There is a “Yar” here. And an evil (or, at least, antagonistic) race of beings called the Qotile. The 2600 Qotile sprite is a tattoo on the shoulder of our Yar. The Zorlon cannon is still the ultimate destructive force. And the comic book—one of the coolest little bits of the original, boxed Atari 2600 game Yars’ Revenge—is here in digital form.
It’s clear from all of these little nods that the developers of Yar’s Revenge, moved apostrophe and all, are conscious of the audience they are courting. Given that they’re clear on this, then, it is almost awe-inspiring just how far from the original concept they were willing to move with the gameplay.
While it’s true that there’s really no feasible way to shoehorn the extremely limited (but still inventive) gameplay of the original Yars’ Revenge into a modern context—try to imagine the dissatisfaction that would likely result from forcing the player to conquer the same re-skinned scenario over and over again—it’s still rare that an update of a game is made without somehow trying to squeeze the retro gameplay into a slick, modern shell. Just look at the three-dimensional updates of Pac-Man, or the oddly disconnected scenarios of any Pitfall game since Pitfall II, or the sausage-armed wonder that is the modern Bionic Commando. Hundreds of hours of effort is put into making sure the retro gamers are being catered to, and it typically results in a funny balance that leaves neither older nor younger gamers completely satisfied.
All of this is to say that a modern day Yar’s Revenge in which the player could hide in safe zones, eat the walls, and constantly dodge heat-seeking missiles could well have been a disaster. Good for the designers, who headed off that disaster before it could turn the once-worshiped Yars’ Revenge name into a joke of a cynical update.
Yar’s Revenge is instead a three-dimensional rail shooter, incorporating pieces of Sin & Punishment, Space Harrier, and Rez in a delightfully artsy package.
It takes some getting used to. Yar, who is a Yar, can fly, so she gets the full range of the screen in which to move around. You move Yar with the left analog stick. Yar also has guns to fire at the game’s various antagonists. You control the reticule with the right analog stick. There is absolutely no relationship whatsoever between the behavior of Yar’s movement and the movement of the reticule. This feels a little odd, because it means that you are firing at a spot relative to the vantage point of you, the viewer, rather than a spot relative to Yar. It’s a bit like having to control the driver of one vehicle and the gunner of a different vehicle at the same time, despite the conceit that in the game world, the guns happen to be attached to the being that is wielding them.
Playing through the levels with this sort of a control scheme can be difficult. Trying to pay attention to dodging oncoming bullets and directing exactly where your own bullets are going at the same time is a particular challenge when waves upon waves of nasty little buggers are coming after Yar, and many of them require special weaponry if Yar is to defeat them before they either fire annoying little bullets that follow you or you pass them by altogether. You could try shifting your attentions primarily to one mechanic or the other, favoring, say, evasion as the dominant mechanic and firing as the subordinate to be used only when necessary, but the onslaught quickly becomes overwhelming. Sticking to such a plan is no easier, really, than trying to do the walking-while-chewing-gum thing that seems to be the game’s intent.
It’s in the boss battles, however, that such a control scheme suddenly starts to make sense. In a one-on-one battle in which the opponent tends to hold still for long periods of time, having a gun that holds still while you try to dodge the many oncoming bullets feels like a godsend.
Surrounding this strange-but-familiar sense of gameplay is a story told in rather lovely cutscenes that have a beautiful, painted anime look to them. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the story past its look, but that’s largely because there’s not exactly a lot of time for plot twists and new directions. You could well plow through the entire game in the space of two or three hours, especially once the control scheme starts to make sense to your thumbs.
While this seems terribly short, there is a hint in the achievements as to the intent: Winning the game only nets you a single achievement. You get through the whole thing, and it’s worth 25 GamerScore points.
Much like the allure of the shmup, the point isn’t to “beat” the game. Anyone can do that. The point here is to master the game, to beat the whole thing without getting killed a single time, to beat the game on the challenging “hardcore mode”, to beat the game using only a single weapon, and so on. Each of these achievements adds a couple more hours of play to the game, training the player in the arts of evasion, defeating enemies quickly, and learning boss patterns. By the time the achievements are done, a player could easily have put 20 hours into the game—this truly is a game in which the achievements add to the play experience, by offering the motivation to play the game in a number of given ways.
Yar’s Revenge will never be to the Xbox 360 what Yars’ Revenge was to the Atari 2600—Yars’ revenge may well have meant more to the Atari 2600 than any modern game could possibly mean to the current generation of consoles, and it’s not likely that the name alone will translate to huge sales or even a cult audience. In the spectrum of ten-dollar Xbox Live Arcade games, though, it’s a visually arresting little thing that offers plenty of value, particularly if that name pushes the nostalgia buttons that Atari is hoping it does.