• Graphics
  • Sound
  • Playability
  • Lastability
FormatSinclair Spectrum
DeveloperTriumph Game Labs
ReviewJason & Gordon

Main review

So there I was, right, cruising along in my little yellow space mobile, sub woofers banging away and one arm hanging out of the window since there was an atmosphere… and suddenly there are all these aliens around me, wanting to destroy my ride!

Spaceship-based shoot ’em ups are, of course, common fare on the 8-bits and some of the earliest, seminal examples of video gaming are also hardcore blasters, so Existenz (or Existenz: Crazy Delfox to give it a more full name, despite there not being any others in the series) is in very good company… but that means it’s got a huge amount to live up to. Although it doesn’t have any complex backgrounds or even attack patterns, Existenz initially holds water pretty well and certainly looks the part because, along with a decent loading picture and a colourful titles page, during play there is a simple scrolling landscape combined with a good parallax starfield to give a sense of motion and some very nicely defined objects for the player and nasties. Similarly, it sounds good too and although there aren’t any spot effects during play, the nice AY tune that hums away in the background goes quite a way towards making up for that.

What actually happens during play is fairly simple though, the player whizzes around the screen whilst lobbing bolts of energy at the nasties as they in turn tootle from right to left; their movement patterns aren’t exactly complex and there are only a limited number which usually involve flying across the screen and either waving, bouncing up and down or attempting to lock onto the player’s vertical position, but they at least present quite a challenge to kill because where this game runs aground somewhat is the sheer speed of things. All of the attackers belt around at a fair clip, the end of level boss is seriously out to get you and will follow to the ends of the universe (or at least the play area) and, whilst the ship isn’t exactly a slouch either, the control system has some very heavy inertia and little considerations like friction aren’t really being worried about.

In effect, this means that once you start the ship moving, the only things that are going to stop you are the horizontal boundaries of the play area (you bounce off the vertical ones, with the ground giving the ship’s speed an appropriate nudge to the left), your own skill with the directional thrusters or ploughing headlong into an attacker – if there’d been a joystick or at least key redefinition options provided, this would probably have made controlling the ship cleanly and avoiding impacts quite a lot easier than the default Q, A, O, P and M key layout used here. To be honest, this is a reasonably fun way to kill a little time on a wet afternoon and certainly isn’t the worst shoot ’em up I’ve played but it probably won’t be one that players return to frequently because the frustration generated by those loose controls and that simplistic gameplay only makes it one to dip into occasionally.

Second opinion

Vladimir Putin isn’t the only Russian that likes to make things difficult for the west. Take Triumph Game Labs, for example: this Russian company brings out Existenz, an interesting looking shoot ’em up on the Spectrum, and they cripple it with an unreliable turbo load that simply won’t agree with most 128K machines. Not only that, they dispense with any joystick options or even a redefine key facility. I don’t mind using the keyboard myself, but not giving other gamers the freedom to choose their own control method seems misguided, especially for a shoot ’em up. Haven’t they heard of glasnost?

To be fair though, Existenz actually works quite well on keyboard. The Q-A-O-P layout is sensibly chosen, and no complex Uridium-style ducking and weaving is required here. In fact, the best approach is to stay fixed on the extreme left of the screen and keep firing, moving only when one of the Jetpac-esque enemy sprites gets too close, and while the end-of-stage boss needs a bit more thought, it doesn’t take too long to figure out how to beat him.

As that description suggests, Existenz is an extremely simplistic affair, and it can be quite good fun for a while. Unfortunately in this case, the “while” is only a couple of hours. It’s a competent piece of programming with decent (if flickery) graphics and a good AY soundtrack, but the game contained within it lacks the ingredient salted on top that would extend its interest beyond an afternoon. The fact that most enemies can be disposed of without moving your craft suggests weak design, and after the first two bosses are trashed, there’s no noticeable jump in difficulty. Existenz is videogaming bubble gum: fun in the short term, but don’t be surprised at how quickly it loses its snap.

Editors note: since reviewing Existenz we’ve discovered that it doesn’t actually appear to be an original title; whilst the graphics, sound and presentation have been improved, the in-game code itself bears a striking resemblance to Gunhed, a Crash covertape game released in 1990.