In 2003, Jph Wacheski released a small, top-down arcade shooter called lockOn. It’s a game with surprising production value considering the tools indie game developers were working with at the time, and I still find it memorable. It’s an obscure game, so I think a review would be nice as a small act of preservation.
The game has a nice rhythm, but it takes some trial and error to get into it. Enemies spawn in waves, and you have to kill them and pick up their remains before they come back to life. You’re further incentivized to pick up the remains because if you get enough, a health increasing collectible will spawn. There are some good dynamics at play, which is great once you understand all the rules, but the rules aren’t conveyed very well. The remains of the enemies don’t look like things you can pick up, and in the chaos of everything happening on screen, it can be hard to tell that enemies are coming back to life. The bullets enemies shoot are tiny, so it can be difficult to know why you died. This is not a welcoming game for first-time players.
I was eventually able to figure out how the game works, so the confusion became less of an issue. What didn’t become less of an issue, however, is the controls. You have two weapons, a homing shot and a straight shot. Since you’re trying to shoot small, moving enemies, the straight shot is useless. The homing shot has two controls dedicated to it: one key for targeting the nearest enemy, and one for firing at it. I always want to shoot at the enemies closest to me, since that’s a good survival strategy, so I find myself mashing F and G pretty much constantly throughout the game. That isn’t fun, nor does it feel good on the hands.
The game is a bit of a mess. It has some good parts and bad parts. But that’s not why I’m writing about it. I’m writing about it because I love its aesthetic.
If you like reading creepy stories on the internet, you may have heard of a game called Polybius. An urban legend says that it’s an arcade game that came out in 1981 that was not only addicting, but capable of causing hallucinations, night terrors, and insomnia in the people who played it. Supposedly, “men in black” would mine data from the machines, and then the game vanished after a month.
A few people have made actual games inspired by the myth of Polybius, and they tend toward an unsettling, trippy vibe. And lockOn would be a perfect candidate for a “haunted” arcade game, if only it had a backstory to go with it!
lockOn has a unique visual and audial style that still stands out sixteen years after the game’s release. The title logo has a bizarre effect where two copies of the logo display at different positions in and out of phase with each other. The in-game fonts and explosion effects are satisfying as heck. And whenever a new player ship spawns, text appears on the screen saying “focus mind,” which I find cool for some reason.
The audio is even more impressive. The soundscape is filled with a dark, oppressive ambiance. The power-up sound effect is bassy and powerful. And there’s an ominous deep voice that announces in-game events. And there’s muffled evil laughter when you die.
It just now occurs to me that I might not be explaining the aesthetic well! But it’s hard to put into words.
I love the way lockOn feels, even if I don’t love everything about it. By some standards, I wouldn’t call it a good game, but it’s a unique and valuable experience, nonetheless.