Caveman Harry

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.

Caveman Harry is available for Windows for free or pay what you want from itch.io. Flatgub has made the Game Maker source code available, too. You can follow Flatgub on Twitter.

Is That Bird Holding a Cat?

Is That Bird Holding a Cat?, by Ismail Hassan (2016)

Ismail Hassan made Is That Bird Holding a Cat? in ten days (or less) for the fifth annual GBJAM, an event that asks players to obey the Game Boy’s four-color palette restriction, the system’s 160×144 resolution, and to create something “Game Boy-themed.” This game certainly obeys these three tenets. Keyboard-controlled, the game first flashes the keyboard keys it uses not with descriptions of what those keys do, but with what keys on the Game Boy hardware they substitute for in a familiar murky green palette. It’s a small gesture, but it’s clever.

Yet Hassan has not chosen to make something that feels like it could be on the Game Boy (unlike some others from the same jam, such as Witchwood Academy), instead taking advantage of the processing power of a computer from this decade to create more complex, contemporary-feeling camera panning/object following and parallax scrolling than might have been possible on the Game Boy, let alone advisable. The game adheres to a tidy 160×144 resolution, but blows itself up to 3 times that (at least, unless you hit Alt+Enter to go fullscreen) in order to render what might have dissolved into a messy swamp of pixels on even a Game Boy Advance SP legible. The effect is something like a fantasy scenario in which the Game Boy’s guts got upgraded, but the buttons and screen stayed rooted in 1989.

Like The Lost Vikings (Silicon & Synapse, 1993), Is That Bird Holding a Cat? asks you to switch player characters on the fly (forgive the pun). In this case, we indeed have a bird and a cat that must find their way to their individually marked goal posts. The characters have two different movesets. The cat agilely zips around stages, hopping over deathtraps and scurrying through little crevices. The bird can’t walk and therefore can’t really platform, but has an unlimited flying ability. This ability isn’t quite so precise and agile as the cat, though, putting a much-needed limitation on what could make the bird too powerful.

The bird and the cat well thought out in their contrasts (they’re also adorable!). You’ll encounter situations where you could conceivably use either and situations where you simply must use one character to reach a key.  But the game really sings when it forces the characters to really cooperate. As the title suggests, the bird can hold a cat for only so long. The bird can fly forever on its own, but the second it picks up the cat, a stamina bar appears that severely limits the distance and height the cat can be carried and requires real forethought as players tackle levels.

The game’s weakest point is a level design that favors a too-quick ramping up of difficulty. The game’s somewhat overeager hit detection, too, makes some passages frustratingly finicky and certain large projectiles move with a pace that doesn’t quite mesh with the small area of the screen. I’m actually quite grateful Hassan has made available a version that comes with stages pre-unlocked (the initial release requires a linear progression through stages). I haven’t cleared every stage, but I’ve been delighted to move on from stages that get overly frustrating, so I can see each stage and situation the game has in store for me. The interaction between the bird and the cat is a delight and, coupled with their immense cuteness, contrasts excellently with the weirdness and hostility of their environs. Helping them struggle through the air together makes this game well worth playing.

Is That Bird Holding a Cat? is available on Windows for free from itch.io. You can follow the developer Ismail Hassan at @LifeAfterLunch.

Vegetables

Vegetables (ベジタブルズ, Bejitaburuzu) (Demo), by Vegetables Cultivation Committee (Bejitaburuzu Saibai Iinkai) (2014)

A demo for a self-declared homage to “legendary free game” Cave Story that still isn’t out four years later, this one-stage trial version of Vegetables has enough going on in it to commend it on its own merits. An action platformer with a relentlessly cute, lo-fi pixel art aesthetic, you take on the role of Lop Holland, a furry rabbit and fighter for the 08th Special Forces Squadron, a specialist with a carrot gun that can shoot up, down, left and right.

