Introversion’s Darwinia, a love letter to the sights and sounds of the early days of gaming, has been a firm favourite since its release in 2005. It’s a game that refuses being pigeonholed into one specific genre, instead fusing together elements of many classic games to create something that, even today, feels ostensibly original. Hacking into the virtual neon paradise of Dr Sepulveda, you stumble upon a digital world that’s been overrun by a nefarious virus. You new job, the good Doctor informs you, is to help him protect the rigid green dots of virtual life he calls the Darwinians.
Darwinia was never a standard PC game, never using a standard mouse and keyboard configuration, and Introversion’s minimal design ethic means everything can be neatly translated over to the Xbox 360 controller without any problems. Much the opposite, actually: in many respects the controls have actually been improved over the PC version.
You battle the virus by using the in-game Task Manager to summon up a bevy of essential applications. Your Squad program makes up the bulk of the game, and when these are selected the game takes on elements of a twin-stick shooter, the little grunts plinking away at everything until you let go of the right stick. The virus makes a formidable enemy, starting out as little more than intertwined bundles that imitate snakes but progressing into swathes of centipedes, ants and spiders. Like an actual virus, leave it unchecked for too long and it’ll overrun everything.
The concession Introversion make for adding a more direct control system for the Squads (in the PC version they were controlled by points and clicks) is a loss of firing accuracy. Their shots now travel in a looser spread, which is generally fine for attacking big packs of nasties but can prove a little irksome when trying to pick off single units. It doesn’t prove too much of a problem, but if you’ve played the PC version you’ll definitely notice the change.
The other primary unit under your control is the Engineer, a towering floating structure that looks like it has been ripped straight out of Tron. These are directed with a cursor, and float about an area hoovering up the souls of the dead programs and ferrying them back to incubators to be revived. They also collect vital research cores, which give your units new abilities, and reprogram control towers. Which you’ll definitely want to do.
The whole point, of course, is to keep the hordes of Darwinians alive. They can’t be controlled directly, although you can turn the odd one into immovable ‘Officers’ who can herd others in a specific direction. The Darwinians are the vital link between your units, who exist to protect them, and the virus that would love nothing more than to gobble them up. They’re also quite cute.
Introversion’s XBLA offering manages to one-up its PC counterpart at the beginning of the game with the addition of an accessible tutorial. The original approach was very much an on-the-job training session, which could sometimes prove a little bit confusing for people who do their best to avoid screens of text at all times.
Darwinia’s curious world is only half of the package, though. The game’s other chunk comes in the form of Multiwinia, a previously-standalone multiplayer experience that pits players together in tightly-packed, lightning-paced skirmishes. There are no Squads or Engineers here, mind, with you controlling big clusters of Darwinians themselves. They’ve ended up in a violent civil war years after the events of the single-player game, which is a perfect excuse for you to send dense hordes of them head-first into anything else on the map that’s a different colour. It’s very, very fast and chucks you straight into combat from the start, which makes it quite nicely suited to the XBLA format. But there is something disappointing about it that’s got nothing to do with the game itself: you can’t find a game of it for love nor money. Multiwinia certainly isn’t a game for everyone, but it’s a shame to see it so unpopulated.
Owners of the PC version won’t find anything in the XBLA port to convince them to part with their money a second time unless they’re desperately looking to experience the game from the comfort of a sofa. The team at Introversion have added nothing new to their games, but Darwinia+ is a well-handled port, with a competent re-imagining of the control scheme, of a game that’s comfortably stood the test of time. There’s nothing else out there quite like it, and Darwinia+ will absolutely delight anyone who fondly remembers the arcade games of the seventies and eighties.
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