This is the ninety-second entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
Run, jump and shoot your way through over 40 levels to hold back the vecto…
I’m pretty sure that’s supposed to say “vector”. You see, the premise of Rasternauts is based on different methods for displaying computer graphics, pitting them against each other in an action platformer. For those who don’t know about raster graphics versus vector graphics, I will explain. Longtime readers may recall that explaining things is one of my favorite activities!
The playable characters in Rasternauts come from a world rendered using raster graphics. This means they are two-dimensional images drawn with a grid of pixels, in which every pixel is explicitly assigned a color. Pixel art, basically. The “raster graphics” name comes from the way early cathode ray tube displays worked: a beam of electrons (the chathode ray) would scan or “raster” across the screen row by row, lighting up each pixel with it’s designated color. But what defines a “raster image” is really the fact that the image data is stored as a grid of pixels. This makes the image “pixel perfect” in that it should always appear precisely as drawn no matter what physical display is used, but the image will not scale well to different sizes, since enlarging the image will also enlarge the pixels from which it’s made.
By contrast, vector graphics are not stored as grids of pixels. Instead, these images are made from geometric shapes such as lines and curves, each defined via a mathematical expression. Vector images are therefore highly scalable, adapting to whatever resolution display is available, and are also easily animated by simply adjusting the geometric formulae for the image. In games, the most famous example of vector graphics may be the 1979 arcade classic Asteroids, which used vector graphics for its player-controlled ship and polygonal asteroids, allowing them to smoothly rotate and move around. In the early days of this blog, I wrote about Another World, which uses vector graphics for its characters, which meant the original art could be used for the higher-resolution Anniversary Edition release(s) without looking pixelated. Vector graphics are also often used in graphic design, to ensure that images are not degraded by being mapped to pixel grids while they are still being resized or otherwise manipulated.
In Rasternauts, an experiment with teleportation technology goes wrong and sends some raster art scientists into an alternate vector-based dimension. It’s a clever conceit, and the art really leans into the early style of vector graphics, full of glowing lines in primary colors. The contrast is highly effective: the relatively low resolution raster world gives way to impossibly smooth lines, surfaces splashed with uncannily slick rain, and sinister glowing humanoids who soon begin firing strange energy bolts at our heroes. Said heroes have no choice but to shoot their way out, rescuing as many of their colleagues along the way as they can. The shooting is the only oddity in the visual presentation, since the pixel-perfect guns fire slow-moving, glowing projectiles that look like they belong in the vector dimension. But they also look cool, so I was willing to forgive this oversight.
Rasternauts offers several control schemes, including gamepad, keyboard, and keyboard and mouse. Since it was originally released for the now-defunct Xbox Live Indie Games service and only later ported to PC, it’s likely that gamepads were the original target, but since I didn’t have mine plugged in when I fired it up, it defaulted to keyboard and mouse controls. But since the game boasted that it had both 8-direction aiming and free aiming modes, I decided to stick with the keyboard and mouse, figuring I could use the mouse for free aim (like the venerable Abuse, or, to use an example that I’ve actually written about on this blog, Capsized). But it turns out that the aiming modes depend on which of the playable characters is used, with five of the six limited to aiming in 8 directions only. I tried playing with Rose, who seems to be the default character, but found aiming her pistol with the mouse awkward, so I soon switched to Arnor, the only character who can freely aim in a 360 degree arc. This physics-defying feat is made possible by his prosthetic gun arm, and made playing the game feel much more natural.
The characters really only differ in their weapons, and presumably some dialog. Guns invariably start out weak, but can be powered up by collecting the multicolored gems strewn around levels and dropped by defeated enemies. Arnor’s arm gun isn’t that different from Rose’s pistol except for its increased aiming possibilities, but other characters might have a shorter range spread-fire shotgun, or a burst fire rifle, or a slow-firing but powerful energy weapon, each of which powers up in different ways when collecting gems. The gems double as protection against damage, as taking a hit causes a character to lose all their gems, spraying them everywhere in a manner almost identical to Sonic the Hedgehog and his rings. There are a few other powerups to collect as well, but mostly it’s all about shooting and collecting gems.
Rasternauts is a sizeable game, with over 40 levels spread across five distinct locales, but unfortunately its platforming action is a bit boring. Controls are decent but not great, feeling just slightly less precise than I’d hoped, but the biggest problem is that its levels simply aren’t very interesting. Early areas are little more than solid platforms (which block shots) and scaffold-like platforms (which don’t) filled with a ton of enemies. New enemies are constantly spawning, so when I tactically retreated so I could dodge enemies’ shots even as I gunned them down, I’d find them replaced with new foes as soon as I advanced again. This was frustrating enough when I was free to aim in any direction to blast them, and I can only imagine that being restricted to specific firing angles would be even worse. Most characters’ weapons can fire pretty fast, but don’t have auto-fire modes, so I was clicking frantically to shoot down all my foes, while jumping between some simple platforms.
Later levels do add new elements, but nothing I haven’t seen before in countless other platformers. I was amused to find the asteroids from Asteroids appearing in some levels, as an homage to the original vector graphics classic, but they didn’t add too much to the experience. Some levels simply require reaching an exit, but in most I needed to find and rescue a few scientists, which meant I could roam the level in different directions as I pleased. But that open design never lives up to its potential, with forgettable level layouts that don’t feel meaningfully different from each other, even though each has its own name. There’s not much to collect other than gems, which gets boring because they can all be lost in an instant if the hero gets hit, and because they’re reset for every new level anyway. Even the occasional bosses aren’t that imaginative or exciting. Near the end of the game, there are enough environmental hazards to make moving through levels a bit more engaging, but it’s too little, too late.
This is a shame, because the premise and presentation are both quite nice. It looks and sounds good, and has some decent dialog that occasionally brought a smile to my face. I love the idea of different graphics technology creating a terrifying alien dimension, beyond the comprehension of our poor raster art scientists, but sadly exploring that dimension isn’t that fun. The action is simple and stretched out for far too long. Graphics nerds may still want to check out Rasternauts if only to see how it juxtaposes its pixel art with its vector world, but be warned that you probably won’t persevere until the end. If you missed Rasternauts in the bundle, it’s sold for a minimum price of $1.99.
That’s 92 down, and only 1649 to go!