First published on retrogarden.co.uk
Back in 1993, Nintendo released Starwing on the SNES which quickly became a best-seller and also a quintessential title in 90’s gaming. What made Starwing stand-out from everything else was that it was delivered in slick 3D polygons. This was made possible due to an on-cart co-processor dubbed the Super FX chip, which was treated as a 3D accelerator for the SNES, although it was used as a power-boosting co-processor for later titles such as Doom and Yoshi’s Island.
The Super FX chip brought next-gen 3D gaming to a traditionally-2D platform and so was a big deal to the gaming scene. However, it was an inelegant solution to a problem, namely how to prepare the SNES to combat the upcoming 3D-enabled consoles (Nintendo knew about the almost-released Playstation as they helped create it, ironically enough). As wasteful as it seemed, the other alternative – to sell an upgrade for the console itself – was a huge mistake if you consider the failure of the 32x bolt-on for the Megadrive. You see, console owners fear variation and its partner-in-crime, incompatibility, therefore delivering upgrades on the game cart was a great way to hide new technology from the users as well as eliminating permanent variations in the platform.
There was a smattering of titles that used the Super FX chip, and in 1995, Vortex joined that elite group of games. The story isn’t important to the overall experience – someone’s stolen something and you need to kick ass to get it back. The important facts are thus; you have a morphing robot, you have rockets and lasers, there are many levels to explore, and many enemies to destroy. There was a rumour on Vortex’s release that it was the end-product of a Hasbro Transformers game that got canned. Other than the fact that you can transform, there’s little else to suggest this so it is probably hear-say. Rather than borrowing ideas from Transformers, it is immediately obvious that Vortex is based on Starwing for pretty-much everything, exhibiting the same menus, the same “death” scene, the same polygon/3D look and the same bitmap portraits when someone’s communicating with you.
There are two notable and unique features of Vortex though; the 360 degree range of movement on most levels, and the transforming option. Apart from the space levels, Vortex allows you to roam at will across fairly large but-sparse levels. There are a few puzzles and traps to watch out for, giving it a slightly cerebral element. There is also an underground level too, but this is hampered by the slow turning arc and the inability to see what mode you’re in (you’re thrown into a 1st person mode when navigating corridors). Otherwise, there is a rich mix of variation and bomb-spitting enemies to keep many people interested, including a defensive “hunt and destroy” robot that will attack anything that attacks you, if you can find it. Cool!
The hook of the game, apart from sporting a Super FX logo, is the ability to transform. Like most men, I like my explosions large, my music loud and my robots transforming. Vortex allows you to change from a 4-weapon, 3-speed robot to either a car steamroller with 2 weapons, a fast jet with 2 weapons, or a hunk of metal with super bombs. The robot mode is easily the most adaptable but I question the car and jet modes. They are extremely similar, and the jet is practically useless on levels where the game decides you should take a slower option. The first level is a good example – try to jet your way through it and you won’t last two minutes. The hulk mode gives you invulnerability…but you’ll expend energy when you take a hit. Quite simply then, you won’t die from damage but a lack of energy, which isn’t invulnerability, surely? If the game simply offered just the robot mode, I don’t think it would change the overall experience of the game at all, meaning that the ability to transform isn’t necessary.
Graphically, the game is fantastic for an early 90’s title – again, it shares a lot of similarities with Starwing in its filled polygon design, but is a lot more frantic. Enemies soar in towards you at a fair speed and you’ll take a lot of damage quickly if you get swarmed. The control method is a bit fiddly at times – this is due to offering up 4 modes to transform into and a few firing modes, all on a 6-button controller. This is solved by holding down a toggle button, then selecting a button to switch weapon or vehicle mode. Learning the controls is key to progression in this game (either that or finding the cheat codes online). The sound effects, once again, leans heavily on Starwing. There are the same hissing explosions, the same cracking sound when something hits you and the same style of music in the menus and levels. It does its job though and it is suitable for the game, so I can’t fault it. I do like the Kraftwerk-inspired electro theme tune in the introduction section though!
The most undeniable and unfortunate feature of Vortex is its difficulty level. It truly is one of the hardest games on the SNES and it is extremely unforgiving, even on the early levels. The enemies blast away at you mercilessly and you’ll need to switch between robot and the hulk mode regularly to avoid an early death. The first boss you meet will kill you at least twice, meaning you have to replay the entire level all over again. If you can put-up with this, then you’ll get on fine.
Vortex is Starwing with its gloves off. The game would not be possible to deliver without the Super FX chip and wouldn’t exist at all if it wasn’t for Starwing, which it borrows from so hungrily. It is a very interesting game, but its almost-vertical learning curve prevents it being a SNES classic.