Review a Great Game Day is an initiative carried out by 1 More Castle, a retro gaming website. The rules are as simple as they sound: review a game you like! You can follow other people’s efforts and learn more information about the event here.
UPDATE: Vidhvat called my review great. Please give him kisses.
@_vidhvat HEY! I reviewed your game for Review a Great Game Day! I did yours because it’s really good! Good job! Yelling is fun!
— aStingyMiser (@aStingyMiser) April 9, 2015
In the 2014 retrospective nobody read, I mentioned a game called Lovely Planet. I wrote that with the intention of getting back to it someday and giving it the full-length review it deserved. Apparently, that day is today.
1. Presenting: Presentation
I don’t think I’ll shift many paradigms when I say that there’s a huge schism between the indie scene and the AAA blockbusters. On one side, you have a bunch of games meant to sell money, appeal to well-established trends, and appear to say something of interest, all while putting up a guise of being fresh and innovative when whatever they’re doing has almost invariably been done before. On the other side, you have big-budget releases.
A lot of people damn the AAA market as this manipulative bastard child that performs the same dance every month to rake in the money at sixty dollars a pop from the gullible. What too few people admit is that the only thing that makes independently-developed games any different is that they’re roughly a third of the price. Marketing is marketing, and very little is truly original. A 2D retro-revival sidescroller can brand itself as cleverly as it can, but it’s rare to see one stand out too far from the rest of its class.
But before I wind up the victim of the second highest-profile crucifixion this Easter week, let me clarify a few crucial points.
1. NEITHER OF THESE PRACTICES ARE BETTER THAN THE OTHER.
Despite what some of you may suppose, I have no preference toward AAA games. I just don’t have one toward indie games, either. If a game is good, I don’t care which side of the fence it leans toward more heavily. The fact is that there’s a gap, and both sides of the gap have problems. AAA games have trouble reflecting their creators and feel like the result of a lot of conferencing. Most big-name releases seem like they’ve been focus grouped into existence. Indie games have the inverse problem: they lack money, resources, time, second opinions, etc., etc. Too often, their visions aren’t realized. Conversely, AAA are more able to do things that are technically impressive or which require a lot of processing power or graphical fidelity or what-have-you, and indie games have the capacity to be really grand expressions of their creators’ intents. This brings me to my next point.
2. GOOD GAMES EXIST ON BOTH SIDES OF THE FENCE.
Like I said, I turn a blind eye to whether a game is indie or AAA or corporate sludge or hipster nonsense, up to the point at which the problems with both sides show their colors. It’s lovely to see a game like Far Cry 3 pull off breathtaking vistas, or Red Faction: Guerilla to topple a dozen buildings at a time, or Sma4h to run with a presentation that’s as smooth as silk. It’s wonderful to play Super Meat Boy for its perfect refinement of how a sidescroller should play, or VVVVVV for its impeccable design, or Hotline Miami for its hazy trance-like aesthetic. I’ll even throw the indie dogs a bone and say that I probably enjoy more indie games anymore than I do AAA titles – don’t we all, am I right, fellas?
But I don’t feel any predilection toward either side of the fence.
The point here is that there are definite differences between independent and major releases… but most of them only exist because they fill different niches better. Obviously, an indie game isn’t going to pull off photorealistic graphics and the works for some time, but that doesn’t mean every game has to be an indie sidescroller whatever, or that it should damn the capabilities of the information age. Indie games have bowdlerized themselves with an almost ardent refusal to avoid modern styling. Try to think of a popular indie game that isn’t minimalistic or pixelated. It’s hard. Similarly, we simply don’t live in a world where millions of dollars and a company of people can be thrown at something that isn’t guaranteed to sell well, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have major releases that feature some old-fashioned sentiments. I hold that the very best video games are the ones that feel modern, but contain retro-esque sensibilities. We really need more games like Vanquish, No More Heroes, Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball, and so on. We need games that don’t stand proudly on either side of the abyss, but, rather, dive steadfast into almost certain oblivion. Lovely Planet is one of those all-too-rare games.
