Vortex is a 3D shoot ’em up developed by Argonaut Software and published by Electro Brain in North America, Sony in Europe, and Pack-In-Video in Japan in 1994. It is one of the few games (other than Star Fox, Stunt Race FX, Yoshi’s Island, Doom, Dirt Trax FX, Winter Gold, and Star Fox 2) to use the Super FX co-processor chip to allow for faster 3D graphics than the vanilla SNES is capable of.
You pilot an experimental transforming ‘Mecha’, called the “Morphing Battle System” (MBS), against the five worlds of the Aki-Do Forces. The MBS can change into four different forms – a walking robot (the Walker), a flying vehicle (the Sonic Jet), a car (the Land Burner), and into ‘hard shell mode’, which makes you invulnerable to damage but you cannot fire as normal, although you can move, and can also use an ‘electrobomb’ to destroy enemies over a wide range.
Like the other Super FX games on the Super Nintendo, Vortex doesn’t use the full screen and suffers from occasional slowdown, but it’s still playable, interesting to play, and was quite advanced for the time. In fact, Vortex looks a bit like a PlayStation game at times, and if it wasn’t for the reduced screen size then it could be mistaken for one.
The game can be played in easy, normal or hard difficulty modes and there’s also a training level so you can get used to the controls and gameplay basics. In walker mode you can walk, shoot (lasers and a limited number of missiles), jump, and pick up and store objects; in jet mode you move faster in the air, can fire a double laser and also have a cannon; in car mode you drive fast along the ground and also have a double laser and cannon. In all incarnations of the MBS you can do a quick 180 degree about-turn at the press of a button, which is useful for dealing with attacks coming from behind. When hostiles come into view the auto-aiming reticle highlights them and allows you to shoot directly at them; you can also aim manually too. Pressing the Start button brings up a map of the current area.
The training level is set on the ground, but the opening level of the actual game is set in space, which I think is a mistake (surely it would’ve been better to start in the same kind of environment as the training level?). Only after beating the first boss – which is not easy – do you actually get to walk/fly/drive on a planet surface.
The second level, set on an ice planet, is far more interesting than the frankly dull opening level, and here you can actually walk on the ground, and use the car form (which you couldn’t in the opening level). That said: within seconds of starting this level you collect a key that allows you access to an elevator that takes you underground, and you’re then in first-person mode in corridor-type levels. Which is interesting, but again the game’s designers make a mistake with the structure of the game, in that: rather than allowing you to explore the surface a little and enjoy walking around and shooting things, you’re thrust into a brand new environment almost immediately.
I think that – if Vortex had been designed with a bit more thought given to the structure of the game – then it could have been brilliant, but in reality it starts off poorly. Making the opening level a space level was a bad idea, and making the environment change as soon as you get onto the ground was a mistake too. While the variety in the gameplay is welcome, the timing of events is not.
Vortex didn’t get a wide release in 1994 and most gamers will have passed it by. As Super Nintendo games go: it’s fairly obscure and maybe even unknown by many. Is it worth playing today? Well, it is a difficult game to like initially, but if you’ve never seen it before then it’s definitely worth a look. Whether you’ll enjoy playing it or not is another thing entirely. The key to survival is to know when to change into the various different forms, and to use hard shell mode to protect yourself from incoming fire. If you manage to figure out how to play Vortex properly then you’ll maybe find a game that you like very much. It does take a little while to warm to it, though.
More: Vortex on Wikipedia