The Akka Arrah is a revamped version of a prototype Atari arcade machine from the 80s. Originally canceled due to lack of interest, the trailer for the re-release claims that only three cabinets have ever been seen. 40 years later, when Atari approached veteran designer Jeff Minter (Tempest 2000, Polybius) to remake one of their games, he chose Akka Arh. The result is a reimagining of the original concept, fused with Minter’s signature psychedelic visuals and some modern improvements. While the game can be fun, its cluttered visual design detracts greatly from the experience.
Akka Arah is a top-down shooter where you are tasked with using bullets and bombs to defend yourself against colorful, abstract enemies. Bombs destroy most basic enemies and create chain explosions, which are the main ways you get points. For each enemy you bomb, you get a bullet, which you have to use to destroy larger enemies that are immune to bombs. To get the maximum points possible, you just want to drop a bomb and then chain the explosions to as many levels as possible. When you find a good series, Akka Arh is great; Waves of geometric shapes destroy enemies before they even hit the ground, and the series name listed at the top of the screen becomes increasingly cool.
The game is also very difficult on normal mode, which is typical for games of its era. In an arcade, it pays to have a game with an incredibly high skill ceiling to keep players coming back for more. In an adjustment for a modern audience, the game saves your highest-scoring attempts from each level and allows you to jump back in whenever you want, instead of forcing you through the challenge of all the levels that came before. Still, the levels that stunned me were just as hard, even when I had full health and a good bullet count. It’s less a matter of reducing hardship and more a matter of convenience.
While I generally respected Akka Arah’s challenging gameplay, one element consistently annoyed me. The game’s camera follows your cursor, giving you free rein to fly around the level. It doesn’t seem like this would be a bad thing until you realize how often bullets and enemies appear off-screen when you’re aiming too far in the opposite direction. It’s even worse when you have a power-up that kills enemies from a distance, and you end up with one that shoots bullets to death without even realizing it. One hit ends your entire series, and in a game like this, it’s frustrating to have your score ruined by a factor beyond your control.
This ties into my main gripe with this game: the messed up art direction. In a general sense, the glowing psychedelic visions, during disorientation, were something I grew to tolerate. There’s an option to disable them in the settings for anyone with sensitive eyes, which is a nice touch. But the visual elements that really bother me are the simultaneous lack and excess of information on the screen. As your chain progresses, the game greets you with explosions, swirling text and massive, elongated symbols, but the game requires such a high level of focus that it’s often a layer of distracting noise. melts into It’s especially frustrating when there’s information I wish the game was more clear on, like how much health I have left or what power-ups I have active.
It’s clear that a lot of care was put into the enemy design, silly text and audio cues, but a lot of the game is so abstract that it’s hard to parse what’s going on. Sometimes the screen turns red, but I can’t tell if that was good or bad. Sometimes I heard a pulsed sine wave, but I didn’t know what was causing it. The text I read was often funny, but when it’s arranged in a spinning circle and I’m frantically trying to blast out killer polygons, I don’t have time to read it.
Eventually, I put some of the pieces together. For example, a red flashing screen occurs when you hit a specific enemy, a pulsating sine wave usually means that an enemy is attacking, and if the center of the screen isn’t too busy, you’ll be in the distance. You can see how much health you have at the bottom of your ship. Akka Arrah is not a game of insoluble mysteries or abstruse gameplay, but the adjustment curve on the road to being able to play it with full understanding is much more difficult, especially ad its modern game mechanics.
Akka Arh is an interesting experiment. Despite its shortcomings, Atari fans can still find some fun in this blaster from the past – the game just comes with a bigger asterisk. As much as I’m excited to see a lost piece of gaming history resurrected and brought to a modern console, the visuals and confusing, abstract game mechanics let the experience down.