February 6, 2015 2 Comments
You know, for someone who “hates” retro gaming (their words, not mine), I sure review a lot of neo-retro stuff. I think I know why I’m drawn to games that look and play like this. Because with stuff like Super Win, you just know that the developers had dreamed of making it since they were little kids. I think it’s cool as shit to see a dream play out like this. Just look at Super Win. It has elements lifted from games like Metroid, Zelda II, Super Mario Bros, and probably several more NES-era classics I’ve never even played. It’s a fan service, only it’s made by a fan, for fans. There’s something admirable in that. As if the person waited their whole life for Nintendo to make a game like this, then threw up their hands and said “you know what, fuck it! I’ll do it myself!”
Sometimes that’s a disaster. Their hearts are usually in the right place, but something goes wrong and the final product is not so fun, even if you admire the effort. Ultimately, it comes down to the talent of the developer. You either have talent to make games or you don’t. You can safely file J. Kyle Pittman, creator of Super Win: The Game, under the “talented” column.
Super Win is a Metroidvania where you take the role of a wandering hero. The good King of the land’s heart has been ripped out.. presumably he was a Seahawks fan.. and it’s up to you to piece it back together and bring happiness back to the kingdom. The over-world system, towns, and dungeon layout most closely resemble Zelda II, also known as the weird one that nobody really talks about anymore. You see a lot of indies spoof it. I expected more lampooning here. But, Super Win isn’t a parody. When games like this play the material straight, it usually comes across as too serious, maybe even a little pretentious. Super Win avoids falling into that trap. In fact, the story actually gets very deep and self-reflective. It was so unexpected that I kept waiting for the game to flip the switch and turn into a self-aware satire. It never happened. Kudos for that, developer. In a way, I feel like I had the wrong mindset going in to Super Win. It’s not my fault. I’ve had game after game condition me to expect stuff like this to aim for repetitive NES jokes. It’s actually really cool that Super Win took itself seriously, played the material sincerely, and succeeded. It’s one of the better surprises I’ve had at IGC.
Not so successful is the gameplay itself. Super Win’s mechanics are stripped down to bare-essential platforming elements. There’s no combat. You can’t kill enemies. There’s no bosses. Upgrades are limited to items that let you access other platforms. Platforming by itself is too old a mechanic to keep things interesting for multiple hours of questing. Yea, yea, LaserCat had no upgrades and even less mechanics. LaserCat was a 90-minute-at-best experience. And it had a map. It was designed to be finished quickly and not over-stay its welcome. Super Win will often leave you wondering if you’re tackling things in the correct order. You’ll wish there was some kind of map that pointed you in the correct direction. If you know what you’re doing, you can probably finish Super Win in an hour or so. I put about six hours into it, most of which was spent sort of wandering around. When I found an item that I needed to progress, it never felt like I was on the right track. Instead, it felt like I had simply stumbled upon the item. There was really never a sense of accomplishment while playing Super Win. It seemed all the progress I made was purely by accident.
To its credit, the game handles really well. Controls are rock solid with an Xbox One pad. I just wish the level design took advantage of it. Stages are so conventional in their layouts that it’s hard to get truly sucked in by the experience. Part of that is because you can only do so much when you’re working with bare-bones platforming mechanics. You eventually get a double jump and a wall jump, the latter of which has some nifty little sections that utilize them. One spot stuck out to me. A wall of spikes featured a series of blocks that shifted in and out of existence. You had to time your wall jumps off the disappearing blocks up and over the spiked wall. That was awesome. Challenging. And sad, because over the course of the entire game, that’s the only spot that really stuck out to me as trying something new.
Well, except the dream sequences that usually come after finding an item. Those were unexpected, disorienting, and fucking awesome. They totally defy convention, which left me wishing they had made a game based around them. I started to look forward to them. But even those betrayed me. The last couple of them I finished in just seconds. Seconds! Super Win, you shameless tease of a game, you! I can’t believe I could accuse a game that utterly nails the retro feel the way it does of being unambitious, but I sort of have to. Another example is the key system. Finding or buying keys to open doors is a core mechanic of the game. You even have the ability to borrow keys from lenders, as long as you pay them back. Sounds great! But, you can buy a master-key that unlocks all the doors for only 30 gems. I had that after just an hour of playtime. It was too easy to acquire and it crippled what was an interesting concept. At first, I thought it was simply a case of being too cheap. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have existed at all. You can also buy access to other levels (a part that reminded me of Star Road in Super Mario World) after you purchase the master-key, but after that, there’s nothing really left.
I have this term that I use called “Late Development Anxiety.” It’s a theory of mine that, when a game gets close to completion, developers get so anxious to release their game that they just speed along the final bits of their project. While the writing at the end of Super Win is satisfying, and the level design does get slightly more interesting, it still feels like it was rushed out the door, ultimately ending with a whimper instead of a bang. This happens so much on the indie scene that I’m almost certain it’s a real phenomena. The end bits of a game should have a feel of finality to them, and Super Win super fails at that. J. Kyle Pittman is undoubtedly a very talented game designer. If this review came across as particularly harsh, it’s only because I don’t feel like he reached his fullest potential here.
He will some day. For all the complaining I did above, Super Win is a very satisfying experience. A childhood dream project, fully realized and undoubtedly fun. I love playing games like that. And this comes from a hateful millennial that doesn’t even like the NES and thinks games like the original Legend of Zelda or Metroid aren’t fun at all when stacked against the type of games they make in 2015. I wasn’t its target audience, but I liked Super Win: The Game. I think you’ll like it too! I’ve spent the last week telling all my NES-loving friends that they really need to give it a try. It doesn’t do anything wrong, per se. Most of my complaints are about what it didn’t do. The level design is fairly straight forward, conventional, and honestly kinda bland. But the writing is top-notch, and when it gets ambitious, it gets really good. This is a nostaligic tribute done right. Congratulations, Kyle! You did it!
Oh, and now for the awkward part, Mr. Pittman. I checked with my attorney and he found out that I get to horse whip you for the slow underwater movement. Too Sonicy. Look at the bright side, I’m letting you off the hook for the ice level, but that’s only because the Shovel Knight guys haven’t finished their sentence in the Turkish prison.
Super Win is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard