Retro Platformer Reviews: TINY BARBARIAN DX, MUTANT MUDDS DELUXE, OOZI: EARTH ADVENTURE
Now that 2013, one of the best years in recent memory gaming, is about to slip past us, I wanted to look at a trio of games that have deliberately retro-fied their gameplay and aesthetic to a bygone era of gaming.
I’m a sucker for a retro platformer. Seriously. Pixellated graphics and beeps and boops make me sweat. I love how retro games deliberately crib the look, feel, and gameplay of 8 and 16-bit games to do several specific things. First, retro provide a shortcut to nostalgia for older gamers who experienced these games originally. You get warm fuzzy feelings when you remember the first time you played Super Mario World or Strider. Retro allows developers to create well-crafted games without necessarily having to compete with the triple-A blockbuster fidelity of larger studios, using the pixellated graphics as a deliberate aesthetic, rather than a hardware limitation. There’s no way they can compete with Battlefield 4 in terms of visual panache, so why not make something charming rather than bombastic? Lastly, they’re ways for developers to build an experience on an existing language of game development without necessarily having to re-invent the wheel in that genre. Some may call that uncreative or even lazy, but not me. Not everyone can come up with Portal, you know.
Sometimes you just want a game where you punch dudes. So let’s look at a hat trick of retro platformers recently released.
Tiny Barbarian DX
Developer: StarQuail Games
This is something that you would find tucked in the corner of your local Pizza Hut, like I did with the bizarro fantasy Magic Sword. It’s the type of game that would come with an Arnold Schwarzenegger knock-off on the cover, promises scantily clad ladies and endless combat. The actual product doesn’t deliver, but instead we get Tiny Barbarian DX, a game cribbed from the John Milius screenplay collection. It’s a painlessly straightforward sidescrolling hack-and-slasher drenched in 80’s machismo. Let’s put it this way, it should come with its own leather loincloth. Hell, you’re thrust into fun horde combat before the menu even comes up. Truth. You can have a endless minigame of fighting orcs on top of a pyramid until you press start.
Your first moments in the game proper are tearing yourself free from being chained to a tree, violently chomping down on a hungry vulture nearby to restore your health. The controls are as equally straight-forward, with jump and slash being your main dynamic duo. A and X together again. The jumping does leave a bit to be desired, with a ledge grabbing mechanic, often necessary to proceed, feeling inconsistent, not “sticky” enough to feel you nailed a jump correctly. In a game that’s mostly about jumping, this is practically a crime.
My main issues with the game are almost as old as the main audience for this website: enemy attacks can feel cheap and you often don’t have a lot of moves in your loincloth to deal with attacks. I’m not expecting Batman: Arkham City level of complexity here, but a block would be nice. I know I’m complaining about a game with simple aims being too simple, but it bothered me then and it bothers me now, especially more now that those limitations don’t exist anymore. And do we have to retread the same tired story of saving your girlfriend? What saves the game from the bargain bin of history is its classic feel: dungeons and dragons and sorcersors and snakes. The game is a painstaking loveletter to battered VHS copies of Beastmaster everywhere, and it shines through.
Verdict: Mead and mutton for all!
Mutant Mudds Deluxe
Developer: Renegade Kid
Platforms: Windows (Deluxe Version), Nintendo 3DS, iOS, WiiU, Playstation 3, Playstation Vita
I found another Nintendo love letter dated 1992 stuffed between the pages of Nostalgia Magazine, perfumed with the gentle scent of a grubby SNES dpad. Mutants Mudds Deluxe is an immensely charming platformer with a colorful, round-cornered presentation, lovely pixel art, and some great 8-bit chiptune music. They’ve perfectly nailed down the SNES experience, even down to the “oomp” sound of your little raygun shooting eggs at enemy blobs.
Taking a page from the Blaster Master School of Really Fast Exposition, the laughably simple premise tells the bare-bones story as efficiently as possible. Aliens are here, you need to shoot them with guns. Well, there you go. That’s become the Jean-Luc Godard quip for video game storytelling: all you need to make a video game is aliens and a blaster gun. Thankfully, it takes another page from history, two button controls. Jump and shoot! Shoot and jump! Unlike Tiny Barbarian DX, the simple controls actually fit the world that’s a tad less busy, with a slightly less rage-inducing difficulty spike.
The game’s hallmark mechanic is a distance switching mechanic where you can jump between the foreground and background of a level at certain points. It creates a puzzle-like atmosphere to most levels, but some confusing level design made me travel in circles in some points. Apparently, there’s backtracking and sometimes the game fails to describe why this occurs. In a clever and surprising turn, you can enter certain special doors that send you to places like “V-Land”, a Virtual Boy inspired level in black and red tones, or “G-Land”, a green/white monochromatic platform level circa Game Boy 1989. These areas are the “dark world” versions of the regular maps, ramping up the difficulty.
Mutant Mudds Deluxe is a cheerful, light-hearted experience, yet somewhat repetitive at times. Overall, it’s the perfect anathema to the gritty FPS’s season. Not a single space marine or grizzled beard to be found.
Verdict: PEW PEW PEW!
Oozi: Earth Adventure
Developer: Awesome Games Studio
Platforms: Windows, Xbox 360
When you think of Oozi: Earth Adventure, first imagine you’re trapped in a digital version of Staples, and you’re late for a ten year old’s birthday party. You scan the virtual shelves and you are late, late, late. You grab something you think they’ll like, you hope beyond hope that they’re not one of those bizarre children that keep getting copies of God of Murderdeath. Oozi: Earth Adventure beckons to you. Happy, cartoony, rated E for everyone, and you snack that mother up like a Valve job interview. And you’d be absolutely in the clear. There’s not a single aspect of Oozi: Earth Adventure that could possibly offend anybody. It’s the Full House of video games. It’s so completely unoffensive and relentlessly happy, you could use it to cure childhood depression.
Playing the actual game is a strange combination of Rayman deja vu and fighting the slippery control scheme. Oozi never feels as precise as he should, like he’s ice-skating over grass. Levels can also feel endless at times, with few variations in design decisions thrown in to change up the pacing from something other than glacial. Have fun listening to the same 12 bars of a music track for 15 minutes. But it’s so goshdarn likeable that it’s hard for me to overall reject the entire experience. The operative word here is “casual”. It’s so casual, Awesome Games also put in a “Quantum Ghosts” feature to instruct new players on how to navigate the “trickier” sections of the game. It’s more visually distracting that anything else, and the relatively easy difficulty negates ever turning it on. I’m a fully grown man, but I can see seven year old me blasting through this in a weekend rental. The game even had the stones to ask me if I wanted to jack up the difficulty. Levels are generous with checkpoints and you can double-jump your way almost out of anything, yet you can’t drop through platforms, a veritable mainstay in platformer design.
All in all, it’s a goofy, somewhat affable affair, the nicest possible game where you relentlessly murder snails and snakes. The only time I felt like I was being fed a bait-and-switch, ala Eversion‘s Lovecraftian undertones, was when you first see Oozi, whose death-rictus grin resembles the jaundiced, reanimated corpse of Globox from Rayman. Actually, almost everything reminds me of Rayman, (except the creative level design and sharp sense of goofball humor). Oozi: Earth Adventure has all the parts of a great platformers, but none of the imagination or polish. It simply needs more ideas.