What I liked most about the game is, first, the vividness and liveliness of the animation for the main character and his tomato enemies and, second, the cleverness of its level design. The game lets you see paths early on that you’ll have to navigate later, making you wonder if you’ll encounter ability upgrades that will allow for better map traversal. The game holds back on its cat archer enemies (your fight is with the invading carnivores, apparently) until you make it to roughly the halfway point of the stage, but you can see them from the very first screen of the stage. Stage design and enemy placement are very sharp, and after I finished the game, I found myself admiring the subtly ingenious idea of a twisting spiral of the level as well as the seeming variation generated by a meager two enemy types deriving entirely form clever implementation.

The game doesn’t quite feel finished even as far as this goes (compare the stiffness of the mice enemies in contrast to the lovely animation for else that moves), but it’s decidedly playable and Lop has jump that’s fun just to execute. The project has a website (Japanese only, includes art, previews, and 4-panel comics) but, alas, it hasn’t been updated in over four years. It seems this may be all we ever see of Vegetables.

Controls for the game are: Z to shoot your carrot gun and X to jump. Press down to read or interact with characters. Space calls up a pause menu.

The game has some Japanese-language comic text when you reach the end of the stage, but this version of the game is otherwise without dialogue.

You can download the trial version of Vegetables for Windows from Freem.

Snake Strike

Snake Strike (スネークストライク, Suneiku sutoraiku), by Udonpa (2018)

Snake Strike is a rare 2D platformer that rarely asks you to do all that much walking. Instead, aided by a fairy companion controlled with the mouse cursor, your adorable Blue Coral Snake protagonist zips through the air, utilizing the “Serpent Path” (蛇道 jadou) power to strike enemy animals, items, and targets, even passing through walls.

While the core target-striking mechanic immediately reminded me of the last decade of Sonic the Hedgehog games, the game’s overall design philosophy reminds me most of Super Mario Bros. 3 in that every single stage has a design hook that makes it utterly distinct. Each themed world presents you with three stages you must clear to face off against the stage’s boss, but each stage features unique enemies, environmental object, or layout patterns that mark it off from the rest. Even different screens in the same stage stand out from each other with the game apparently never wanting to repeat itself. Bosses, too, mine the game’s core mechanics for surprising implementations and depth. 

This level of care in the differentiation of stages and screens is lavished on the direction of other parts of the game. Like your player character, every enemy and boss is a wild animal and each animal and boss has a collectible card you can pick up in the game world, loaded with scientific facts and the species’s scientific name. A particular moment that helped me realize the careful attention to detail occurred when the final stage in an arid desert world launched my snake into the air to fight the area’s boss, a bald eagle. When you land back on the ground triumphantly, the desert landscape is transformed. It’s snowing. You’re headed to a snow world next.

Part of the joy of the game is the discovery suggested here. When you arrive in the snow world, what kind of animals are you going to meet/face off against? How will they behave?

After each boss is beaten you become friends with a new fairy that grants you a new fairy, each of which has a special power that alters the core mechanics of the game: one enables you to double jump, another gives you more health, etc. You can only use one of these at a time, though, so you can customize according to your play preferences or to meet specific challenges. 

Despite all this depth, Snake Strike gives an almost willfully amateurish impression with its visuals. The game’s first stages, in particular, with over-saturated, overly-intense yellow-green grass tiles and clouds with thick blue outlines, are slightly garish. Later stages tend to look more visually pleasing. The diversity of environments and animals works as an interesting counterweight to this and the juxtaposition as well as the thoughtfully polished mechanics and level design. (The music, on the other hand, is excellent throughout. Especially enjoy the laid back, J-pop beats of the Fairy Park).

The game gets very tricky in its later stages. But through its novelty it earns every challenge (one might complain that the point at the bottom of the screen that counts as falling off the screen is a little too restrictive, but that’s forgivable). Snake Strike is a joy to play. 

Snake Strike is available for free from Freem (for Windows)!

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The game is Japanese-language only. So I’ve prepared a translation of some of the game’s early text and most important features. You can download my Unofficial English Player’s Guide as a PDF here (last updated June 1, 2018).