Friday, June 21, 2013

Review: "Super Puzzle Platformer Deluxe"

It’s only recently that I’ve been able to confidently say that Adult Swim’s logo is an assurance of quality when it comes to games. I still haven’t gotten over how weird that is, either. “Adult Swim makes good games.” Dear lord, I remember the days of Aqua Teen Hunger Force’s PlayStation 2 game – Zombie Ninja Pro-Am! A kart racing, fighting, and golf game hybrid. And about 100% less fun than that sounds, let me assure you. …hold on.
Déjà vu? Déjà vu. Why, I was doing this song and dance not long ago with Super House of Dead Ninjas. I was genuinely surprised by Super House of Dead Ninjas – having written off Adult Swim as capable of nothing but producing mildly funny animated shows for very very drunk people, picking up a for-money game from them seemed like it could go either way. But it went the best way. The good way! Super House of Dead Ninjas was, despite its wacky, hilarious name, a more or less perfect little on-the-cheap faux-arcade game. It was genuinely, properly, and impressively entertaining – and I wasn’t even drunk.
So, then, heading into a similarly named “wacky” title, my expectations weren’t low anymore. I had figured out Adult Swim’s MO – sucker pundits in with cheap prices and stupid concepts with a retro sheen, wow them with said concept executed flawlessly. I expected nothing but greatness from Super Puzzle Platformer Deluxe, and… well, give Adult Swim credit, because they know how to choose ‘em: they pulled it off. Again!
Alright. I think you know the drill by now. Adult Swim makes a bunch of Flash games on their website. Entering the publishing dealie, they take one of those Flash games, spruce it up until it justifies a pricetag, launch it on Steam to critical acclaim and massive profits. They get their money, we get sweet games; everyone wins. Except Activision – who, in this fictional scenario I’ve concocted, sit by the freezer in their pajamas, wiping tears from their face and eating ice-cream straight from the bucket.
So what’s the wacky concept we’re working with this time? Well, you know those dropping-block puzzle games? Like Tetris and… um… Tetris clones? …you know those platformers like Super Meat Boy and VVVVVV? What if you combined them to make a literal puzzle-platformer? …I know, I know! That’s insane! Five stars.
Yeah, no, that’s the concept. It sounds entertaining. Definitely enough to hold up a free web Flash game. Trick is, developer Andrew Morrish has had to spit-shine this little concept to hold up a $7.99 asking price. Not an easy job, but the man clearly has talent, because he pulled it off. Obviously. I wouldn’t have said so in my opening paragraph otherwise. Under the watchful eyes of Adult Swim Games, he’s assembled the parts from the web-based original to form a game worth paying for with dollars, euros, pounds and groats. The entertainment factor is still there, but in playing it, the absurdity wears off – giving way to genuinely properly good game design and mechanics. Hooray! We win, Activision cries, so on, so forth.
So, how does the game actually play? Well. If I were to represent it as a mixture of other games you’re already familiar with (since I’m a hack who uses shorthand references instead of actually writing down original thoughts, content and ideas), I would say it’s like if you took the jumping, shooting and running of Super Crate Box, and took all of that, and put it in a pit, and threw a whole bunch of loose Tetris for GameBoy cartridges into the pit. Then stirred it around with a spoon made of pixel art and 16-bit bleep bloops.
Essentially, you play as a little yellow chap with a laser gun. You’re basically stuck inside a block puzzle game – the giant cubes falling from the sky, forcing you to avoid them lest you get horrifically crushed, and die. It’s a tough, thankless job. Luckily, thanks to your laser gun, you can demolish the blocks. There are three colours of blocks; if you shoot a block connected to a block of the same colour, you destroy both at once. That there’s called a “combo”. You destroys lots of blocks at once, and you get points. And little star bits. And diamonds, which you collect so many of to progress through the levels. Oh, and, um, pit of spikes underneath the blocks. So you can’t destroy them all, cos you have to stand on them. See how that works?
The game’s best feature by far is how smoothly it plays. Probably thanks to an unlimited framerate, jumping and shooting feels great, very light and intuitive without feeling at all weightless. The tuning done to the platforming physics are pitch-perfect down to the nanosecond, and it ensures that whether you’re playing for a minute or an hour, the game is a joy to actually play the whole time. The controls work flawlessly, keyboard or gamepad, so whichever you choose to use, you’ll always get the same great game feel. Hooray!
Progress comes in two flavours. One, you could collect diamonds, after which collecting so many you can go to the next stage so you can… you know. Finish the game. Then there’s “levels”. By collecting bits, you increase a little progress bar – when the bar fills up, you level up, giving you higher jumps and stronger attacks and basically they let you more efficiently beat up the dropping tetronimo wannabes. That’s a good thing – a less good thing, is that every time you level up, things besides tetronimos drop.
Once you hit level 2, you’ll start getting dangers like waves of blocks dropping all at once, or, death laser cannons, or, slippery ice blocks, or, cobwebs, or homing rockets, or, ghosts. You get the picture, yeah? Leveling up provides you with both risk and reward, giving you new abilities and dangers to overcome, and giving me the chance you use the term “risk and reward,” making me seem like a bigshot internet writer who understands videogame design theory (even though I just read about the term in a fanzine once).
So that seems pretty interesting, eh? When you level up you get cool new powers and also you get a bunch of enemies and dangers to stop. Some of them you can stop by shooting blocks – the cannons will land on top of the coloured squares, and destroying the square or set of squares adjacent to it will destroy it. Hooray! Other traps you can shoot directly. Also hooray! You can grab an invincibility power-up sometimes, meaning nothing can kill you for a brief period. Double hooray! But eventually, inevitably, you will succumb to some kind of danger-type thing. A cannonball will blast into your yellow, chummy face, with absolutely no regard to common courtesy. Dick.
Okay, so, here’s how it works. Get hit while you’re at level 1, and you die. BOOM. DEAD. GAME OVER. GO TYPE YOUR ULTRA-LOW SCORE ONTO THE LEADERBOARD TABLE, NOOB.
If you get hit at level 2, you get a slap at the wrist and go down to level 1. If you get hit at level 3 (the highest level), you go down to level 2. …so um, yeah, when you get hit you go down a level. That didn’t need to take as many sentences as it did, but as I mentioned before, I am a terrible hack. I’d be downright embarrassed, for you and the website, if I was getting paid for this. Thank god Boss Dungeon is actually siphoning money, huh?
So yeah. Assuming you don’t suck, you make your way to level 3, survive all the threats and collect enough diamonds to get you to the next stage. Then cool stuff happens!
There are a handful of varied stages to unlock visit, based off of various well-worn videogame-typical environments. There’s an ancient cavern, an active volcano (complete with spouting balls of fiery lava!), an icy chamber… why, there’s even a haunted house, with ghosts! As you go, you also unlock new yellow chums to play as, each with a different set of extraordinary moves. Usually they’re self-explanatory. Jetpack guy has a jetpack. Ninja can double-jump, and has throwing stars. There are eight characters to collect, all in all, and it adds some well-needed variety to the proceedings.
Also adding variety is the addition of challenge chambers. There’s a lot of these you can unlock, and they task you with accomplishing astonishing feats of skill! It’s in here where the game’s true depth is perhaps properly unveiled – mastering the art of jumping over spiked pits is certainly one thing, but being tasked to do so under extraneous circumstances really puts the physics engine to the test. Good news: they hold up! And thus the challenge rooms are a welcome and pleasant diversion.
An odd – though certainly not unwarranted – addition is the inclusion of a two-player, split-screen versus mode. Basically, you and a buddy take a little yellow chum each, and compete to see who can either get the highest score in ninety seconds, or just not die. You’ll need a control pad for it, but it’s a genuinely entertaining little mode – even if me and my brother kind of died within a few seconds trying to fuck each other over. We weren’t paying attention, alright? Our competitive streak doesn’t run as deep as our trolling.
The fun thing about the multiplayer mode is that, in a move similar to Tetris Battle, whenever you get a combo, your opponent is faced with a danger. The larger the combo, the less trivial the danger. So if I get a combo of, say, three squares (a feeble combo to be sure), my opponent might get a cannon on their head. But if I get a combo of thirteen squares, my opponent might be faced by a barrage of extra blocks all at once! Take that, you smarmy bastard! Oh, you’re sitting right next to me. Oh, you heard me say that out loud, huh. Oh, you threw the wireless controller out the window. Oh.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that this game has a fantastic core gameplay element, executed very well, and it has all the ancillary modes needed to justify a pricetag. Addendum to that: a pricetag. It justifies having a price attached to it. I’m yet to decide, however, if it justifies the $7.99 pricetag – and it could be seen as a bit of a stretch when so many games on Steam provide about the same amount of enjoyment and polish for less than a fiver.
In a way, it certainly is. Fun-to-money-spent ratio, it’s well worth it. There’s such an array of unlockables and bonus content that I can’t see anyone feeling ripped off; but at the same time, it’s definitely not as good value as Super House of Dead Ninjas, and that game is priced at a dollar less than this. For example – the stellar chiptune-esque soundtrack composed by Landon Podbielski isn’t included with the game, even though Super House of Dead Ninjas’ is provided as downloadable content from within the game. It’s worth mentioning, though, that aside from the gameplay content, the game truly is polished almost to a fault. The pixel art exudes charm, and the animations are all extremely well-done – smooth and high quality despite the little yellow chums basically just being… uh, well, little yellow chums.
They’re designed quite well, though. They’re exceedingly adorable, very cute despite basically being even less-detailed LEGO heads walking around with capes and jetpacks and facemasks. The sense of humour, while not running as deep as Dead Ninjas, is present and rather knowing (you can turn “blast processing” on and off in the menu and it does… nothing, to my knowledge). Oh. And I think it’s worth noting that this game is (apart from the music) made by one guy, aforementioned Andrew Morrish. I don’t know his back catalogue, but he’s at least proven himself here as a name to watch for. So I think I’ll be doing just that.
At the end of the day, I think the finest thing you can say about Super Puzzle Platformer Deluxe is that it does everything it promises it would do. It never once lied to me, which is certainly heartwarming. Yes, it is what it says on the tin: Super Puzzle Platformer Deluxe is a super puzzle platformer, deluxe.
…yeah, I just wrote that down like it was clever.