We are talented creatures, human beings. We can kick an object hanging above our heads, we can train a chicken to run an obstacle course, we can bury our childhood traumas in a string of toxic relationships. Apparently, we can also perform the high-speed mental calculations required to play a game like Zodiac Reactor.
Brought to us by Sam Horton of Funface Games, Zodiac Reactor plays like an intense bout of hyperspace Simon. The reactor's purpose is nothing less than creating brand new stars; your job is to collect the Elemental Particles necessary to fuel the process.
Your tools are the humble [arrow] and [space] keys. Each directional key represents one of four elements; air, fire, water, or earth. Colored orbs will spiral inward from the rim of the circular reactor, and you must press the appropriate key when an orb is inside the Target Zone—the smaller, shimmering circle in the middle of the screen.
When you miss, the core temperature of the reactor rises, bringing you one step closer to a Game Over screen. If you nail it, the particle adds to your reservoir of that element and you are one step closer to birthing a cute little celestial body of your own. You get to name it and make a comment on the high score boards and everything. If you get there, I encourage you to come up with something better than "easy" or "i lost when i started falling asleep" so I don't have to come crush your head with my own slow, unskilled fingers.
The regular game cycles between three modes to keep things fresh. Quad Mode (motto: "Time to kick it up a notch!") is the simplest, machine-gunning you with a series of short bursts of particles. Speed Mode challenges you to match 100 orbs in a row as the pace gradually works its way from Turtle to Japanese Bullet Train. You get a hefty bonus for completing all 100, but fat chance unless the military has been performing unethical upgrades on your central nervous system. The last is Orbital, which takes away your directional cues and forces you to identify the particles solely by color. This mode also mixes things up with Chaos Orbs and bombs, both of which must be blocked by holding the [space] bar.
If you want to focus on either Orbital or Quad, there are survival modes available on the Play Menu; and if you want to see how crazy things will get, you can start right off with Terminal Velocity, which is just as intimidating as it sounds.
Analysis: As a game of pure reflex, Zodiac Reactor's appeal may be limited. If you're not gaping at the screen like a caffeinated zombie, your mind blank of everything but the color-eye-finger connection, you're not playing it right. That's not going to be everybody's cup of tea, but for zen masters and pantherfolk, this is heaven.
It's not just that it goes real fast. The game is actively trying to trip you up by mixing color and directional input, somewhat like a rapid-fire Stroop Test. Your wiring will shift and adjust eventually, but it can be strange at first to press [up] when a red particle is flanking you from below.
But what really makes this more than just Guitar Hero Galaxy Edition are the details. The gently insistent background music. The wavering bass of your score chain advancing. The gentle glow of a completed rune. The increasing pitch of the confirmation sound as you cartwheel through the Speed Round. The anticipatory blast of steam before each new barrage of particles. The crackle and rush of the different elements as they fire. These are cosmetic touches, but they make your abstract task feel significant.
One misstep, in my opinion, is the color of the Chaos Orbs, a sparkling blend of purple and white that looks a smidgen too close to the pure white air particles. That and the fact that the slower bombs bear the color of one of the four elements, when you can only block them with the shield. Arguably, these are just more tricks meant to short circuit your operating rhythms, but by the time they show up in numbers, I'm plenty challenged enough, thank you. "Time to kick it up a notch" indeed. Nuts to you, Zodiac Reactor. I'm hanging on to the last notch with my fingernails as it is.
Any time you can collect all of a particular element during a round, you get an elemental bonus. These bonuses are interesting. They only activate when you are performing perfectly, at which point you hardly need to have your health restored. But since collecting all the air particles extends your Temperature gauge, doing well while the pace is still within your comfort zone can give you a fighting chance later. I might have preferred a system that rewarded you in smaller increments for every successful keystroke, but this method does encourage you to strive for greatness.
With sharp and attractive production values, Zodiac Reactor goes beyond the call of duty in its presentation of a very simple concept. It's a gorgeous game and finely crafted, but again, it's not meant for everyone. For an addled old fool with fond memories of the original Tempest like me, it feels amazing to dominate one of the faster rounds. That sense of accomplishment is unmatched by any other Flash game I've played in a long time.
If you're a certain type of hyper-focused young gamer with reflexes untarnished by the ravages of time, it might even be easy for you. Well, don't tell me about it, you whipper-snapper. Your pants hang too low and your music is just whiny noise and my pool is off-limits on holidays. I curse you with every ounce of my creaky, arthritic soul.