BLACK WIDOW: RECHARGED (VCS)
Published 2021 (Atari)
Developer: Adamvision Studios, Sneakybox
BLACK WIDOW: RECHARGED is a modern take on Atari's vector twin stick-shooter Black Widow (1982). Like all games in Atari's recent "Recharged" series, it includes a neon vector-like graphic aesthetic and more modern gaming elements like power-ups, leader boards, challenges, achievements and more. What sets BLACK WIDOW: RECHARGED apart from the other Recharged titles is that this marks the first time that Atari has ever revisited this IP. There has never been a sequel to the 1982 arcade original and it's a bit of a "deep cut" choice for a reboot. This makes it possibly the most intriguing game coming from Atari and developers Adamvision and SneakyBox!
BLACK WIDOW: RECHARGED is available on multiple platforms, including: VCS, Switch, XBOX Series X/S, XBOX One, PS4, PS5, Steam and Epic.
Let’s take a quick look at the VCS version!
The most important element in any twin-stick shooter is the sticks. Fortunately, the VCS Modern Controller is more than up to the task. Using the dual thumbsticks, your spider dances effortlessly across the screen. Control with the Modern Controller is both accurate and responsive. The VCS version also adds support for the Classic Controller in two variations. Using a single Classic Controller, players use the joystick to move and the built-in rotary to pivot and shoot. Alternatively, you can use two - YES TWO - Classic Controllers simultaneously for true twin-stick action! Personally, I prefer the Modern Controller, but the added options for the Classic Controller are pretty cool. If only Atari produced a coupler to secure both sticks...
There are two game-modes: ARCADE & CHALLENGES. Both modes can be played in either single-player or couch co-op. Arcade mode is the main game and is a pure high score chasing affair. Challenges mode expands the game, providing 40 task-based challenge levels. These serve to unlock achievements but also teach you how to deal with various insects. In Centipede: Recharged, the developers used various elements - rocks, bombs, mushrooms - to create visual and mechanical variety in its challenge levels. By way of comparison, the design of BLACK WIDOW is considerably more limited. Challenges feel similar from one to the other despite differences in web barrier layouts and insects. Further, the difficulty of some of the challenges is really amped up! This might put off some players. It's worth noting that 10 of the challenge levels are exclusive to the VCS. Other versions of the game have just 30 challenges.
The gameplay has strong echoes of the original in that you still control the spider and fight off an endless onslaught of various insects moving across the web. However, there are key differences. Where the original used red and green sections of web to indicate barriers, BLACK WIDOW: RECHARGED randomly generates bright white sections which your spider cannot pass. There are no longer waves to indicate progress. Instead, the colors cycle on a timed basis to designate "waves." Different insects have different attributes. One swarms in a circular pattern, one drops power-ups, one takes multiple shots and attacks when hit, one shoots projectiles, and another lays eggs that hatch into exploding bugs. Most of the insects drop dollar-signed shaped "Grubsteaks" when eliminated. In the original, these were a source of extra points. Here, they also charge up a web shot that can be used to eliminate a large number of enemies all at once. It's one of the cooler power-ups in the game. Other power-ups include 3-spread shot, side shot, 7-spread shot, fear, slow down, rapid fire, shield, and explosive shot. These must be used strategically to maximize points and help to survive as long as possible. Action is frenetic and there is a lot going on all at once. However, the power-ups are generous and the game feels pretty balanced despite its fast pace.
Critically, you only have a single life. This game is tough. You will see the "GAME OVER" screen a lot. And seeing that screen means that you're starting over from zero. Gamers that enjoy single life, high score challenges will enjoy this. Gamers who want multiple lives and the ability to earn extras may not. For me, I appreciate the design decision and have thoroughly enjoyed chasing my high score. The game ramps up quickly, so it is never boring to start over again. Deaths don't feel cheap. I know immediately where I made a mistake when I die. This doesn't mean there aren't some controller throwing moments though!
Like all games in Atari's recent "Recharged" series, BLACK WIDOW: RECHARGED includes a neon vector-like graphic aesthetic. The web, player sprite and enemies are rendered in a simple, yet effective art style that recalls the original arcade game. The web itself has a subtle motion that emulates the movement of a real web. The color pallette is limited and cycles every 60 seconds or so to designate "waves." The overall aesthetic is carried through to the menus, which are all very clean and easy to navigate. Where Centipede:Recharged had static menus in the VCS version, this time they are fully animated, putting VCS BLACK WIDOW on par with the Switch, Playstation and XBOX ports. It's a welcome improvement and one that I hope is implemented in the rest of the series.
I really like the graphic style that Atari has chosen for the series and its particularly effective in BLACK WIDOW.
SOUND & MUSIC
As with Centipede: Recharged, music is one of the strongest points of BLACK WIDOW. For this game and all upcoming Recharged titles, Atari has wisely partnered with composer Megan McDuffee who is known for her work on the River City Girls series, among others. I cannot overstate how awesome the music is. Whether in-menu or in-game, it perfectly compliments the tone of BLACK WIDOW. It may even be better here than in Centipede.
The in-game noises are a mixed bag. Some of the bugs - particularly the hornet - make an odd yelping sound when hit. There is a persistent buzzing from the various insects. These may be distracting to some players. Otherwise, the pops, shots and explosions generally suit the game.
Like Centipede: Recharged, BLACK WIDOW: RECHARGED includes proper unlockable achievements which have become a staple of modern gaming. Some are progressive. Other achievements are awarded for completion of a single task. If you've played Centipede, these will be familiar. The inclusion of achievements is a welcome addition to the game, particularly on the VCS. However, as the VCS does not support trophies, the achievements are only viewable in-game. Compare this to the PS4 version, which utilizes Sony’s trophy system and is linked to a user's profile. It would be nice to have a way to share your achievements.
The game also includes a leaderboard feature. The leaderboard on the VCS version is currently local only. High scores are displayed in game for both Arcade and Challenge modes. Other versions of the game feature global and friend leaderboards. Apparently Atari is working on a friend and leaderboard feature for the VCS. Hopefully this is implemented soon as competing against others is one of the more fun aspects of classic arcade gaming.
BLACK WIDOW: RECHARGED is a solid update to a forgotten game from Atari's classic era. With the 10 exclusive challenges and multiple control options, the VCS version is an easy recommendation for fans of the original game or of twin-stick shooters in general. It may be the strongest title yet in what's shaping up to be a stellar series!
Have you played BLACK WIDOW: RECHARGED on the VCS or other platform? What do you think of the game?