Caveman Harry, by Flatgub (2016)
Made for a Ludum Dare competition, Flatgub’s playful throwback Caveman Harry tackles the assigned theme “Ancient Technology” on two different levels: First, it sets itself in a prehistoric community (which–spoiler alert!–follows a videogame tradition at least as old as The Lost Vikings in orchestrating a meeting between primitive humans and advanced or alien technology). The other is an aesthetic and technical imitation of old ZX Spectrum games, albeit with a fantasy color palette.
The narrative setting finds Harry searching for how to feed his friends and family in the absence of a spear-wielding hunter, but while spears litter the ground, Harry can’t wield one. He’ll provide another way. It’s retro platforming distilled to its basic elements: Harry jumps and walks (and climbs ladders and drops through certain platforms). Enemies follow scripted horizontal and vertical movement paths without any particular intelligence. That’s it. And the game utilizes those simple elements to their fullest, putting them in combinations that may not be groundbreaking (the arrangements of such challenges are by no means unique), but nonetheless feel compelling and fun thanks to the game’s overall presentation.
Caveman Harry attempts to embody its ZX Spectrum platform inspiration beyond mere window dressing. This is where the game derives a great portion of its charms as well as its frustrations. Harry and enemies are one-color sprites and their movement is discretely tile-based. Harry’s jumps aren’t the hyper-responsive and user-friendly actions we’re accustomed to this century. If you launch him into the air while walking, you have some latitude for moving him mid-air up to a certain point in his descent, after which he’ll drop like a slow-falling stone. He hovers at the peak of his jump just long enough to let a fast-moving enemy dash underneath him. It feels like the kind of jump one might encounter in an older computer or console platform, before the norms of the genre were settled. The game derives a great deal of personality from this embrace of old tech. In certain rooms, this embrace can prove a little frustrating since small enemy sprites seem to have hitboxes larger than their onscreen appearance suggests, but the overall package seems to make that go down easier.
Part of what makes the game such a memorable experience is the gorgeous realization of its world, in muted but colorful tones and sprite work that is spare but never dull. In addition, the world is populated with little creatures and other NPCs who talk when Harry’s positioned over them. It’s a simple addition, but one that invigorates the thinly sketched world with a great deal of life.
There are echoes of other platforming adventures of the last decade in Caveman Harry‘s makeup, such as J. Kyle Pittman’s You Have to Win the Game or Terry Cavanaugh’s VVVVV, with screen-to-screen movement, with rooms bearing titles, flavoring the experience or providing hints, in an interlocking structure that grants you glimpses of things you won’t access till later. Caveman Harry presents a bite-sized and mechanically simple adventure that feels comfortably suited to the little white pixelated caveman on your screen.