Sunday, 28 April 2013

RetroGameCrunch (Part One) (PC/Mac)

RetroGameCrunch was a Kickstarter project born out of the Ludum Dare Game Jam held in August of last year. What's a RetroGameCrunch you say? What's a Kickstarter? What's a game jam and is it anything like a pearl jam?

Well to take them in reverse order, Pearl Jam are a popular beat combo who were particularly successful in the early to mid 1990s and were named after the jam made by one of the band member's grandmothers. A game jam is a relatively new concept where a group of developers get together and make a game in a strict amount of time. Think of it like a group of musicians jamming until they produce a song, but with video games instead of music. Except video game music, obviously.

Kickstarter, meanwhile, utilises another relatively new concept called crowd-sourcing and allows artists and developers of all sorts of gadgets and gizmos the opportunity to pitch for funding from the general public directly without needing to resort to a middle man - except for Kickstarter of course. The site has grown massively since it was launched and has now expanded from its original technology-based origins to reach out to all sorts of creative artists.

Video game development is one such medium suited to online crowd-sourcing and retro video gaming in particular has done well due to its target demographic of thirtysomething+, male gamers with a disposable income and (obviously) internet access.

Which brings us, at last, to RetroGameCrunch, the product of a game jam that was such fun to the people involved they decided to go to Kickstarter and extend their game jam over six long months, producing a game a month in return for up-front funding from the public. RGCD was one of the many backers and this post will look at the first three of the promised six games, with a future post covering the remaining games.

Each game has an over-arching theme voted on by backers. The theme of the first game, an expanded version of the game that inspired the whole shebang, Super Clew Land, is evolution. You play the titular, Clew, a primitive slug-like organism you must help evolve into a slug-like organism with gills and fins, wings before finally developing a horn (ooh er).

As you progress across the wonderfully portrayed 8-bit console-esque world you must pick up magic crystals to gain a super power, which gives you the ability to fight this huge dinosaur monster thing that you fight at the end of the game.

This dinosaur monster thing is holding a fleshy slug-like organism - presumably your girlfriend - captive and you must defeat it to free her. The visual similarities between the protagonist and Bub and Bob of Bubble Bobble fame can't be missed, though it feels more of a loving homage than a cheap rip-off and helps anchor the visuals of the game in the right retro era granting an easy familiarity to the world as you begin to explore it.

One thing of note is that the girl is evolved to the same level as you are when you rescue her, not to the same level that you were at the start, raising the question - what was a highly evolved babe like that doing going out with a slimeball like you? Regardless of how you got lucky, the game plays superbly and the evolutionary mechanic, whereby you consume food and direct the enzymes in a quasi-mini-game that occurs in real-time in the corner of the screen is a true tome of genius. If anything, actually, its main drawback is that the limited scope of the game leaves it feeling under-utilised given its obvious potential.

There are four evolutionary stages as you progress from being a land-based creature, to evolving the ability to swim, then fly, and finally bash through rock. Each evolutionary stage opens up areas of the game previously inaccessible, creating an exploration element of the game that is great fun. So much fun in fact, that when you're fully evolved it almost feels like a shame to focus on the true task at hand and start properly hunting down the magic crystals.

While the quality doesn't dip, and some of the puzzles you have to solve to reach the crystals are clever, requiring real platform gaming skill without ever feeling unfair, I kept coming back to the evolutionary mechanic and wishing more had been done with it. What if you had the option to choose which evolutionary branch you evolved into? What is basically a levelling up mechanic would become a more complex skills tree mechanic but it would open up the game to many more possibilities.

Obviously the main drawback is the limited time the developers had to work on the game and what they've achieved in just a month is fantastic. While the game can be completed in less than two hours, its screaming out for an even bigger sequel.

The second game, End of Line, has endless death as the theme, and the storyline evokes a Wall-E-esque future where humanity's remains litter the planet, and one of the remaining robots decides to find out what happened to humanity.

To do this you must puzzle your way through multiple levels, repeatedly killing yourself in increasingly clever ways to lure various helper robots who annoyingly insist on rebuilding you every time you destroy yourself, the sods. When all other robots are destroyed you can 'safely' kill yourself and proceed to the next level.

The game is enjoyable enough and the mechanic of killing yourself to progress is as clever in its own way as the evolution mechanic of Super Clew Land. However, it lacks the sparkle of the former and although fun to play through, it is rarely taxing. That said, neither is Super Clew Land, which rises above itself in terms of the sheer style and vim which the game possesses. End of Line's theme however, could really just be implemented in any number of ways, e.g. destroy all robots to collect key cards and unlock the door to the next level.

The third game, GAIAttack, struggled in its early stages, with the first 48 hours producing what the developers felt to be an 'under-cooked' effort. That version is playable online for anyone who didn't back the Kickstarter though to be honest it's not really worth playing for too long. It's a single-screen score attack game where you fight infinite waves of enemies that drop from the sky. As many commentators on the site suggest, it looks and feels too much like a Super Crate Box clone to really stand out even among the other RetroGameCrunch titles. Furthermore the theme, 'You are the level' is only tenuously expressed through the idea that your character shares similar characteristics to the level, e.g. a jungle-esque level has a jungle-esque creature.

Thankfully the final product, released for Kickstarter backers, is a much superior effort. It is also the first of the RetroGameCrunch games to introduce multiplayer, though a distinct lack of available friends stopped this writer from being able to test it. As for the rest of the game, gone are the single-screen levels that caused fans to complain about the similarity to Vlambeer's opus and instead the focus is on a vertical platformer more akin to Rainbow Islands.

