Platforms: Xbox One, PC
We played on: PC
I am a young’un, by many standards. My early experiences with video games came long after the migration to the home console. I played on the original PlayStation and the N64. Video games were a personal experience between me and the newly polygonal Mario. My experience with arcades, for a long time, was limited to the array of outdated machines with huge pastel gun peripherals in the movie theater lobby. I never really got it. Why wait your turn to play? Why squibble over numbers? Polychromatic, though it’s all too simplistic—maybe because of that simplicity—brought me back to that time and place, and made me understand the great tumultuous love of ’80s gamers.
So allow me to back up. Polychromatic is a twin-stick shooter, which means one stick on the controller steers your little blue hexagon. The other one spits out an endless stream of little white destructo-dots. I want, very badly, to call them bullets, but bullets are a thing fired out of a gun, or a cannon, or something. There are none of those in Polychromatic, though. There are only shapes and colors, all of which want to hurt you.
The sheer abstraction of Polychromatic feels almost like commentary on the arcade. Back in the day, everything had a narrative context jammed onto it. Usually, it was about space and killing aliens. But the graphics of the time couldn’t render more than a few colorful pixels. It took some real leaps of the imagination to transpose a galactic conflict onto those early visuals. Polychromatic, it seems, wants to return to that minimalism, without all the cluttery space context. It feels very pure. Almost meditative.
Which isn’t to say it’s slow-paced. One collision means death, or at least a colorful explosion (can abstract shapes die?). Enemies drift, fly and zig-zag toward you relentlessly. At my finest moments I felt like I became one with the shifting pattern on the screen, navigating the closed circular map without really understanding why I wasn’t dead yet. I was in the zone. That’s a thing people used to say in arcades, right? The music ranges from a kickin’ electric guitar riffs to more background, electric noise. It felt, if such a thing exists, like arcade music.
Polychromatic is a game you get better at fast. I had an interesting sort of symmetry in my first three games. My first score was 2,000. My next one was 20,000. And the following one was 200,000. Getting better is all the progress you have to look forward to, though. After my third game, 30 minutes in, I had seen all the enemy types the game had to show me. After that it was just new combinations and longer runs. I don’t know that Polychromatic has enough substance to keep me coming back.
But it did give me a gift I have never received before. After my last round, I checked the game’s leaderboards, something I rarely do, and found, with astonishment, my name in the 25th slot. I had, for maybe the first time in my gaming life, a high score.