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.