Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Sqrxz 3 (PC/Mac/Linux/Dreamcast/GP2X)


Do you enjoy going to the gym and performing the same rigorous workout day after day, each time pushing yourself just a little bit further, beyond the threshold to completion and experiencing the rush of victory through a blinding fog of muscle burn? Do you enjoy crunching through a difficult problem, banging your head against the wall for hours, just to find the ultimate answer?

If the answer is yes to both these questions, then Sqrxz 3 is probably the game for you.

The third (yes, third!) in a series of increasingly hardcore platform games, Sqrxz's roots actually trace back to a 1996 DOS game by Marcus Vesterlund and John Holmvall. Jumping forward to 2010, Retroguru, the same label behind the widely-acclaimed Giana's Return remake decided to give this relatively unknown underdog a 21st century facelift and release it on just about every gaming platform available (including the Dreamcast, Amiga, PC, Mac, Pandora and more).


This latest addition to the Sqrxz saga could best be described as a brutal twitch platformer with the soul of EPIC Games' Jazz Jackrabbit, the mechanics of indie darling Super Meat Boy, and the boundless player-hatred brought forth by the Impossible Game. Starting the game, even after bypassing the ominous intro screen, it all feels cute and cuddly. The beautiful hand-drawn intro evokes memories of my 90's PC gaming youth, and the wonderful bouncy demoscene-style music tickles my eardrums.

Lulled into a false sense of nostalgic security, I start the game for the first time and die within mere moments. Second attempt, I die again. Rinse and repeat dozens of times to the tune of cheerful chip music. And that's only for the first few screens worth.

Gameplay in Sqrxz is simple and straightforward, and the play mechanics work well for this style of game - so that's not the reason for my repeated demise. In terms of controls, there isn't even a jump or fire button - only the up, down, left, and right arrows are used (in the Windows version tested). Running and jumping is fast, frantic, and frankly very spot on. I never felt frustrated with the controls; only with my own failure to properly master them to complete a level due to the incredibly devious level design.

Ah yes - completing a level is a real achievement here; this is no Super Mario Bros., let me tell you. Every screen and every block represents a potential death... or escape. Beyond the running and jumping lies a complicated dance of crate-moving, skull-dodging, spike-avoiding and swimming away from acid fish. By way of an illustrated example, in the screenshot below you'd think you could just move the crate to the right, jump over, and be done with it.


However, it isn't quite that simple, as collecting those little rings is mandatory. Plus, beneath the rings lay deadly spikes waiting to make bunny kabobs out of your furry friend. As such, the not-so-obvious solution (shown above) is to move the crate over, jump to the right ledge, jump in between the skeleton moving very quickly left and right in between those two crates, push the right crate off the ledge, allow the skeleton to trap itself in the hole you created move the left crate on the island and drop it into the right side of the pit in which the rings await, jump onto the crate and collect the right ring, then jump off the edge over the pit in order to collect the ring on the left side.

Yeah. This single example, one of dozens of gruelling platforming puzzles the player will face, pretty much sums up the Sqrxz experience. This is certainly not a casual game. Oh, and remember when I mentioned collecting all the rings is mandatory? Finishing a level is an accomplishment enough on its own, but if you do so without grabbing every last trinket, you are told to commit suicide. Whoa.


This mechanic introduces the "Impossible Game" part of the equation. In case one is not familiar, The Impossible Game is a minimalist platformer of sorts that requires not only fast reflexes but also rote-memorization of what happens every step of the way - causing endless replays of each level until you master it in completion, moving just a little bit further each time. However, the rush that can be expected upon finally finishing a level properly is unequalled.

In summary, Sqrxz 3 is definitely not for everyone - and by that statement alone, it will gather a cult following. It builds on the roots of basic platforming, memorization and puzzle-solving with a delightful soundtrack, tight and clean game controls, and colorful pixel art that pops like it's 1994, baby. It's a difficult game to give an overall score because it's target audience is so limited - however, if you're a sucker for punishment and possess ninja-like platforming reflexes and a logical mind, then you'll meet your match with Sqrxz.


Sqrxz is available for Amiga OS4, AROS, Caanoo, Dingoo A320 (OpenDingux), Dreamcast, GP2x, Mac OS X, Motomagx, MorphOS, NetBSD (Intel), Pandora, Playstation Portable (unsigned), Symbian OS Series 60, Symbian OS UIQ3, Ubuntu, Windows and Wiz. Be sure to check out the earlier games in the series and the excellent Giana's Return from the same team.

Download the game here (from the Sqrxz website).
3 out of 5