Release Date: 1 October 2014
Developer: Minor Key Games
Publisher: Minor Key Games
Where to get it: Steam
Price: $12.99 (Price in GBP yet to be announced)
I recently had the pleasure of contacting the very talented Mr J. Kyle Pittman, creator of the spectacular (and free!) You Have To Win The Game (which is also available from Piratehearts.com and Steam.) and he was gracious enough to provide me with a press build of his new game; Super Win The Game to write an early preview. As such I have spent the past several hours jumping, dying and tearing up in nostalgia, take the jump to find out why.
The following is the first edition of Whiskey Previews, the build being previewed is not a final version of the game and as such content may be subject to change. For those looking forward to a look at a more complete build, Mr Pittman will be showing one off at PAX in September.
Super Win The Game is an adventure back in time not just in presentation but in game design and technology. On the surface the same is a simple run and jump platformer with levels scattered around a Zelda 2 style overworld interspersed with black and white dream sequences that delve into the murky mind-bending waters of other recent retro-style games such as VVVVVV.
Deeper than that though there's a layer of true nostalgia for gamers of a rather sizable age range. From the CRT filter, which can be toggled on or off, to the art style which near perfectly invokes an earlier era when gaming was just starting to grow its first chest hairs and break out of the simplistic score chasing games of yesteryear.
The nostalgia is such an inextricable part of my time with Super Win The Game that I really want to take a moment to make it clear just how big of an effect it had. Leaving the tutorial area and stepping onto the world map without any idea of where to go was more impactful than stepping out of Seyda Naen or leaving Helgen. Coupled with the beautifully simplistic but not minimalist art style and CRT filter I was genuinely transported back to my childhood; to shagpile rugs and wood panneling everywhere, even on the games console and a TV that had knobs and switches.
For several hours I had such a deep personal link to a part of my life that even playing the genuine old games doesn't manage to evoke.
Super Win The Game harkens back to old style adventures, even to the original Aventure in a way. You're dropped into a world with basic instructions on how to play and a town within sight and some dirt roads leading off in different directions. You actually have to explore, think and maybe draw a map because the world map is just large enough to be slightly confusing for the first hour or so.
The story is presented between small text boxes that get to the point while remaining eloquent and the level design itself. You hear of a "Sky Pillar" and stepping into the level you instantly recognise it. Caves with their pitch black backgrounds and the CRT filter's mock greasy screen effect serve up equal portions of atmosphere and nostalgia.
I don't want to delve into the specifics of any levels because discovery and dispelling mystery is such a huge part of the journey but many levels are deceptively large, with areas locked off by skills and your own willingness to explore. I often find myself not bothering exploring everything in a game but the enjoyable atmosphere and reasonable amount of collectibles and secrets provide just enough incentive and challenge to coax the player onwards.
Graphically the game has some spectacular effects with the CRT filter stealing the show. The filter at first appears to be just a distortion effect in the shape of an old curved screen, it's very convincing and appealing despite curving the image. However, it quickly becomes apparent that like most other things in Super Win The Game there's more to it; black backgrounds augment the filter with a smudged screen effect and the astoundingly detailed line effect serves to augment the Sky Pillar dungeon by breaking up the bright sky inventively.
Other nods to classic games show in almost every aspect, from happy little Mario style clouds (complete with being recolours of the bushes) to Pitfall scorpions and one set of platforms that I think may have been a sneaky nod to McKids of all things. Some levels even share this, including the aforementioned overworld map and water crossings that harken back to Wonder Boy and many many other fondly remembered games.
Even though there's lots of overt acknowledgements to older games there's never a sense that Super Win The Game is ripping them off or compensating for a lack of personality of its own.
However there is one effect that I remain entirely on the fence with; when characters move quickly there's a reddish brown afterimage that provides a sense of speed but doesn't feel entirely in keeping with the CRT theme and may be outright annoying to some gamers who are looking for a sharp image.
One effect that I decidedly did not like was the way vertical scrolling works; Super Win The Game features the pause style of vertical scrolling, the only other example of which I can recall is Kid Kool on the NES which the Angry Video Game Nerd famously called "air suspension shit lift". To give Super Win The Game its due credit, the effect isn't as jarring or annoying and momentum carries through the screen reorientation and only presents momentary frustration at two points that I found.
Animations are simple but get the point across at just the right balance between showing and imagining the movement. The player character has a wonderfully subtle walk animation that doesn't have the silly exaggeration characteristic of retro games and instead has a kind of confident swagger that looks like subtle rotation of the sprite.
The sound design shows the developer's aptitude for music with simple, short jingles that convey the sense of an epic journey and excitement. The music is clean and uncomplicated and feels infused with childlike innocence in the short loops that blend together seamlessly and manage not to become grating for several hours except for one small region where you're going in and out of caves rather rapidly and the music toggling between two loops and restarting constantly is very jarring in light of the careful and pixel-perfect design on show in the rest of the game.
Sound effects in general however felt sparse, it's hard to tell whether it's meant to be that way to convey a sense of loneliness (which it does) or because this was a preview build that just didn't have them yet. What is present however is of the clean bleepy-bloopy variety that evokes memories of Atari 2600 and Master System games without the shrill quality of those systems.
Overall Super Win The Game isn't hard to recommend. It's a game that's far greater than the sum of its parts and the simplicity of actions makes it a joy to play and the lack of killing enemies makes the game suitable for all ages, even the harshest parents would be hard pressed to find a reason not to let a sprog pick up the pad. In fact, that's my recommendation, Super Win The Game is something every gamer, especially young ones that may not have as strong a connection to the 8-bit CRT era should play.
Still, there's something here for everyone and even the staunchest Call Of Duty dudebro would be doing themselves a disservice by not indulging in this. The love the developer has for the project is evident throughout and observant players will pick out moments of meticulous platform placement and enemy timing.
Also worth noting was that even in this preview build I encountered zero bugs in several hours of play which is an increasingly rare occurrence these days and should be acknowledged.
Super Win The Game is a heartfelt revival of one of the most influential periods in gaming but it isn't a copy-paste love letter either, retaining a distinct personality that sets it apart.
Probationary Score: 9 out of 10 developers ignore my emails. Thank you Mr Pittman.