It's become all too common for PlayStation Minis to drop onto Sony's digital storefront with little fanfare, but Trailblazer sets a whole new precedent. While developers such as Laughing Jackal, Futurlab and Mediatonic have actively coveted enthusiast websites such as this one in order to garner reasonable press for their games, far too many studios are content with letting their products get buried.
Perhaps some of the blame lies with Sony, for not turning the PlayStation Minis platform into a more noteworthy label. But at some point, the developer needs to take command of its own product. If a game is interesting enough then we'll cover it — but we need to know it exists first.
At the time of writing, the Google query "Trailblazer for PlayStation Minis by Team 3 Games" brings up information on bluetooth headsets and hiking groups. We hope that by the time this review is published that things have changed, but honestly, we're not holding our breath. It's a shame, because Trailblazer sets a strong standard for PlayStation Minis in 2012.
Trailblazer originally launched on the Commodore 64 way back in 1986. Released in the wake of Tron-mania, the game put you in control of a spherical object — something that closer resembles the front-wheel of a Light Cycle in this updated remake — and challenged you to dash through a series of complex intergalactic mazes, utilising specially coloured tiles to hop between platforms and reach the goal before a time quota diminished.
The game prompted a successful C64 sequel — named Cosmic Causeway — but dropped off the radar until the mid-noughties when the title was rebooted for Tiger's ill-fated Gizmondo.
Phew. Despite the long-running historical saga, Trailblazer on the PlayStation Minis looks and plays fairly similar to its 1986 debut. Playing out from a third-person perspective, you must control your futuristic vehicle across a series of suspended race courses in order to reach each stage's goal within a predefined time-limit.
Arcade mode — which represents the bulk of Trailblazer's campaign — sees you sprinting through a series of stages split into three different difficulty tiers. Failing a stage will require you to restart the series, though completing individual stages unlocks them for practice in a separate time trial mode. The game also boasts an unlockable endurance campaign to further the package's length.
The game itself starts out simple, but quickly grows in confidence. Controlling your craft with the D-Pad, you must slip in and out of hazards, attempting to hit as many favourable tiles as possible in order to achieve a record setting time. Green tiles increase your craft's speed, while red tiles slow you down. As the game progresses, you're introduced to a range of different blocks — with cyan tiles inverting your controls, pink tiles teleporting you across the stage and yellow tiles causing your craft to hop. You get four additional jumps at the start of each level (activated by the R button) which allow you to fashion custom routes through each stage and avoid hazards — though due to the limited number of jumps, you need to be careful to use these at optimal times.
The game's futuristic visual style is complimented by the mash-up of colours that occupy each stage, giving the game a vibrant look that pops on both the PSP and PS3. The frame-rate and third-person viewpoint encourages an outstanding sense of speed, though the silky smooth performance can be affected by the inclusion of Ghost data — a feature which, thankfully, can be turned off in the game's options settings.
While the game's level design starts off fairly basic, it quickly gets more ambitious. One level sees you leaping across a never-ending sequence of circular platforms, while another has you sprinting across the bodies of pixelated human outlines. It's clever stuff, and while it's easy to fall into inescapable traps, the game does a good job of ensuring your craft has plenty of momentum for the most part.
It's a game that thrives on speed, and is perfectly suited to short, sporadic play sessions. But while the game is nimble, it's also curiously addictive. The style of the gameplay means that it's easy to conquer a level, but difficult to master it, and so you'll spend a good chunk of time repeating each stage in order to discover the optimal route and perform the best time.
This is perhaps an area where the limitations of the PlayStation Minis platform let the game down. Without online leaderboards and multiplayer, the game loses some of its competitive value — but it at least does a good job of tracking local stats, and if you get your whole household playing the game, you might happen on the competitive core that the game thrives upon.
Throughout, the game plays homage to its C64 inspiration. For example, your light-cycle adorns the words "Trailblazing since 1986" around its tire-rim, and the game's packed to the rafters with various retro electronic tunes. The music's decent, if a little artificial. We know that's an unusual thing to say about an electronic soundtrack, but the music lacks the warmth of modern releases — though the melodies are still addictive and hard to shake out of your mind.
It's such a shame then that Trailblazer's destined to get completely overlooked. Its inclusion as a promoted title in Sony's European PlayStation Plus giveaway might grant the title the word-of-mouth it deserves, but with so little press surrounding the release, we don't fancy its chances once the promotion expires. It's not like the game has the strength of its brand to rely on — who remembers the original Trailblazer anyway? Indeed, this is an example of quality game sent out to die — and a textbook case study of how not to promote your product.