The plot depicts a pissed-off Mother Nature calling on four champions to kick some ass and save the planet from environmental disaster, so a bit like Captain Planet without the annoying teenagers. The theme is more integrated into the game, though it's still a bit tenuous, as your characters now have magic powers that reflect the theme of the level even if they don't change in practice, e.g. vines in the jungle level still cause damage just like fire in the desert level do.

As you progress 'up' the level you fight wave after wave of enemy, destroying various pieces of environmentally unfriendly machinery along the way. At the end of the level you face off against a piratical boss who flies down on his pirate ship which sounds bonkers, and is, but fits in perfectly with the cartoonish aspect of the game. If this was an early 90s children's cartoon, I'd have been watching it.

GAIAttack is certainly a fun arcade title and the addition of multiplayer really makes it stand apart. Solo play is still enjoyable but knowing there are multiplayer options makes it feel like you're only scratching the potential enjoyment available in the game. Plus it's actually quite hard, so boo sucks to that.

RetroGameCrunch is a good example of the debate around Kickstarter being used to fund indie game development. Before Kickstarter appeared, many indie developers were busy pumping out quality tiles without the upfront 'need' of funding to make the game. Indeed, many of the games were and still are released for free. Now, with Kickstarter, developers are asking for sometimes quite large amounts of money for a game when it's difficult to prove the game wouldn't have been made anyway. You only have to look at the reaction to the amount the Oliver Twins asked for to develop a new Dizzy game to see what misreading the market can do to your reputation.

With RetroGameCrunch, is $25 worth it for six titles that can be completed roughly within a couple of hours each, with, so far at least, limited replayability? If you were feeling brutal, for instance after failing to progress beyond the second level of GAIAttack for the umpteenth time (ahem), you could argue that it probably isn't.

You can after all buy a modern AAA title (or several high calibre indies) for less than $25 that will offer many more hours of gaming and however awesome Super Clew Land is, it is ultimately a mini-game stretched to be as big as possible within the confines it set itself. Indeed of the three games so far, only GAIAttack suggests any particular replayability and longevity due to the multiplayer aspect. Once completed, it's unlikely you'll play through End of Line again, though the sheer quality of Super Clew Land means the odd play through will be called for.

On the other hand though, and this is not to sit on the fence, the great thing about Kickstarter is that it puts some of that financial power back into the hands of developers. In fact, it's probably not correct to say putting it 'back', as its debateable whether they've ever had such a tool at their disposal to monetise their work. This, surely, can only be a good thing and its right that developers can receive money for their work, whether it's done full-time or in their spare time.

It will always be difficult to try monetise your work when so many competitors offer similarly quality work for free but that does mean its not the right thing to do. Suggesting that gamers might want to reward a developer for their output is surely fair enough. Indeed, many of the people who support such Kickstarter projects do it as much in support of the concept and of the scene than in the anticipation that any game that comes out of it will be significantly better than what can be found elsewhere, perhaps for a smaller or non-existent cost.

It's also the concept that makes RetroGameCrunch in particular stand out from the crowd and no doubt provided much of the inspiration for backers supporting the Kickstarter. By building on from the game jam concept and committing to producing a game a month for six months the developers have taken on a mammoth task.

In producing games of the quality of Super Clew Land and the rest they have comfortably surpassed expectations and shown themselves to top class developers, which you would think could only enhance their development CVs and studio portfolio (even if that wasn't a particular motivation).

Sure, there has probably been a bit of a pay-off as all the games suffer from a limited development window but the option is there to return to them for inspiration in the future if they wish. Furthermore, the overall quality of the games is fantastic with the music, graphics and gameplay all feeling remarkably polished given the limited time spent on each game.

From a developer viewpoint then, you would have to imagine that the project has been a success, inspiring a series of quality, if sometimes quite slight, titles based on the suggestions of backers. Likewise backers seem well satisfied with what their funding has produced so far. Let's hope that the following titles rival the quality of the first three.

RetroGameCruch is not currently available to download!

Second Opinion

RGCD backed this project primarily on the strength of the concept and belief in the developers. Shaun Inman's Last Rocket and Flip's Escape are two of the best retro-style games available on iOS, and despite their design being suited towards gaming on a mobile device, I'd always hoped that he'd take his ideas a little further on a desktop or console platform. And that is exactly what has been delivered so far with RetroGameCrunch.

It is worth noting that the package offered to backers was a little better than Alex describes; for $25, as well as the six promised games, bonus material included stand-alone PC or Mac versions of Adam Saltsman and Danny Baranowsky's Fathom, Escape by Incredible Ape, a special 'retro' conversion of Midas by Wanderlands, and Shaun's previous jam game Millinaut. With some of these being exclusives to the kickstarter, it does sweeten the deal somewhat.

So how do I feel about the games completed so far? Well, although it is exciting to feel as though I'm one of a comparatively small number of people able to play the 'final' versions of each game, I agree with Alex that some of the ideas presented would have benefited from a slightly longer development time. My personal favourite to date has to be GAIAttack - although the soon-to-be-released final of Paradox Lost with its time travel mechanic could end up taking the top spot.

The 'suggested theme' jam-based design has resulted in some really interesting ideas and I hope that post RetroGameCrunch, the team consider revisiting some of the more successful projects with a view to tweaking and fleshing them out a little more.