Tranquility in the Eye of the Storm

Akka Arrh is chaos, but in the most addicting ways possible

Tranquility in the Eye of the Storm
Source: Nintendo.

When I first played Akka Arrh, I was utterly lost amidst the swirl of colours and the cacophony. It was chaos in its purest form. The press kit says that the game can be a calm and relaxing experience underneath the bright lights and frenzied soundscape. At first, I found that notion absurd. How could something this... much ever be relaxing? Now, several hours of playtime later, I wholeheartedly believe in this game’s potential to soothe and relax, having experienced it firsthand. This review is an attempt to make sense of the unique serenity I felt in the storm's eye where this game put me.

A Lost Game Restored

It’s not every day that you get to play something on Steam that also has a page on Lost Media Wiki (except for that other game by the same studio, 2017’s Polybius). Akka Arrh was originally a prototype arcade game made by Atari that was scrapped after it failed to impress a small test market. You can play the original as a part of the Atari 50 collection, but this Akka Arrh is a re-imagination of that original prototype. Developer LLamasoft is a perfect fit for this project with their prior experience recreating arcade games (Tempest, Polybius).

Trippy Visuals With Dense Mechanics

Akka Arrh is a bullet shooter arcade game. You control Akka Arrh, a star cannon mounted on a fixed turret at the center of the screen. Your objective is to defend the perimeter, which is the ring around the turret. If the perimeter is breached, the enemies will attempt to steal your pods, and when the last one is stolen, it’s game over. When an enemy breaches the perimeter, you can ‘go downstairs’, which switches the combat to a more close-quarters affair so you can focus on the pesky intruders.

There are two kinds of attacks that can be used. Primary fire is a bomb that you can and should attempt to chain to use as few bombs as possible. The secondary fire is an area-of-effect type bullet that should ideally be used for enemies that aren’t affected by the bombs. Each enemy hit by a bomb chain adds to the secondary fire. Every 100 secondary fire bullets are used to replace stolen pods at the end of the level.

Did you get all that? Because I certainly didn’t — not at first.

Akka Arrh doesn’t pelt you with all of this information in one go like I just did. Each level introduces one aspect of the mechanics while building on previous ones. And yet, I was still overwhelmed and confused during the initial ten levels, not because the information was poorly conveyed, but because of the game’s audio-visual presentation.

The Game Is Psychedelic and I Love It for That

A word that comes up a lot in relation to this game’s aesthetic is ‘psychedelic’, a trademark of Jeff Minter, the founder of Llamasoft. In Akka Arrh, everything is stylistically psychedelic.

The soft sound of a horde of enemies materializing slightly staggered, the soft ‘bop-bop-bop’ of a bomb chain, the visually striking and distinctive shapes the bomb’s area-of-effects take, the studio audience ‘Awww’ sound effect of disappointment when a sneaky enemy bomb pelts you out of nowhere, the combo bonus multiplier graduating from numbers to declarations of awe (my favourite of these is ‘Jesus and Mary Combo Chain’), the small floating text of feedback that slowly drifts in and out of view (‘Your mother must be proud’).

The game has an offbeat sense of humour that shines through on almost every level. I still don’t understand why the game uses golf terminology so much, but it is pretty funny.

All of this is just a brief impression of what the average level of this game is like. So it’s no surprise to me that much of the crucial information I needed to know about playing the game didn’t register at first.

Source: Steam.

The same aesthetic choices that prevented me from understanding all but the most basic particulars hooked me from the get-go, more than any other aspect of the game. The distinctive gameplay, the game’s history as a lost arcade game, the developers’ track record with games like this — what drew me in was the bright colours and the promise of a chaotic, loud, vibrant experience. This kept me immersed in the game and I think this is how I ended up learning how to play it too.

The initial tutorial was undeniably essential in helping me understand the basics. With the finer aspects of the gameplay, such as the ‘going downstairs’ mechanics, the effects of different power-ups, and the unique dangers posed by the more dangerous enemies immune to bomb chains, I let the game’s visuals and sounds be my teacher. Once I got into the groove of the game, it never let me down.

I think a huge reason for easily learning how to play the game intuitively comes down to the game’s excellent sound design. Dangerous enemies always have some kind of audio cue to warn you of their approach. Perimeter breaches trigger an alarm. There are also satisfying vocal stings for dispatching the perilous enemies and I’ve found these robotic voice lines so enjoyable and catchy I sometimes catch myself randomly saying them over and over (‘B A N G  B A N G  B A N G’) which I think you’ll agree isn’t eccentric at all.

The soundtrack is synthwave which is as idiosyncratic as the rest of the game. Sometimes, musical stings line up with enemy arrivals or your actions. Sometimes the soundtrack is oddly melancholic, which brings to mind the game’s history of being a failed prototype or maybe it’s the inherent wistfulness of retro-futurism.

The Game Is Pretty Forgiving

There are two modes of play in Akka Arrh: Best Mode and Pure Mode. Pure Mode is a straight shot through the levels. You start with your 16 pods, and the game ends either when you complete all the levels or run out of pods. Best Mode is more lenient. It saves your best performance for each level (i.e. the highest number of pods). This means that if you’re struggling to get past level 31 (like I did) then you can go back to level 26, and try to do better on the levels between 26 and 31 to come into level 31 with more pods and therefore, more room for error.

Replaying levels always improves performance, and this then helps you get further in Pure Mode. The upshot of all of this is that playing the game never feels truly stressful since you have at least two safety nets (just replaying the level again with more knowledge of what’s coming, and replaying older levels to get more pods). This game did not penalise failure, which I think goes a long way to creating a relaxing experience.

Pure bliss. Source: Steam.

Zen and the Eye Of The Storm

All of this brings us back to how I found peace at the center of the maelstrom that is a typical level in Akka Arrh. The closest experience I’ve had to this is kind of thing is with Borderlands 2, a favourite of mine, and one that I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with. There are certain moments in that game where you are so surrounded by enemies, and there’s so much going on in terms of active abilities and overall momentum that the monitor becomes various segments of colorful flashing lights, all you hear are loud sounds, and the only thing you can clearly see is damage numbers going higher and higher.

These are moments of such sensory overload they transcend into moments of zen for me. My mind becomes completely blank, and I transform into a being of instinct and action. Akka Arrh’s genius is that it delivers you to that state of sensory overload bliss at almost every level.

Those moments of zen amid the chaos were central to my enjoyment of Akka Arrh. As I spent more time with the game, I understood how to play it better. Things, mostly, stopped being confusing and overwhelming. The questions became less ‘what’s going on?!?!’ and more ‘OK, is this a better way of taking care of this enemy?’. And yet the thrill of building momentum, of reveling in the chaos, of being hopelessly mesmerized by the lights and the sounds and the movements hasn’t faded yet. My time with this game has been truly enjoyable.

I fully admit that this aesthetic of chaotic sensory overload will not appeal to everyone, let alone give them their zen moment of the day. I’m certain I’m in the minority in finding serenity in certain kinds of video game chaos.

The initial confusion in playing the game and the more oblique mechanics are going to put off a few people. But I know that plenty of people love chaos in games for different reasons, for the various states of mind moments of abject controlled chaos can trigger. I know I can’t be the only one easily attracted to pretty colours and a distinctive sense of style. Yes, it can be overwhelming, confusing, and stressful. But when you get in sync with the game, and everything’s firing on all cylinders, there’s no feeling quite like it.

Akka Arrh puts you right in the eye of the storm and shows you just how beautiful it can be there.

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