A Quick Look At Centipede

Centipede for the Dreamcast is a curious title for a couple of reasons. It's part of what is, for all intents and purposes, a sort of trilogy of retro reboots that includes two other properties with roots in the very early days of gaming - Q*bert and Frogger. While there are several retro collections for the Dreamcast in the form of Namco Museum, Sega Smash Pack, Yu Suzuki Game Works, Atari Anniversary EditionMidway's Greatest Arcade Hits 1 & 2 and Jimmy White's 2: Cueball, none of these titles feature complete re-imaginings of the classic titles contained therein.
No, Centipede, Q*bert and Frogger are unique in that they introduce updated visuals, new modes and - most notably in the case of Centipede - totally new gameplay mechanics. Interestingly, all three of these titles come from the Hasbro Interactive/Atari mash-up that was borne out of the acquisition of the latter by the former, however for the sake of this being 'a quick look at...' we're only going to focus on the most radically redesigned of the three - Centipede.
Released in 2000 by Hasbro Interactive masquerading as Atari and developed by Leaping Lizard Software, Centipede is a modern take on the classic game of the same name that was released to much critical and commercial success back in 1980. Having only been born in 1982, I don't actually remember the initial arcade release of Centipede, but over the years I've played plenty of variations on the formula and I'm sure you have too. Naturally, coming from an era when hardware was less graphically capable than what we have today, Centipede featured basic visuals but had one very simple premise that was replicated in many titles of the period - shoot the enemies, get a high score...and survive the onslaught.

As a nice introduction for gamers who might never have experienced the original Centipede, the Dreamcast version (which was also released on the PC and PlayStation a couple of years earlier in 1998) also includes a port of the arcade game that is accessible straight from the off. You don't need to unlock it or use a code, it's simply there in the options menu and it's probably a good idea to go and investigate this version of the game first before you try the updated interpretation, simply because it will teach you the basic objective and rules - many of which remain intact in the newer iteration.

Before jumping into the meat of how Centipede 2000 plays, I thought it was worth discussing the availability of this game. As previously mentioned, Centipede was never released outside of the US by Hasbro Interactive, and curiously the other two titles in the pseudo series weren't either. The only Dreamcast versions of Centipede, Q*bert and Frogger (well, Frogger 2: Swampy's Revenge) are NTSC-U. There is no PAL release and no NTSC-J port of either. I find this especially odd since the original games (and all the innumerable clones) were immensely popular in Europe, and the PC and PlayStation versions were released in PAL regions. I'm not sure how well they would have been received in Japan, but if these titles had been released in blue packaging I'm sure they would have done quite well, even in the face of the mixed import reviews. On the same topic, it's pretty interesting that only one of the classic game collections mentioned in the opening paragraph of this article was released in PAL territories. Food for thought.
Anyway, lets get back to Centipede. I really didn't know much about this version of the game before it came in the mail (it cost me £10 from eBay); apart from the fact that it features 3D polygonal graphics in place of the single screens of sprites as seen in the original. It was with trepidation then that I fired up the main single player campaign and was met with one of the worst CG cutscenes I think I've ever seen in a Dreamcast game. It's up there with the spectacular mess that is The Ring: Terror's Realm, and I wish I was joking. The cutscene attempts to add some back story to the adventure and while it performs its function, you'll never want to sit through it again. The story is pretty standard stuff - evil insects have sprung forth from the bowels of the planet to hark the call of the evil and eponymous Centipede. These mindless insects will stop at nothing until they have claimed the planet for themselves...by randomly jumping around and making mushrooms grow everywhere. A solid battle plan if ever I saw one.

As ever, the surface dwelling folk are terrified of the threat of these marauding beasts and centipedes, so they design a floating tank to kill the bugs and recruit/kidnap you to pilot it. Entering the various themed worlds, you are given a basic set of objectives, such as rescuing all the citizens milling about the land, or protecting various important structures. Once you get into the game proper, it's all very easy to grasp and the basic gameplay is actually pretty enjoyable.
Triggers are used to strafe the anti-bug vehicle, the analogue stick is used to turn, A is fire, the d-pad is used to switch views and the B button is used to deploy a secondary power-up or weapon. Once you get to grip with the controls, you take the fight to the insect menace by negotiating the randomly generated maze of destructible toadstools that litter the environment, blasting centipedes (that split into two or three if you hit them in the middle) and the other weird and wonderful monsters that have been belched forth from the lesser-trodden subterranean caverns beneath your feet.

The levels appear quite small and claustrophobic initially, but after a while you'll realise that upon defeating a certain number of waves, previously blocked paths will open up or bridges will be lowered. Some of the stages are actually pretty good looking, with a great use of colour and surrealist design. Obviously, Centipede for the Dreamcast is a port of a PC and PlayStation release from 1998 - and it shows - but for an update of a classic arcade title it could have been much worse. There are plenty of special effects and nice weapon pyrotechnics, and the inclusion of a first person view almost turns Centipede into an FPS...almost. For the most part though, Centipede is perfectly acceptable visually and actually reminded me of fodder like Tonic Trouble for the N64 and Rayman 2. Don't get me wrong - it's certainly not on the same level as Rayman 2, it just has a faint whiff of it.
The ability to change perspectives from a familiar overhead camera, to an over-the-shoulder to a first person viewpoint is a great bonus, and undoubtedly helps when you are trying to target airborne enemies or need to locate a ledge or pathway that isn't immediately apparent from a bird's eye view. Furthermore, the aerial viewpoint is great for when the action heats up as you progress through the stages and worlds - sometimes the levels are absolutely chock full with enemies and only quick reactions will save your skin, especially since the firing mechanic from the original game is retained. See, you can only fire one projective at once and until your previously fired shot has hit a target or a wall, you can't fire again. Makes for some interesting gameplay when you've got one quick moving enemy heading towards you and you need to line the perfect shot up, I can tell you.

As well as your standard blaster, you can collect upgrades and special weapons and bombs, and you also have the ability to jump short distances in your little tank thing. Shields and short-lived blaster upgrades can also help you in your fight against the insect swarm, but ultimately it is your ability to react quickly to incoming enemies that will allow you to fight another day.
The long and short of it is that Centipede was something of a surprise for me. I went into it not really expecting much but as far as ports go, it's not bad. Not bad at all. The gameplay is frantic, if a little basic and it can actually be (rather oddly) quite relaxing to just chill out with. Collect some weapons, shoot some centipedes in the face, rescue some druids...can't really beat it with a couple of beers.

Don't go into this expecting top-drawer graphics and 'triple A' production values and you'll have fun, that's a guarantee. That it also contains the original Centipede is a great bonus too.

What do you think? Have you played Centipede? If so, did you enjoy it or do you think it's a steaming great turd not fit to grace the Dreamcast? Let us know in the comments or join the discussion on Twitter or Facebook.

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blondejon said...

awesome review. ive never played it because i assumed it was just a remake. Gonna hunt out a copy now :)

Tom Charnock said...

Thanks for reading! Yeah, it's worth a shot, regardless of the mostly negative reviews. I was pleasantly surprised!

nocarpayment said...

Same her i thought it was regular centipede w some bonus stuff. Never knew it was all new game..Thanks for the review..Good content at DCJunkyard as always.