Please consume my wares.

Saturday, May 21, 2016 at 9:30 pm Comments Off on Please consume my wares.

Chucking up some game reviews because it’s been a while since I’ve used the blog for bloggin’! That and I forgot how bare some of the ONM Remembered entries were. I finally began to highlight images without commentary to spare myself the trouble and hope it’d give the image some time to be appreciated… but it just looks like lazy content. Welp! The next couple of weeks are a bit wordier, talking about topics that are probably only interesting to me and nobody else. That’s what you come here for, right?
… anyway, here’s a rambly review.

A few years ago my brother was raving about Treasure Adventure Game, a freeware indie 2D platform game that just ticked all his boxes: it had a huge world to explore, all sorts of little details and activities to appreciate, a day-night system that dictated each NPC’s daily routine, and the simple thrill of just riding around in a boat. It was darn-near his favourite game! I didn’t get into it at the time (because jeez, unskippable intros, what a bore!), but I picked it up earlier this year to give it a look-see.

It’s a game about adventuring for treasure, you might’ve gathered! You run, jump, crawl and bash things with your hook hand in your quest to recover the twelve legendary treasures that are required to open the temple hidden beneath a museum, curated by your missing father’s old adventure buddy.
You’ve got a big world to explore, and besides the help of a talking parrot, you’re pretty much left to your own devices. Go out there and see what you can find! Sail around from island to island! Help people, solve puzzles, pick up maps and tools, and maybe beat a boss once in a while.

It is a bit of a daunting game to get started with. There’s a lot of overworld out there, and not a lot you can do in it to start with! Unlike, say, the multi-tiered castles of Castlevania, the world of Treasure Adventure Game is pretty flat, and a lot of the game is spent just sailing from left to right, from island to island.
It’s not a big deal later on when you’re better equipped and have a Magic Bottle that allows you to fast-travel between checkpoints. But when the game begins and you can barely interact with anything, you’re sailing left or right hopelessly trying to figure out, can I do anything on this island? What about the next one? Because if not, it’s gonna be a long way to backtrack.
It might sound easy to define the game as a Metroidvania, but I’d dare say that’s misleading. You do get power-ups that grant you new abilities, sure, but they’re few and far between and often have far less impact than you’d hope. One of the first acquisitions is the shovel, so I thought, terrific! That island made entirely of sand is just begging to be dug up! And while that island does hold a key to progressing further, the shovel sees very little usage outside of unearthing coins and health items.
I kept holding out for an upgrade that’d make me feel more empowered… and while you are more capable at the game’s end than at the start, there’s never the instantaneous burst of satisfaction as when you get the Space Jump in Super Metroid, for instance.

Instead, what you should be holding out for is direction. Where’s a good place to explore, and how can I interact with it? Maps are commonly found and offer coordinates to treasures or items, though your progress is partially walled off at first with a tall cliff to the west and impassable tides to the east, so you’ve only a few islands to traipse around… which is all fine and well until you’re hopelessly lost on what to do next. You can feel a bit starved for direction at times, and although your parrot is meant to provide tips and information, on the overworld it’ll give you the same advice for the entirety of the game: “go out and explore!” (most of its dungeons tips consist of bad jokes and puns so it’s not worth talking to at all, to be honest)

Exploring has its moments of satisfaction and its moments of head-thumping frustration. For the longest time I was stumped on the jungle island with no idea how to advance, until I finally stumbled upon the hooks I could grab onto at the end of the vines. Due to the colour palette I could barely even see the vines in the first place!
As you become more acquainted with the world you realise how so many areas have no reason to be revisited, but there’s no quick way of bypassing them. Thought you’d missed something in a dungeon, or diving fruitlessly to the seabed? I hope you like making your way all the back the way you came! It’s actually easier to just quit and reload your save sometimes.
It’s a game that requires a bit of patience, let’s put it like that. Once you get into the swing of things making progress is (usually) a snap, but if not, you’re in for a rough ride. There’s a handy-dandy walkthrough that’s well worth using, and is considerate enough to mention what tools you need and even hides the in-depth stuff beneath spoiler tags. It’s very convenient and accessible, and a far better helping hand than any of the NPCs!

I admit I usually like an objective in games to keep me on the right track, so I probably get flustered with big sprawling worlds like this, while my brother just loves looking around and getting invested.
There is real charm to exploring and seeing all the little towns and islands, each with their own culture and inhabitants. There’s a giant tree full of bugs and mice living in harmony; a ghost town of partying spectres with a floating graveyard above the castle; a subterranean culture of self-proclaimed genderless insects; a big industrious city full of shops, private practises and midnight raves and poetry slams. And, of course, there’s your own little hometown of quirky neighbours and tranquil island sensibilities.

