• Graphics
  • Sound
  • Playability
  • Lastability
PublisherMSXdev’05 Competition
ReviewJason and Andy

Main review

When pilot Jim Benson’s prototype spaceship, equipped with a trans-dimensional warp drive, suffers a system failure and blasts off from the Mojave desert using twice as much power as expected, it’s translated far across the blackness of space into a previously uncharted area. This huge space/time twisting leap has taken it’s toll however, the power cells have been totally exhausted and the only source of energy to top things up happens to be a hostile world. Ah, another day and another chance to blast off into space and give the alien hoards a good kicking… because yes, Universe: Unknown is a scrolling shoot ’em up that graduated with honours from the Gradius school of game design and keeps the certificate on it’s wall!

So far so good really, but what makes Universe: Unknown stand out (apart from the unusual left-to-right horizontal scrolling) is the weapon systems. Everything uses power to fire and, whilst the ship’s default pea-shooting weapon can run on an empty battery, the more powerful systems drain quite a bit of juice. Power cells are collected from vanquished foes and charge the gauge in the status bar, when there is enough power to fire up a bigger weapon, holding the second fire button down and moving the stick up activates it. Extra weapons include bombs, diagonal firing bullets, lasers that tear through anything and outriggers that appear above and below the ship and fire in unison and since these toys all need power to operate, they can only be enabled when the ship’s batteries are full enough to actually power them; this means that during a serious firefight the player can suddenly find themselves watching helplessly as their hard-earned weapons close down one at a time because there isn’t any juice to keep them online!

Our hero Jim has seven stages to negotiate, each has a distinct graphical style and is accompanied by it’s own in-game soundtrack. In fact, everything is nicely presented in Universe: Unknown, granted the scrolling isn’t smooth (the backgrounds step along a character every couple of frames) but that can be excused to at least some degree because those legends of the scrolling shooter Konami saw fit to deal with the hardware in the same way when developing both of the Gradius games on the MSX; in both cases the scrolling could have been done more smoothly, but not with anywhere near the level of background detail.

Konami’s efforts on the MSX have been major influences on developers Infinite, the introductory sequence, the sheer amount of colour in the play area (the technique seems to be the same as used in Gradius 2) and the variety of the graphics for backgrounds and attackers… the squeeze until it hurts difficulty levels too, because Universe: Unknown takes very few prisoners and, after the initial couple of waves in open space, starts giving even seasoned shoot ’em up players a serious hammering to the point where timid gamers may want to consider something more relaxing. But for those of you who like blood, thunder and ramped up difficulty levels, Universe: Unknown is something you should be pitting your hand to eye co-ordination against – not a perfect example of the genre but very solid and enjoyable.

Second opinion

I have to be honest; I’ve really enjoyed playing this MSX shooter! Admittedly, the initial left to right horizontal scroll (as opposed to the more traditional right to left scroll) kind of flummoxed me to start with, but once over that little hurdle I found myself fairly immersed in the game play on offer.

While some of the sprites are a bit on the simplistic side, the background graphics are very well defined and colourful in comparison. However, the parallax scrolling does “jump” across the screen in blocks as opposed to sliding smoothly, but this I believe is a machine limitation as oppsed to a programmer limitation. Anyway, after a few plays, it’s not that noticeable and doesn’t affect game play as much as you think; well not in my case anyhow. Accompanying the in game action is a decent little tune and some nifty effects.

A few more restart points may have been useful. After negotiating tricky parts of the game successfully, to be sent right back to the beginning of a level after a minor slip up can be a little galling. Most modern shooters simply carry on from where you were destroyed, so this game mechanic isn’t that welcome.

In conclusion: a solid shooter and, while not being the best example of the genre, it plays well and should provide a good few hours challenge.