As gamers, it seems the older we get the more we reminisce about our early gaming days. We get emulators to play some of our favorite titles, or get really excited about some new game coming out that promises “a truly retro experience!” Then along comes a title like Jamestown, a PC ‘shmup with four-player co-op that actually achieves what so many of those games, new and old, cannot: live up to our memories of what games were like back then.
Putting a twist on the familiar history of 17th century founding a new colony in the Americas, Jamestown sees you in the shoes of Sir Walter Raleigh as you arrive at the eponymous new colony located not on the shores of Virginia, but Mars. Raleigh has not come here by choice, but rather is forced to flee from his beloved homeland for reasons that are not immediately clear. He is a man that is seeking redemption and forgiveness, as so many did, by heading to the frontier; a place where the war between England and Spain continues to rage, though Spain has found some new allies in Mars’ local alien inhabitants.
Like any good play or movie, Jamestown’s story helps to establish the setting for us to engage with and become a part of, but its aesthetics are what transport us there. I have not seen 16-bit graphics this beautiful, this convincing, this well executed since I fired up Final Fantasy III. Every level, every enemy (which are quite varied), every detail is practically pixel perfect – heck, there’s even a graphics option called “Pixel Perfect” to properly display the game in just the right resolution to get the most out of every little one of those guys. The game’s soundtrack equally matches up with the graphics and overall tone, managing to demonstrate that, with the proper application of synths and MIDIs, you don’t always need an orchestra to achieve a rich auditory backdrop.
If this is the point in the review where you start to think, “ok, and now the other shoe drops with gameplay,” I’m glad to disappoint, because Jamestown certainly doesn’t. As ‘shmups go, Jamestown now easily ranks among one of the best I’ve ever played. The controls are straightforward and easy to learn using your choice of input - keyboard, mouse, or 360 controller - with one button assigned to primary fire, another to alternative fire, and the last assigned to a special ability known as “Vaunt.” The latter is your escape from those inevitable seemingly inescapable situations you’ll find yourself in when the bullets really start to fly.
Vaunt not only temporarily absorbs all surrounding enemy fire, but also increases the damage your ship deals and acts as a score multiplier for as long as it remains active. While that alone would be enough to provide a satisfying experience, Jamestown has a bevy of features to unlock, including challenge levels, additional ships, and a more light-hearted take on the story known as “Farce mode,” so there’s plenty of replay value. In fact, the only complaint I have about the single player experience is one that, for a co-op gaming website, is a good one: it’s not as satisfying as the co-op.
The ships that you unlock using the coins that are awarded at the end of each level feel like they were designed to work together as a team rather than alone. The Gunner ship can rotate its arc of fire in 360 degrees to help cover all angles of attack, which helps provide the Charge ship the time needed to build up its attack so it can unleash a massive amount of damage. It’s not just the ships’ abilities that compliment one another and introduce an element of strategy to the game; the Vaunt ability provides its own co-op angle.
Planning with your friends who uses his or her Vaunt to help absorb the slew of hostile projectiles, and when, makes for all the difference in surviving the game on the harder difficulties, which Jamestown eases you into rather than heaps on suddenly and without warning. Should a friend’s ship go down, though, all is not lost. As long as one player is still alive, others will revive after a few seconds and re-enter the fray, or you may chance upon a Revive All power up that brings all players back to life instantly.
Much of that planning is made easier by the fact that co-op play is local only, so you and your friends won’t have any disconnection issues or bad microphones to worry about. Local play is limited, though, to just two players if you only have a keyboard and mouse, and three if you only have one 360 controller. While this may solve the issue of “where is player progress saved” (everyone can access anything that’s been unlocked), it also introduces Jamestown’s biggest tripping point when it comes to the co-op experience: the inability to fully experience it.
Without an option for online or even system link/LAN play, playing with the full compliment of four players means having to buy additional accessories. Players may even find themselves buying an additional 360 controller to use instead of the mouse as, out of all the control options, it is the least responsive and feels intentionally “floaty,” though this is likely intentional to prevent players who are using it from zipping all over the screen.
Ideally, Jamestown will see a patch at some point that adds in online and/or system link play. Even if it doesn’t, though, it is absolutely worth it. To put that statement into some perspective, I will admit that I am not the biggest fan of ‘shmups. I’ve dabbled in them, found one or two that I really enjoy, but on the whole, the genre isn’t one for which I get really excited. This review was nearly delayed by the fact that I was up late playing one of Jamestown’s challenge levels telling myself “I’ve almost got it, I can do this!” You see, unlike other games in this genre that almost seem sadistically geared towards punishing the player at every turn, Jamestown is almost the complete opposite. It encourages you; rewards you; makes you feel that yes, you can in fact overcome that challenge/level/boss. One game has done what no other ‘shmup title has managed to achieve – made me a fan of the genre – and accomplished that for which so many retro titles strive.