It’s quite charming on a surface level, though it’s something the player probably embellishes more than the game itself does. NPCs might ask for your help with a crisis they’re facing, and thank you when the job’s done, but that’s as far as their interaction goes. I’m probably so used to RPGs where townsfolk would react to in-game developments, but the guys in Treasure Adventure Game are a bit static by comparison. Once you’ve done your bit, you’ve done your bit. It’s nice to walk through the places again, but you talk to them and realise they’re exactly as you left them. Maybe that’s a good thing?

On your quest you talk to folk and find journals from your dad that provide a bit of backstory: the world was once one big continent until the three gods warred and kerfuffled over it, I think, and there was some battle between a hero and a demon and the continent got splintered into different parts, and the twelve treasures the hero used– something about if you get all the treasures back then the bad demon guy returns?? I don’t know, I wasn’t paying attention!
There’s a lot of wordage dedicated to it, and while on the micro scale it provides some interesting context for the culture of each island, what lesson they took from it and how it paints their view of the other races, I couldn’t really give a hoot about it as a story. It’s presented to the player only as infodumps from NPCs or excerpts from dusty old books, so it’s got no bearing on the player character until the very end when, surprise, they’ve got to resolve it!

The game’s tone is… I don’t know what to make of it sometimes. It’s an indie game with an 8-bitty aesthetic and a very la-di-da attitude to trekking the world in your pocket yacht, right in tune with your typical NES or SNES adventure. You make friends with bugs and help people in need and do other fluffy activities, but then there’s moments that seem a bit at odds with that light-hearted image. There’s a few instances of swearing and an island of fungus folk that involves the player getting mad high as a gameplay feature, but with indie works I guess you’re free to include whatever the heck you want.
There’s implied gore, like blood on the spike traps in the temple beneath the museum, but that’s nothing new. Like, Ocarina of Time implied some creepy-ass shenanigans with all the crap going on in the Dead Hand’s chamber, but that was more set dressing than anything – they let you, the player, determine just how awful it is! But then there’s a scene that just made me plain ol’ uneasy:
There’s these comic relief pirates who hound you throughout the game, getting into dopey boss battles to basically let you test out your new toys before getting thumped or running away. The last time you encounter them they’re working for the big bad businessman and are piloting some Dr. Wily-esque machine pod. Defeating them causes the pod to malfunction and crash through the window…

… and that’s what you see when entering the other room. Those guys are D-E-D dead. There’s blood everywhere! One of them’s skewered on the broken windshield, for crying out loud! The guys weren’t nice, sure – they did spend the whole game trying to kill a kid and working for a shady businessman – but it seemed an unexpectedly callous way of disposing of them. An unexpectedly mean-spirited act in a game that otherwise only got as bold as to have NPCs say “people should go outside more often.”
The backstory has plenty of implying about destruction and death, but they didn’t show a dopey pirate bleeding to death from a pane of glass through the chest. Jeez, man. I was hung up on this scene for ages, and I kept thinking, is just the end of them, or do they come back? There is an island full of ghosts, after all – maybe they’ll show up and be like, darn phooey, you beat us again! But… no, as far as I can tell, they are gone from the story. They’re freakin’ skewered. I don’t know what to make of it, besides the fact I’m real squeamish about the stupidest things.

And then there’s the ending. My brother told me he actually had no interest in completing the game; he’d acquired all twelve treasures, but he had such a fun time simply sailing around and seeing the sights, he didn’t care about the conclusion. He bought the private island house for his character, saved his progress inside, and never touched the game again.
I should’ve followed suit.
Instead I took the treasures to the temple as told, where you’re given some last-minute twist that the parrot was actually your dad, transformed by the temple as punishment for cutting off your hand, and he sacrifices his life to defeat his treacherous buddy who’s also been corrupted by the temple’s powers. It doesn’t add much, given how everyone’s constantly saying how sketchy that guy is, and the parrot is so useless it’s hard to get invested in it as a character, but no harm trying, I guess.

But it ain’t over yet! It turns out the sneaky businessman is actually the devil from the tales of olde! And you fight him by chasing him through alternate dimensions… which includes backdrops from Super Mario Bros., Kirby’s Adventure and Castlevania. Complete with lifted sprites that he uses to throw at you.

It… really undermines the whole thing. (that’s a polite way of describing it – my initial reaction was muttering “oh, fuck off“)
When the game’s done referencing its influences, you defeat the devil and he announces he hasn’t even unleashed his full power yet! He grows bigger and stronger and nastier than before, only for a giant foot (who’s one of the gods you met earlier in the game) to step on him. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you guys. Did I miss anything?”
Roll credits.

… so what happens after that? How does the world react to some random kid helping defeat an ancient evil? I don’t know, it never says! I only got 88% of the items and got the so-called “bad end”. Getting 100% apparently gives you a joke ending where your grandma is kidnapped by ninjas and are you a bad enough dude to find this funny.

