Flashback: Volfied’s a chaotic game of calculated risk

November 17, 2012

Playing Qix is like jumping out of a speeding train. The sense of impending doom, the idea that you must do it before it’s too late, the knowledge that a correct landing ought to place you away from a tree, that it can be done. That you have to.

Volfied is like jumping out of a speeding train, but this time it’s burning. And it’s a different train each time.

Volfied, like Qix, is based on an intrinsically unstable concept. Relying purely on tactical skill and a quite slow movement, the games make the player carefully fence an enemy that moves randomly, with its own quirks and nuances but still completely unable to predict. They are games of patience and recognizing opportunity, but there won’t be any unless you make them on your own. A newcomer may think of the game in terms of risk, but true masters won’t get surprised even once.

And Volfied tries, oh, it tries! No longer do you fight the same abstract enemy just faster and harder. You have a different one each level, and you are forced to learn the patterns within its irregular movement. Does it move in straight lines or circles? You’ll tinker with your fencing strategy so it can fit in your narrow corridor and get stuck while you close the other end for an incredible amount of points.

But it’s not just having different patterns, and it’s not even the fact that bosses now shoot, endangering your still fresh lines. The biggest change is the addition of smaller enemies, that roam the playfield and that pounce on you given the chance. They pressure the player in ways the original sparks didn’t, forcing you to choose between making it easier to get the boss or making it easier to survive. And they give you bonus points if killed, which gives quite the incentive given the difficulty of the game and how hard new lives are to come by.

When you discover a new level, you truly feel that you are up for a new challenge. You have this need to take notes on a piece of paper and analyze the enemy movement, or slowly check out where the newly introduced power-ups are. It’s a game that gets you thinking and makes you sweat. It manages to be both strategic and intuitive, with earlier stages keeping their challenge as you try to squeeze as many points as you can.

Power-ups don’t seem overly interesting at first, and it could easily be argued that they take away some of the abstract elegance of the original. Once you manage to beat a couple of levels, though, you start realizing that they are carefully positioned to control the flow of gameplay, creating a certain semblance of level design that was not found in any of the previous games. It’s a huge and possibly core-breaking change, for sure, but also one that has a wider appeal and lends itself to more paths of play.

Volfied and Qix are games beyond the ravages of time, built on a concept that is intrinsically unique and designed with care and elegance. They are games for the past, future and anyone’s gaming shelf.