Friday, September 14, 2012
I thought this was only coming out next week, but apparently it's out right now! I've put 60 minutes into it, and so far it is fantastic. I'll probably do a write up, but these things can take months on HG101, and I really wanted people to know how good it is now. Briefly: it's Super Metroid meets Portal, with a whole lot of retro 2D charm and some ingenious puzzles. It's also only 240 points!
David Johnston, aka Smudged Cat Games, hasn't had an easy time of things. He did multiple character time travel with Time Slip years before games like Winterbottom et al tried their hand at it. His sublime platformer Shuggy on 360 featured a multitude of ingenious ideas at a great price, and yet was overlooked in favour of several other platformers, some of which weren't necessarily as good. The entire depressing saga was detailed on Gamasutra, and frankly it's enough to put me off professional games development for life.
Gateways is his last go before moving on to something more stable. As he says: "The development of Shuggy has been a bit of a headache and a cause of concern for me over the last four years. So much so that it has made me consider if it's what I really want to do, particularly considering how badly the game has sold to date. My wife and I now have a newborn baby so I'm not sure I can face the financial risks that game development brings. I fear this may be the end of game development for me."
Now, I'm a fan of Johnston's. Time Slip was an amazing Net Yaroze game, and he helped with an interview for my Net Yaroze article. Shuggy was a great XBLA title which I'm playing through now, and Gateways from when I first saw videos intrigued. So I was obviously biased even before buying it.
But seriously, everyone, it really is amazing.
It's a Metroidvania, but instead of acquiring new abilities you get new "gateway guns" - the first being one that produces two transportation gateways. Walk through one and pop through the other. Having only played an hour I've only gotten two guns so far, the second one shrinking or enlarging your character.
The puzzles for these are ingenious, taking into account not only location, but also gravity. If you can't jump horizontally far enough, you can put a gateway on the nearby wall, and the second one at the bottom of a shaft, and then jump down - the inertia you build up will fling you through the one on the wall, clearing the obstacle.
You can also acquire extra health pick-ups, a jump booster and a torch for dark areas (this is also needed for light-sensitive puzzles). It also used all low-res pixelated sprites, giving it a chunky yet delicious retro flavour (yeah, I know some people don't like it, or think it's lazy, but this along with Fez's retro art is charming). I mean, just LOOK at this screenshot, it features a monkey, IN A BUBBLE.
There's also enemies to negotiate, and so far they can be defeated like Mario enemies. Jump on their heads enough times to kill them. Some are particularly large, requiring you to increase your size before taking them on.
The best bit is the map and hint system. Instead of doors like in Metroid, it's puzzles which block your path. Every puzzle has a help point, where you can spend the power balls you've been collecting. Spend 5 and it tells you if you have the needed gear to solve it. This is fantastic, because at a glance you can check the map and see where new areas are available to you. Something which is frustrating in similar such games is not knowing when you're able to pass through earlier obstacles, but now you can just check the map and see, ah! I can now access that room from earlier.
If you spend 40 balls meanwhile, it shows you how to solve the puzzle. Which is great for people who get stuck. You can't really abuse it though, because out of the... I'd say 8 or 10 puzzles I've solved so far, I bought the solution for two and now I'm completely out of energy balls. So it's not possible to buy your way through - save them for when you need it.
The puzzles so far reinforce what I've known since Time Slip: David Johnston is one of the star game designers of our generation. There's a lot of other indie authors who get big coverage, such as the always excellent Derek Yu, Daisuke Amaya in Japan, Super Meat Boy team, plus Jon & Phil Blowfish. The quality these guys produce isn't in question, but I'd also like to see the works of David Johnston added to the hall of excellent independent games.
At 240 points, I highly doubt anyone will be disappointed with this. My only criticism is that it's an Indie Game, which as Johnston explains is because it's just easier that way. Meaning you have to be online to load it. But the game is also available for PCs, DRM free, if you prefer that route. There's a trial available right now, so you can see for yourself.
If you like it, then spread the word! As an XBLIG title, this is going to very quickly get lost amidst the deluge of crap on that service, so it's going to need word of mouth to really gain momentum. Blog about it, tweet about it, let everyone know.
I can see this being something I put a lot more time into.