When describing long-running franchises, certain words roll right off the tongue. Super Mario games are playful and inviting; Mortal Kombat is bloody and brutal. Llamasoft games are always described as being trippy and psychedelic, but when it comes to their latest endeavour, I’d hesitate to use either descriptor. It features bright colours and has a nice range of voxel explosions, but unlike 2017’s Polybius I don’t think it was Jeff and Giles’ intention here to make my eyes melt.
Whereas Polybius was a full-on assault on the senses, Moose Life is an experience simpler and humbler, evocative of the ‘80s arcade scene. It even forgoes the usual start-up screens, loading straight into a text-heavy title screen complete with a faux ‘Lambco’ logo. Wait for a few seconds and an attract sequence appears, providing a few pointers. The first stage is predictably lenient too, featuring a brief tutorial before cranking up the enemy count.
Taking us out of Tempest territory, Moose Life plays differently from past Llamasoft games with each stage set within a 3D space in which it’s possible to roam. Not just backwards and forwards, but also overhead. By forcing you to tackle enemies on two plains, comparison with Space Harrier aren’t off the mark.
Stages also loop, meaning if you run past enemies they’ll eventually loop back around and surface from behind. This makes for a frantic experience, forever keeping you on your toes. Or rather, hooves – Moose Life, appropriately enough, puts a moose at your control. For the herd!
Adding to this, loveable bleating sheep occasionally need rounding up, making shooting while manoeuvring a tad tricker, ergo more demanding. It doesn’t take long to master the basics, which then gives scope to form new strategies. There’s a lot to discover and learn as every enemy type moves around the playing area differently, and some have wider blast radiuses than others.
Power-ups are the focal point, taking the form of coloured pills. As well as the expected firepower boosts and smart bombs, they can also generate characters from Llamasoft’s back catalogue including C64 authentic giraffes and camels. It’s also wise to take advantage of the few seconds of invincibility every spent life bestows as it’s possible to ram enemies during this grace period, which in turn fills the screen with more moose. It’s a right old roaring stag party, with every stage featuring half-a-dozen herd puns. “You’re doeing great!
Moose Life, unquestionably, wants every player to have a good time. It praises your successes at the end of each stage, and new high scores are celebrated with a familiar chant of “excellent!”
Visually it has that ‘new old skool’ look, combining a colourful starfield backdrop with chunky 3D voxel models and some screen distorting swirl effects. The soundtrack is formed of contemporary dance with some of Polybius’ artists making a return. It’s worth turning the volume up for, and the presence of a jukebox (tucked away on the title screen) is welcome.
The mode selection further calls back to past games, using the tried and tested duo of Normal and Pure along with a new (and self-explanatory) Freeride mode. Normal gives the chance to start at your previous best, allowing you to make headway and reach later stages, while Pure grants nine lives and always begins at stage one. Now also seems a good time to casually mention PSVR support – something we weren’t able to try for ourselves, sadly.
For those after the full Jeff Minter experience, Polybius remains the ultimate tour de force of psychedelic delight while also being slightly more polished. Moose Life has its own merits, however, benefiting from being simpler and less chaotic.
Either way, you’re guaranteed a good time, and we couldn’t be more delighted to discover that they’re vastly different. Variety is the spice of life, and with Moose Life accompanying Polybius, Minotaur Arcade and Tempest 4000 on PS4, Jeff Minter has managed to serve a spicy Indian banquet throughout this generation.
Llamasoft’s Moose Life is out now on PS4 and Steam.