You know how it is, you’ve signed up for the human intergalactic defense force against the alien (or, as they’re labelled, squid) masses, alongside your lifelong pal, Steve. You get in your cockpit, put the ship into Go Mode (I’m not a pilot) and you shoot some alien bad guys. You see Steve speed past your right flank, screaming in delight on the intercom as non-human vessels explode all around him.
“Yeah! God, this is better than sex,” he shouts inappropriately.
“And to imagine, if I hadn’t joined the forces my Dad woulda had me working at the-“
You try calling for Steve, and receive only a harsh crackling in response. You look ahead, straight into Steve’s blank eyes, shimmering blue, as his ship faces yours. In one robotic motion, he pulls the missile lever (I’m not a weapons expert) and before you can hope to comprehend, a bright light and searing heat envelops you.
So, Enemy Mind is your traditional 8-bit space-based shoot-em-up. It plays superbly with a gamepad (there’s also the option to use a keyboard and mouse if you are the kind of person who enjoys making life needlessly difficult), the space warzone aesthetic is simultaneously gorgeous and bleak, and the soundtrack fits perfectly.
What sets it apart, however, is the game’s central mechanic. You control neither the human fleet nor the squid swarm, but instead take the form of a mysterious psychic entity that’s able to possess and control the ships of either side. Once you control a ship, you can utilize its specific weaponry to take down all in your path. Each ship, however, has limited ammo – once it’s depleted, both the ship and its inhabitants are worthless. Push the A button to leap into the mind of another unfortunate, leaving one defenseless husk of an empty shell and confused personnel behind. Yeah it’s sadistic, but it’s cool and therefore fine. Look, you can have empathy or you can have fun. That’s the video game way – ask any daytime TV discussion show, tabloid newspaper or out-of-touch politician.
What Schell Games did so well with Enemy Mind is not just the creation of ‘psychic leaping’ as a core mechanic, but also creating a surrounding game that plays so well on that idea. The boss battles require a mastery of leaping, whether that be to tear up a giant space snake (hey, I suspended my disbelief, work with me here) into its constituent parts and face them off against one another, or to utilize a space station’s own cannons to destroy it from within. Having a core concept is all well and good, but Schell Games’ triumph is in building a game so suited to that concept.
If I haven’t convinced you to give it a try by now, there are some extras that probably won’t either. But, hey, I’ll give them a mention anyway. You get your conventional boss rush and arcade mode, alongside the initial game prototype for a look into the early development. And then there are replayable credits where you shoot each name as it slides past (awesome). There’s a rock simulator, where you possess a rock and fly through levels as a rock, unable to attack but also unable to take damage (uh, yeah, sure). There’s flappity mind. It’s flappy bird, but with a ship (okay, we’ve all had a few, let’s stop this now).
There’s also a leaderboard system for each level, which may be relevant to those who are competent and somewhat competitive. For me, however, seeing the leaderboard at the end of a hard-fought level is an exercise in solidarity. To have my hard work rewarded by a position in the high thousands with a meager score would be heart-wrenching, were it not for the noble comrades surrounding me.
We’re not the best, we’re not even close. We probably shouldn’t even play games, they quite clearly don’t want to accommodate our inadequacy but, hey, we’re together. We fought, we died, several times, so many deaths, but we got through. Myself and the two players surrounding me, on a leaderboard seeking to bring us down, indestructible when it counted. So, this goes out to my not-so-fierce-but-at-least-persistent brethren.
Ahem. Sorry, I’m choking up a bit here.
Fighters to the end. And the end after that. And all the subsequent ends. Our legends are unremarkable, but our names will live on for as long as the leaderboard servers are maintained.
For as long as the servers are maintained.