Painter falls into that rarest sub-genre of arcade games, the abstract action puzzler, where gaming goals and themes defy traditional boundaries of definition and expectation. Abstract games have been on the decline ever since Qix burst into arcades in the early '80s, and nothing -- with the exception of Loopz -- has come close to match it since.
Painter sure looks like Qix, but it's a mistake to think of it as some mere clone -- it's more like a third cousin, twice removed and inbred with Beamrider and perhaps Bristles, too. And with its innovative theme and wildly addictive gameplay, this quiet little game is just as much an arcade classic as its famous predecessor.
Like all true arcade classics, Painter seems so familiar, well-conceived, and timeless in its approach, that you can only scratch your head and wonder that it hasn't always been in your library beside Asteroids, Tempest, and Space Invaders. Painter doesn't compete with the latest Xbox treats by enticing players with eye candy; it simply offers players what it is -- a great arcade game -- and in that, it is very successful.
It's simplest to think of Painter as "Qix-on-a-grid". In Painter, each screen features a grid, which is comprised of several boxes. Each of these boxes must then be "filled in" (by traversing grid lines) in order to complete the level.
There now. That's pretty simple, isn't it?
You'd think that the game should be a piece of cake, but it's not. You've got a blue monster chasing you, see, and it just doesn't want you to fill in that grid. These monsters are fairly intelligent on even the easiest levels, and gaming AI is good enough that the monsters just get smarter as the game progresses. Monsters can only be diverted -- temporarily -- by cutting "holes" in the grid (the "B" button on your joypad). These holes stop the monsters and force them to take alternate routes across the grids to get to you.
Oh, and you've only got a few seconds to complete each grid.
Higher levels feature additional tricks and traps, such as grids with invisible segments (until you complete those boxes, of course), shorter amounts of time, and tricky designs, but the basic gameplay formula is kept wonderfully simple throughout, just as it should be.
Painter offers grids of various shapes and dimensions that will test the abilities of the very best players. The easiest levels boast the simplest grids, but the difficulty level of the game escalates quite quickly. Since the game features over 100 levels, there's no danger of completing the game too quickly. Fortunately, Painter offers a password feature that enables access to advanced levels.
Painter is also wonderfully allusive to Jaguar and Atari gaming history, and many of its grids reflect a neat summary of the history of Jaguar (and Atari) development. The Atari Fuji symbol is represented here, of course, but you'll also grids of what I believe is a screenshot of Defender, JagFest, the JagFree CD, and even Nolan Bushnell himself. I half-expect to see a "Jack Tramiel Sucks!" grid every time a new level appears, but am sure that, like all other aspects of this game, Sinister has kept tone to a purely professional level throughout the game.
Painter is, essentially, a visual clone of Qix, and fans of that game should find much to appreciate here. The playing field consists of simple green and red lines, and filled boxes are a nice blue colour. The control character is a minute white sprite, and the blue "monsters" look somewhat like miniature lobsters, although I understand that this isn't supposed to be the case.
Gamers may be disappointed to find that the graphics here aren't much different from what you would've found on the VIC-20 in 1981, but it's important to remember that Painter is an abstract game, and these minimalist visual effects complement the game's theme and play. The "special" JagFest release contains a jazzy intro scene that's pretty nice, and reminiscent of T2K's "melt-o-vision" effects, but it also seems somehow inappropriate to the rest of the game. Painter reduces arcade gameplay to its bare, pure, adrenaline-filled roots, and flashy or fancy graphics are more of a distraction here than they are a gaming bonus.
Painter is as generous with its music and sound as it is parsimonious with its visual effects. This game features a slinky, "post-techno-ambient" soundtrack that's every bit the equal of Tempest 2000 and would make a wonderful release on its own. It's true that T2K has an advantage in pure originality, but I actually like this soundtrack better.
Digitized voice samples are also sprinkled liberally throughout the game, and are used with great effect to enhance gameplay. Brand me a heretic, but I've always found the voice samples in Jag cart games to be somewhat "muddy" and buried beneath the gaming soundtracks. Here, in contrast, they're both clear and distinct. I'm especially fond of the female voice that starts a countdown to "grid destruction" when the timer hits 20 seconds. Players are also likely to smile when they hear an oh-so-familiar round of applause and cheering at the end of each round that's a wink-and-nudge tribute to a certain tile-flipping arcade classic from the early '90s.
I've just passed level fifteen and am already looking forward to future versions of Painter -- surely they'll be coming! -- which may feature newer, harder designs and (maybe) some form of three-dimensional gameplay on Tempest-like grids. And a new soundtrack featuring all-new ambient-techno-beats. And maybe, just maybe, better graphics. But that would sort of be getting away from the point of Painter, wouldn't it? Some games just offer beauty in simplicity, and it would be a shame to destroy that. Painter is a great arcade game and a great new Jaguar CD title. At $24.95, it's also the best new Jaguar gaming value, and something that no Jaguar fan should be without. Pick it up.
(Painter is available on Jaguar CD from Sinister Developments and Songbird for $24.95. Protector:SE, Battlesphere Gold, or Jaguar Bypass cartridge required. Painter (General Release) comes with an extra "bonus game"; the "JagFest" edition contains extra bonus levels.)