I understand the notion of working so long and hard on something, yet you’re eager to just have it done already (look at every half-baked project on this website!)… and it is your creation, after all. You’re free to do whatever the heck you want or make it as irreverent as you please! But in cases like this, I feel like it disrespects the rest of the game to end on such a stupid anti-climax. It’s dedicated so much wordage to the backstory and creating this world that tries to feel alive, and it undermines itself by having the devil chuck sprites of Kirby enemies at you before ending with a Monty Python gag. It gives me something to whinge about, that’s the most I can credit it with.

Lacklustre ending that retroactively soiled a lot of goodwill I had about the game’s world and tone aside, the game has its charms! I’ll confess a lot of it is spent wandering aimlessly, and some of that wandering doesn’t really pay off, but I ultimately enjoyed my time with Treasure Adventure Game. For a one man operation it’s a densely-built little adventure game, with a surprising amount of content and a lot to get invested in – my playthrough lasted me a fortnight, and there were still a number of areas I never fully explored, including what appeared to be a haunted outhouse.
It won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, and you can tell I had a whole heap of quarrels with it, but it’s good to play a game that feels like a legitimate journey once in a while. It’s currently being remade as Treasure Adventure World, and while I admit the art style doesn’t do much for me (as tiresome as itty-bitty pixels get, the ambiguity to shapes and details is a charm that’s hard to replicate when upscaled and redrawn), I’ll probably chuck some dough its way as thanks.

… okay, I still need to vent a bit about that ending.
That ending got me thinking about references in media. How much is too much? When does it stop being a cute allusion and instead suggest the media has no identity of its own? Treasure Adventure Game until that moment is actually quite restrained. There’s a mushroom called Gogondo who you’re told “Gogondo likes smoke”. There’s two mice called Mick and Jerry. Somebody quotes the “meddling kids” line from Scooby Doo. They’re tiny references in a game that otherwise maintains its own little believable world.

I look at some other games, even big-name stuff, and it’s off-putting how they eschew having their own personality in favour of references, jokes and homages. I like the looks of Guacamelee, but the sheer volume of posters, murals and dialogue that’s dedicated to referencing other game franchises as luchadors is… cute, if very groan-inducing.
I think the ‘objective’ of a game is the key, though – Treasure Adventure Game is making a world for you to explore and a story that’s supposed to get you invested in exploring it. Guacamelee is a Metroid-y character action game where you’re either clobbering fools or finding where to go next. It’s got no time for world-building!

Y’all have probably heard enough about Undertale already (I’ve got a bit of gushing about it in my upcoming Games I Played in 2015 ramble so don’t say I didn’t warn you), but one thing I immensely respected about it was how it stayed true to maintaining its own world. Sure, there’s general-purpose references to anime and video game tropes, and has a quick glance at its likely influences in certain scenes, but it never just stops to quote lines from Nintendo games or have a Goomba walk on screen or some crap. It makes a world and it stays in that world.
Pal Codiekitty joked on Twitter how she was disappointed Papyrus never got to homage Garland of Final Fantasy fame, and it’s an amusing tweet, but it would’ve taken me out of the experience had it happened in-game. There’s nothing stopping him from doing it – the game’s monster world is no stranger to human entertainment, after all – but I’m glad it skirted that line.
Likewise, it’s disappointing to watch and read fan media for Undertale and see it struggle to actually offer anything new – once the novelty of Undertale Wrestling wears off, all it can do is repeat the game’s own jokes and make video game references. When the game’s writing is so fun and fresh to begin with, it’s a real bummer, y’know?
But I digress!

This old article on Medium Difficulty speaks about Treasure Adventure Game‘s themes; it’s not terribly groundbreaking, but it’s an adequate summary of the game’s themes of “capitalism sucks” and “going outside is rad”. It also waxes poetic on this jaunt into crossover city, how it’s “building a relationship with its inheritance“, and I say, fuck off with that. You can almost guarantee any 8-bitty 2D indie platform game is going to homage its influences, but I expected more of Treasure Adventure Game than to invite them on-stage before the curtain’s even dropped, for goodness sake.
The games industry is arguably still in its infancy compared to mediums like films and radio, and it’s still a twinkle in its father’s eye if you compare it to books and plays and shit. So when somebody’s asked “what are you influences?” and they’re making an 8-bitty 2D platform game, then golly gee willikers it’s gonna be Mario and Castlevania and all the crap we’ve heard before! Unless they grew up with an Atari ST or a Game.Com or something, we’re unlikely to hear answers that we wouldn’t already have guessed.
It’s refreshing to read interviews with (comparatively) vintage game designers, when their influences weren’t just other video games, but from unexpected sources like old roleplaying books, what they saw in the garden, or loving to see cars get their shit wrecked. All I ask is if you’re making a 2D platformer, please keep references to your influences as modest as possible, and if you’re being interviewed, beg them to ask “tell me something I don’t know.”
(i’ll tell you now if i make a game my ideas will be unoriginal as hell and glorified expansion packs of games i want more of. when’s Pineapple Smash Crew 2???)

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