Lovely Planet is essentially a first-person version of Katamari Damacy, and I’m totally fine with that. The presentation is one of the best parts of the game. I dare say it comes close to beating Katamari at its own game. There’s this incredible sense of exuberance to the whole product. The graphics are vibrant and defined, and it all looks like it was done by someone with only the most rudimentary grasps of Unity trying to cheer themselves up. There are enough particle effects surrounding this game to make Twilight Princess blush. If you’re the type of loathsome refuse who enjoys anime and visual novels and sentai, you’ll probably be familiar with this kind of artstyle; however, I think it’s so abundantly joyous that everyone alive can get enjoyment out of it. This is a Starship Amazing album painting illustrated for the deaf.
The soundtrack is one of the best I’ve heard in any video game. Even though it somehow makes me feel even more like a weaboo than the graphics, I somehow don’t mind. The easiest comparison, again, is to Katamari, but I think there’s a lot of Vib-Ribbon‘s eclectic sampling in the mix. The songs are all catchy, but not in the way of a commercial jingle or a pop song. They’re so infectious and full of such gaiety that they won’t “get stuck” inside your head; you’ll intentionally install them as a permanent fixture.
One of the most assuredly underrated parts of Lovely Planet is its sound effects. Sure, it’s sometimes difficult to tell which ones were original and which ones were stock effects – but that’s only because they’re all utilized so brilliantly. Most games are happy to do the bare minimum when it comes to sound effects – when you jump, it makes a ping; when you walk, you hear footsteps; etc., etc. The most impressive sound designs make you stop and want to hear a simple sound effect again. What I find genius about Lovely Planet is the way sounds are used for positive and negative reinforcement. A good example of this comes in the blue “civilians” that force you to restart upon hitting them… but not after making an excruciating scream. It’s not the fact that I have to start a level over that gets me when I kill one, it’s the fact that they’re positively agonized by it.
Imagine if Lovely Planet were a lesser game. Think of what it’d be like if it sold out. The game would probably be nothing but a DOOM mod with a big jump. I’m not trying to undersell the game. All I’m saying is that the way you present yourself is how you’re perceived, which turns into half of what defines people’s opinions of you. Imagine this game with pixellated textures and a chiptune soundtrack. You wouldn’t give it a second of attention. There are a trillion of those on the planet, and all the game’s excellent design would be for naught.
Of course, the game’s technicals do more for it than simply elevating it beyond mediocrity. They blend beautifully with the gameplay style of the game, and that’s what matters most. The high-speed, balls-to-the-wall gameplay perfectly compliments the exhilarating soundtrack and abstract visuals. If you have a sad friend, gift them this game and they’ll perk up almost immediately. Everything about it is just that pleasant. In summary… this is a game with levity and real heart.
2. Further Masturbation to Meat Boy
I’m of the opinion that Super Meat Boy is the best indie game ever, and that’s because it really encapsulates everything an indie game should. The thing I love most about the game is its structure. I’ll let you in on a secret: Super Meat Boy is really hard, but it’s never frustrating. Whenever you fuck up in Meat Boy, you’re immediately prompted to restart, and that’s the key to its genius. The game simultaneously feels like it’s never pulling its punches while constantly remaining fun to play.
Lovely Planet is in the same boat. To paraphrase every Super Meat Boy review ever: if you fuck up in Lovely Planet, it’s your fault. You’re expected to dash about with the run button slammed down while shooting every enemy, without getting hit, falling, hitting a civilian, touching a glob of red, touching a light, letting a bomb hit the ground, letting an enemy spin itself into nonexistence, fearing the Reaper, starving, starving together, treading on me, getting lost in heaven, etc., etc., etc.
It’s hard, and if you slip up once, it’s back to the beginning with you – and fear not, the game provides ample growing room for your smallest miserable failures.
Lovely Planet’s creator, Vidhvat, stated that he considers the game more akin to Guitar Hero than Meat Boy, but I feel that’s a nearsighted comparison. It’s true that the game, as he put it, is like repeating the same sequence of notes over and over again until mastery, but I think the most crucial element to the design is that you can immediately repeat. It sounds small, but even a fraction of a second of wait would cost the game its edge.
