Strange things come from Cornwall. The latest? The frustratingly lower case qrth-phyl, Matt James’ razor sharp love letter to Nokia classic Snake and the ZX Spectrum’s AY-3-8912 sound chip. Appearing today on both Xbox Live Indie Games and PC, this Minter-esque retreading of everyone’s favourite pre-iPhone time sink is absolutely essential stuff.
Ignore the description, which touts itself as an “arcade documentary of maze/dot/snake mechanic within changing dimensions, axis locks and the corruption of the system” and instead soak in the dreamy monochrome user interface (it’s literally the best looking menu since WipEout 3) and that breezy yet troubling , rumbling background music. Even before it started, qrth-phyl had me hooked.
I don’t know what the £2 PC version is like – I opted for the cheaper (80 Microsoft Points), TV-friendly Xbox 360 version – but I do know that with a console controller this thing plays beautifully. And right from the off, with the Snake-referencing black and white squares blending into a vibrant, retro display of vectors, I knew what to do.
After all, this was just a Snake clone. Right?
Except, after grabbing a few of the blocks and filling up the percentage grid, something happened. Bearing in mind I’d gone into this blind (buying it immediately because I liked the name and had Microsoft Points to burn) nothing had prepared me for the sudden freefall into three dimensions: a second later I was inside a cube, collecting more block, whilst trying to avoid the ever increasingly long tail I was dragging behind me.
To me, a gamer that appreciates something a little out of the ordinary, this was heavenly. The visuals are exemplary – not just in terms of colour and vibrancy and the way everything feels so solid and cohesive, but in the way they blend, morph and shift as you progress. The game is dynamically generated ahead of you, so no game feels the same, but no game looks the same either, which is quite remarkable.
From the cube, it was back to a flat plane, but there were new dangers: laser beams cut into my path, blocks and towers started to form, my snake’s tail ever growing. It controls like Snake – rotate left and right, but there’s a boost forward, and when the game shifts to 3D you can rotate the camera too – but it’s so far evolved beyond that all time favourite.
The screens don’t do the game justice (it’s a delightfully glitchy, mesmerisingly alive game) and likewise it’s difficult to really explain what makes the game so clever, so smart, so addictive. It’s true that I’m wowed by the presentation, but when so many games get this simple aspect wrong it makes the ones that do it right stand out all the more proud – qrth-phyl really does look and feel the part, with everything clicking together.
This isn’t a review – but it doesn’t need to be, save for this: if you have anything approaching an interest in games that don’t fit squarely in the middle of the road then you owe it to yourself to give this a try. If you’ve got a 360 there’s a quick demo available, and the game’s about 6MB in size so it’ll take mere seconds to download.
Give it a go. For me?