or diamond, or an abstract line. As each stage progresses, players have the opportunity to grab pickups to make their ship stronger or get more points.

a square-shaped level, where players need to destroy all the incoming enemies Atari

These pickups are crucial to success, which means if you miss one or two you are going to lose a number of lives. The pickups found on each level are all the same, but come in different orders for each level. You also lose your upgrades after completing a level, starting back at the basic abilities.

All this means you'll have to grab various pickups before unlocking the jump upgrade for each level, which is pretty much the only way to make it through alive, as it allows you to jump back from the level and blow up enemies that you normally wouldn't be able to easily reach. The other upgrades are nice, like unlimited bullets or an AI companion for the remainder of the level, but none are as crucial to success as jump.

There are three different modes to play in Tempest 4000, but they all are basically the same thing. You're either starting at the first level and going as long as you can until you run out of lives, or you start at a selected stage and see how many new stages you can unlock.

An early level in Tempest 4000, before things get too challenging Atari

Here lies one of the strangest game mechanics that either I just don't understand, or is simply head-scratchingly dumb: when choosing a stage, you'll have a different number of starting lives for each one. Nothing seems to change the starting lives number. This means I'll often have to play through a level or two below the one I want, because I'll have access to more lives that way. It's much easier starting at level 14 with six lives than level 16 with two, for example.

This makes unlocking new levels in Tempest 4000 really difficult. Either you start several levels away from the one you're working to unlock in the hopes of maintaining lives or try to get lucky with the few you have to start with. And once the level starts, it just devolves into a mad dash to get enough pickups to be able to jump anyway.

It's disappointing the level unlock mechanics are so weird, because when you get into a flow in Tempest 4000, things are awesome. The visuals pop off the screen with bright lights and crazy laser effects. With the driving electronic music, it feels like you're controlling a laser light show. You'll want to keep going and unlock more levels, but crashing down after completing several levels in a row is tough to climb back from, especially when you realize you may need to go back three or four in order to have enough lives.

Yes, this is a level made to look like a fidget spinner Atari

It's possible I'm just bad at the game. In my roughly 10 hours of time playing, I haven't even unlocked a quarter of the total levels. When achievements are included for going from level 1 to 51 without losing a life, that seems like a fairly impossible goal. Of course, my lack of skill isn't helped by the odd life count on levels.

Ultimately, I'm conflicted about Tempest 4000. When you're in the zone, clearing levels and securing pickups, the game gets you into an almost trance-like state. It's highly addictive and you find yourself stuck in the "just one more try" mentality easily. But when you're stuck on a hard level, Tempest 4000 is a series of confusing design decisions and repetitive gameplay where success only lies in making sure you get the pickups. If you're a fan of retro, arcade-style games, there's a lot to like here. If not, you might want to stay away from this one.

So what do you think? Are you having fun with Tempest 4000? Am I unskilled, or are you having similar experiences? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.