September 22, 2015 Leave a comment
A good rule of thumb for making an indie game is “have a gimmick.” Something about it that stands out against the crowded indie field. Especially if you’re a retro-platformer, a genre with roughly the population of China and the GDP of Grenada. Even if your game does stuff that other games have done, you can make it far by dressing that up in different, novel ways. Take today’s game, the Adventures of Pip. There are a lot of games that allow you to switch between characters on the fly, going back to Castlevania III nearly 25 years ago (or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles if you want to count a crappy game). On the indie scene, Trine is probably the most prominent example. It’s been done so many times that it frankly should be a little stale. Pip isn’t stale at all. It’s a perfectly decent platformer that brings nothing new to the table. But it does what it does with so much charm and happy moments that you would swear you’re sitting at an entirely new table.
So the idea is you have a kingdom where the wealthy are fully developed 16-bit characters, the middle class are 8-bit characters, and the poor are single pixels. That whole point is mostly unexplored, though. Probably a good thing, since most games that try in earnest to tackle class-based subject matter do so with subtly on par with that delivered by the Enola Gay. Really, the plot is evil queen kidnaps princess. To Pip’s credit, the writing is sharp and almost immediately laugh-out-loud funny. In fact, it’s so good that I feel the developers sort of blew it in a different way. It’s one of the few traditional platformers where I actually gave half-a-squirt about where they were going with the story direction, but the setting itself never receives enough consideration or a satisfying payoff. It’s not fair to do that. Imagine if other stories were told like Pip’s is.
“And then Dorothy landed in a magical land of Oz, which was populated by magical scarecrows, talking humanoid lions of questionable fortitude, and witches who react to water even more dramatically than your cat does when you try to bathe it.”
“Wow! That sounds exciting! And then what happened next?”
“Um, they walked somewhere. The end.”
Maybe the developers realized that nobody really plays a platformer for plot and just filled it with absurdity for their own laughs. It’s possible. I’m not really prone to cynicism so I would never say something totally baseless like the whole haves-and-have-nots thing was tacked on to give some sense of topical relevance and lure in more delicious Kickstarter money. That would be irresponsible. I’ll just say the writing is funny and the setting has no point and goes nowhere.
Pip’s gameplay centers around fairly routine platforming tropes. The hook is switching between the three different forms of Pip, each with unique traits. The single-pixel Pip has a floaty jump, launches higher off springs, and can get under narrow passages. 8-bit Pip is much faster, can swim, and can wall-jump. And by-fucking-God does the game milk that to the point that all that’s left of the wall-jumping cow is dust, blood, and swollen udders. 16-bit Pip can’t wall-jump, can’t swim, can’t jump off the springs, moves slower than shit.. seriously, was this some passive-aggressive retro fan’s way of saying they think the 8-bit era was vastly superior to the 16-bit one? Oh yea? Well, 16-bit Pip breaks blocks with his sword. So that counts for something!
Oh wait, you can later buy the block-breaking ability for 8-bit Pip from the shop, leaving the 16-bit version unique in its ability to push blocks. Ooooh, he can push blocks while the more primitive versions can do more way cool things. At this point I’m surprised the main villains wasn’t named “Queen GeniSnes” or something.
It’s actually all cooler than it sounds on paper, and the way the transition is handled between forms is a little clever and lends itself to some above-average level design. Nothing particularly noteworthy, mostly due to uninspired enemy design and world themes. Come to think of it, that’s another area where the story sort of fails the gameplay. The idea was the Queen has stolen the ability to “de-rez” the population, turning some of the rich 16-bit jerks into pixels. Which, again, if the idea is poor people = hardworking and noble, while rich people = worthless and entitled, shouldn’t that technically mean the evil witch is the hero? Yet, the stages themselves seem like they’re supposed to look 16-bit through-out. It never actually dawned on me while playing the game, but really, how come the stages and enemies themselves didn’t take advantage of the whole classic gaming v 8-bit v 16-bit stuff? For fuck’s sake, the villain’s name is Queen DeRezzia! There’s an old saying: in for a penny, in for a pound. I’m not entirely sure Tic-Toc-Games was all-in with the gimmick. They didn’t even work it in to the boss fights. They could have done it two ways with them: start the bosses at 16-bits and have you beat them back to Atari-like levels of detail before ultimately slaying them. Or, they could have gone the opposite route, with the bosses starting primitive and becoming more sophisticated as you did more damage to them.
Yea, I’m sure that would have been a lot of work, but it would have made Adventures of Pip a lot more noteworthy and memorable. And it sort of needed it. Because what’s here, while fairly fun and well executed, is a little bland and generic at times as well. There’s nothing in Pip you haven’t seen in a platformer before. I can’t stress enough, the game plays really well. Good controls, good level design (except a single dick move supreme hidden villager placement worthy of a slap upside the noggin for some smug developer), and good writing. It’s a little long. I think Tic Toc could have safely shaved off ten stages and lost nothing, but otherwise Adventures of Pip is a good game. Fans of platformers will like it. So why does it feel like it’s less than the sum of its parts?
I think it’s because the best thing Pip does that no other game does is purely aesthetic. That it had this idea about a world where three different eras of gaming art lived together, but left it all on the player character. Really, you could have inserted any gimmick besides the 8/16-bit stuff in its place and Pip would have been no different. Change it to Pip is a human (8-bit) who switches between a penguin (single pixel) and, I don’t know, a dragon or something (16-bit) and it’s still the same game. A very good game, just like it is now, but nothing changes. If the environment, the enemies, the stages, the puzzles, and the bosses also continuously shifted between the different resolutions, I guarantee you the game gets more word of mouth than it does now. It becomes unique and noteworthy. As it is now? It’s just a decent game that has a neat idea that’s under-realized. If the developers hadn’t shown any talent, it wouldn’t bother me so much. I almost never call out a game for being under-ambitious, but I sort of have to here. To not do so would be an injustice to those who made the game, because I think they left something on the table. You guys are way more imaginative than this. I want a sequel that proves me right. Adventures of Pip is fun, but it doesn’t live up to its potential. Which, according to my father, makes it the me of video games. Oh thanks Dad.
Adventures of Pip is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.