R-Type Dimensions, downloadable from Xbox Live Arcade, is what we old-time gamers call a "shoot-em-up," or "shmup" for short. If you've ever played a shmup, then you know what that means, but in case you're new to the genre, let me sum it up for you: shoot everything that moves, a few things that don't, try not to die. Sounds simple, right? Not so much.
In Dimensions, you pilot your ship through a sea of obstacles, dodging bullets and shooting enemies, as the playfield slowly scrolls from right to left. It's not exactly the deepest concept ever, but the skill required to succeed is shockingly high. Managing to destroy everything that's coming at you seems a near impossibility; the only task more difficult is squeezing your craft through the miniscule openings between threats. Making it through a level unscathed requires a combination of reflexes and patience that only eight-armed Zen masters can achieve. Or at least that's how it feels.
Given the game's space setting, some of the more sci-fi enemies and environments are to be expected, but the sheer array of things that come hurtling in your direction is staggering. Bullets, missiles, robots, big scary snaky things, other snaky things filled with little molecule looking projectiles, moths (well, that's what they look like to me), baby frogs (no, seriously), pinwheels, and all different kinds of lasery death get shot in your general direction. Blowing certain enemies apart yields valuable powerups for your ship, such as shields, added speed, or heavier weapons. If you get destroyed, however, you go back to being your original puny self. You don't have to start the level over, but you might want to; finishing off a boss with just your default weapon is no small task.
The trick to Dimensions, and indeed virtually every shmup ever made, is trial, error, and memorization. The enemies attack in distinct and predictable patterns; take the time to learn them, and your chances of victory increase exponentially. Not everyone is going to have that kind of patience, of course, especially since the game's steep difficulty curve means that you will die over and over and over again while trying to nail down just one level. Mastering the entire game is therefore best only attempted by those who are comfortable with repeated failure and frustration.
You can thank Dimensions' origins for its brutally difficult nature. It's actually the coin-op games R-Type and R-Type II all rolled into one neat package. Arcade games were designed to be crushingly difficult - all the better to keep those quarters rolling in - but fortunately this reimagining does take pity on us weaklings a tiny bit. In addition to the game's Classic mode, which starts you off with the traditional three lives, it also offers Infinite mode, which gives you all the ships you need to make it to the end of a level. It also provides end bosses with less than stellar work ethics - take too long to finish them off, and they'll wander off to look for a latte.
Dimensions also gets the graphical update that retro refurbs on XBLA typically receive, but unlike, say, Missile Command, the upgraded visuals are a pleasant addition. Clean and colorful, they're completely maintain the feeling and flavor of the original game without all the blocky pixelization. If you find the new coat of paint offensive, though, you can quickly go old-school simply by hitting the Y button. It's actually kind of fun to flip between modes as you play, just to see how much graphics have changed in twenty years.
If you're struggling with the game's difficulty, or even just want to show off your flying skills to a friend, you can take advantage of Dimensions' multiplayer mode, either locally or over Xbox Live. Teaming up definitely makes the game much more manageable, though there is a wee bit of a catch. You share lives, so if you sail through without a scratch on you, but your pal is so much cannon fodder, his shortcomings show up on your score. The fun you'll have is well worth it, though, but it can be a bit tough keeping track of which ship is yours when the screen fills up with bullets, enemies, and explosions.
Bottom Line: If you're not a fan of bullet hell or shmups in general, R-Type Dimensions certainly isn't going to change your mind. Similarly, if nothing makes you happier than threading your way through quick-moving enemies and monolithic bosses, then this is right up your alley. Just like you knew it would be.
Recommendation: Even if you're an R-Type fan, give the demo a try before you thinking about coughing up the absurdly steep price of 1200 Microsoft Points. If you're the impatient type, or are easily frustrated, do yourself a favor and just turn right around and walk very quickly in the other direction.
Susan Arendt feels the need to declare "Oh, yep, that was me," every time she dies in R-Type. She's not sure why.