Saturday, September 7, 2013

Electronic Super Joy

I recently picked up Electronic Super Joy while poking around on Steam. The game advertised itself as a brutally hard indie platformer, and since I like indie games and platformers and challenging games, I bit.

The first couple levels are simple jumping from platform to platform. With the 8-bit silhouette characters (retro is in these days) set against brightly flashing background colors and patterns, the "kooky" "random" dialogue and story (I need to get revenge on the wizard who destroyed my butt? Really?) and the thumping dance club soundtrack I thought this may just be a case of the developers dangling some shiny keys in the faces of casual players and trying to pass off said distraction as a game.

Holy crap was I ever wrong. This game has a difficulty curve like a brick wall, and it's definitely not meant for casual gamers. After those introductory levels that acclimate the player to the basic game mechanics, you're thrown into a whirlwind that feels like doing speed runs through Super Meat Boy at a rave. To call Electronic Super Joy "hard" would be like calling the Universe "big" or Sean Penn "pretentious". It's crushingly, mind-numbingly difficult, and anybody who claims otherwise is either Billy Mitchell or some turd who thinks lying on the internet about his video game prowess will get him girls. As for the bright colors and club music, I actually found them growing on me as the game progressed. Not my flagon of mead, normally, but here they fit perfectly and they add to the general hyper-ridiculous flavor of the game as a whole. I'm still not clear on why the save point flags all make sex moans, though.

The principal difference between this and other notoriously challenging indie platform games is that it doesn't give you any time to think. While you can take your time and work through a puzzling situation in Super Meat Boy, the combination of moving screens and rapidly multiplying missiles in ESJ often make staying in one place for more than a split second as good as a death sentence. One level was only about 40 yards long, if we assume the character is roughly human sized, yet it still took me about 50 tries to beat it. I've already died a few hundred times, and I'm not even through the first of the game's four worlds. I have reached the first boss fight, against the Pope in a spaceship (no, I'm not making this up) and that's also structured like the SMB boss fights, where you're mostly just racing through a difficult level with the boss character hanging around to prompt your hurried pace. After dropping dead at least 40 or 50 times with no end in sight, I decided to walk away so I could come back to it later with a clear head. Coming back to it I discovered that defeating the Pope is actually a multi-phase process, with the later portions including a Space Invaders-style battle, and a section with more direct combat against him. Overall, it's an effective and highly challenging mix.

Of course, none of this is meant to suggest that the game is unbeatable. I'm sure it's been done. People have been climbing Mount Everest for years, and I'd imagine beating Electronic Super Joy is only slightly harder than that.

As for the all-important question is "is it fun?" I'd say yes. It's tremendously frustrating most of the time, but it's that kind of frustrating that motivates you because you can see that you've nearly reached the next checkpoint or level end and you refuse to let the game win. The sense of accomplishment when you actually do reach that next level is wonderful, because you know you had to earn it. That has sadly vanished from mainstream hand-holding games in recent years, which as I've previously explained is part of what draws me to these kinds of titles. It's like the difference between a getting a pat on the head for trying your best and having your teammates swarm you as you cross the plate after hitting a game-winning home run. The grown-ups may tell you that you're all special no matter what happens, but deep down inside you know this is just empty praise. So thank you, Electronic Super Joy, for having enough respect for your player-base to make us earn our success, even if do you seem to think we're all 13-year-olds.

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