Developer: Simone Serra
What's All This Then?I purchased Omicron because it's description sounded much like a simpler version of a game I already like and find endlessly challenging, Mutant Virus for the NES. That game can be found in my list of the 30 Hardest NES Games Ever. However, what I was pleased to discover was that Omicron is bigger on action than in Mutant Virus while the strategy is a more subtle aspect of the gameplay. That doesn't mean you can overlook it, though. I have found that the strategic elements are what make this game far more compelling than your average shooter.
The premise of Omicron is that you command a team of scientists combatting an alien virus that has gone out of control. You've lost communication with your team and must now battle all four elemental iterations of the virus to rescue your comrades. Battling the virus requires collecting immunity fragments and pushing the virus back. Contact with the virus elements is instantly fatal, however, you can blast them away and in the Absorb levels you can soak up the strains to keep them at bay. The virus manifests as each of the classical elements: water, fire, air, and earth. Each manifestation comprises a level of game play, increasing in difficulty as you progress through the elements.
Thus the game is divided into 4 levels, each level made of up various stages. There are 4 kinds of stages: Resist! Absorb! Rescue! Collect! We'll take a closer look at each one in a minute. The basic game play varies by stage, but the general gist is that you need to collect immunity fragments, avoid and blast the virus elements, and generally survive until you have collected enough fragments to progress to the next level. Sounds simple, but the action is fast-paced, your ship moves with virtually no friction, and the virus actively hunts you down every time you grab an immunity fragment. Omicron is challenging right from the start. Let's take quick look at each stage and briefly discuss the merits and difficulties therein:
Resist! This is the most straightforward stage of the lot. The virus begins to spread and you must use your anti-matter cannon to blast it away. Immunity fragments appear at regular intervals (a time bar at the upper left counts down to the next manifestation) and you must collect them before they expire. Failure to do so will cost you a life. This is a good introductory level to the basic game play and will give you a chance to get used to the controls. There is some learning curve here, because the game doesn't handle like Asteroids; your ship moves very swiftly and stops on a dime. The physics will take some getting used to. Otherwise, just blast away, dodge the virus, and collect the fragments.
Absorb! Now take everything you just learned and forget it. The anti-matter cannon is off and you'll spend most of this level working to evade the spreading virus. However you can pick up Virus Cores which imbue your ship with the power to briefly absorb the virus and clear it out. You can stockpile 3 Virus Cores (noted at the upper right of the screen below your extra ships) and no more will appear until you have used at least 1 to absorb the virus. Use the cores sparingly, however, or you'll find yourself stranded, defenseless, and late in the stage collecting cores can be tricky. Oh, and you still have to collect immunity fragments on a time limit to progress to the next level.
Rescue! Maybe my favorite stage, this is a variation on the Resist! stage only this time the immunity fragments spawn inside a viral bubble and you must blast them free before you can collect them. The same rules apply as in Resist!, but the challenge is increased since every fragment now comes with a hefty viral deposit to add to the already growing menace!
Collect! Just because the manual calls this a "bonus" stage, don't think it's a cake walk. True, the virus is non-lethal here, and you can't really lose a life, but collecting the fragments is no easier because the virus will slow you down dramatically if you come into contact with it. And you will come into contact with it, a lot. The spread rate is much greater than in the other stages and trying to plow through the virus is like running through mud. But, if you collect all the fragments you get a point bonus and an extra virus core for your stockpile.
How's it Play?Ok, so all of that is well and good, but is it any fun? Oh my, yes! Not only is it fun, it's challenging and engaging, and definitely has that "just one more game" quality that great shooters possess. Be forewarned, there is a decent sized learning curve when you get started. The ship physics take time to learn and the basic game play reads as obvious in the manual, but can take a minute to translate into actual game play. I also recommend you play with the colored background option (Left Diff A) as it makes it much easier to see and differentiate the Virus Cores from the Virus Roots that spawn the virus. This tripped me up for a long time when I first started playing. Switching to the colored background fixed this issue right away. But once you get going, Omicron is very addictive and lots of fun. I've played it now for at least 3 hours and I've only just gotten to the Fire level (that's level 2). It gets very hard to turn this game off. Omicron features a perfect blend of action and strategy that makes it more engaging than your average shooter and definitely one of the most compelling homebrews in my collection.
Whistles and Bells?Omicron features one of the most striking label designs I've seen in a while. Colorful, bold and definitely distinctive, Nathan Strum's work really shines here. The manual is equally impressive. There's lots of info crammed into it, so take the time to read it. The game itself features a few whistles and bells as well. An option screen lets you choose from a couple of difficulty and controller settings. There is a 2.5K version of the game you can play, which presents plenty of challenge as you fend of endless waves of virus. And the game features AtariVox/Save Key support to save your high scores. The music does a nice job of matching the frenetic pace of the game. Don't let the punchy title screen music fool you, the game play music really adds to the intensity!
Final AssessmentOmicron is a great addition to any 2600 library and a must have for fans of shooting games that require more than just a quick trigger finger. This game gets a very strong recommendation from me!
Tips and TricksBefore we go, here are a few words of wisdom from the field:
Don't Sleep on this Game. Ever. The virus might seem quiet right after the immunity fragment appears, but they come alive the minute you grab it and will hunt you down and corner you. During Resist! stages, blast virus elements constantly, and when you use virus cores to absorb, clear as much room as you can in the short time allotted. Never get lulled into false senses of safety, they do not exist.
Room To Move. Regardless of the stage, you are always going to need room to navigate, whether it's just buying time until the next immunity fragment spawns or if you are trying to get to the fragment to collect it. Make sure you keep plenty of free space around your ship. The virus will actively close in upon you, so make sure you have plenty of room to negotiate safely.
Clear First, then Collect. It might seem tempting to rush forward to grab the immunity fragment when it appears, particularly with the time limit and all, BUT it is good strategy to clear plenty of space around the fragment before you make a dash for it. The fragment likes to wander about and can easily leave an area that looks safe for one fraught with peril. If you clear out a nice wide area, then you can collect it with some confidence that it won't meander into trouble.
Go Around. In the Collect! stages don't try to plow through the virus to get to fragments. The rate of slowdown is so dramatic you can easily miss several fragments just trying to get free of the mess. Go around the virus clusters. It may take a little more time, but it will take far less than trying to push through even what looks like a small strain, as those can quickly expand and surround you.
Stake Your Claim. Early on when playing this game, I find it is best to pick an area of the screen and focus on keeping it clear of virus. Using this area as a safe place to hang out while you are waiting for the next fragment to generate. Grab the fragment and retreat to your camp. In later levels this isn't as easy as your camp will fill up with virus elements rather quickly, but for the first few stages it can help you get your bearings.
That's it! What are you waiting for? That virus isn't going to destroy itself!
See you next month when I'll take a look at what has been heralded as one of the MUST HAVE homebrews of the modern era: Juno First!