As a matter of fact, everything in Lovely Planet is that rapid-fire. The game’s designed to be absolutely ruthless, and it succeeds. The game demands an incredible amount of precision aiming and instant reflexes just to advance past the first world, and it feels fantastic. I think my dexterity has improved so much from playing this game that I’m eligible for the Starcraft world championships. It’s amazing to go back to any traditional modern shooter after playing Lovely Planet or DOOM just to see how slow modern FPSs have gotten. Most modern shooters require that you slam your finger on the sprint button just to circumvent your walking speed, which (in addition to asking for it from stamina bars) goes to show how sluggish modern shooters have gotten. They’re more about a Gears of War-styled box-hiding experience than airy, freeform shooting. That’s really what sets Lovely Planet apart. Unlike some pussy game, the speed is permanently set to the “Way Too Fast” setting. You have to get used to playing in a medium that doesn’t feel thick and muggy. If you want to feel humbled because of your shooting game skills, play Lovely Planet.
What’s as key to Meat Boy as its difficulty is its fluidity, and Lovely Planet looks as beautiful once it gets going. I mean, I spent so much time talking about how the game looks, and you can see the .gifs for yourself. I think it’s apparent how gorgeous this game is in motion. Lovely Planet has a logic to it all its own. If you ever find yourself at a standstill in Lovely Planet, you’re playing wrong. You have to move, constantly, if you want a chance at the highest ranks. The better levels even mandate haste to complete the level in the first place. All of this would be for naught if the game didn’t feel finely-tuned: the sensitivity is just too high, your jump is an ounce too floaty, your fire is barely askew – and no, you can’t change any of these settings. Everything feels a little bit off, and that means you have to compensate to excel. You get pulled into the kinaesthetics of the game. You’re always trying to get one step ahead of all the ways the game resists your instincts. The best part of the game? That rare, well-deserved moment when you actually do manage to synchronize your biorhythms and get the coveted perfect run. I’ve beaten Super Hexagon and Super Meat Boy, and I can say that there are levels within the first three worlds of Lovely Planet that felt as gratifying to complete as “Hyper Hexagonest” and “Cotton Alley.”
Can you believe there are chodes out there who thought this game was bad because it didn’t have a firing reticle? I’m always stunned that people can completely misunderstand a game like this. Some games have intentional inconveniences, ya know. “Why can’t I fire and walk in Resident Evil 4?” “Why can’t I move faster in Castlevania?” It’s because it’s not your video game! You think that a seasoned developer couldn’t work out how to make you move and shoot, walk faster, or see where you’re firing? Of course they could, if they wanted to! The lack of a reticle is so much of what makes Lovely Planet great. Your fire is just off, which forces you to lead your shots and make wildly inaccurate estimates. It’s so much of what makes the game difficult and demanding and forward-moving and great. Adding a reticle to this game would make it far too playable.
Another facet of the Meat Boy-like is ranking systems. I love almost all ranking systems in games – assuming they’re non-invasive to the gameplay, I don’t really see how they hurt, and they always serve to multiply replayability – but they feel like they were made for the Meat Boy-like. Short levels, quick gameplay, and a high skill floor that brushes right up against the skill ceiling all make these kinds of games a perfect candidate for an intensive score system. Hotline Miami remains the best place to go for score attacking in this genre, but where Lovely Planet lacks in Hotline Miami‘s endearing convolution, it makes up for in refined simplicity.
See that mess? Well, Lovely Planet evaluates you on exactly three, unarguable criteria.
- Did you beat the level?
- Did you beat it fast?
- Did you have perfect accuracy?
For every “yes” you give in response to one of those questions, you get a star. Get three stars and you’ll earn the most valuable reward of all:
I love this system. It’s clean-cut and to the point. Anyone can figure it out given the time, and if they can’t, they can google what it means.
For being the most important detail of a well-established genre, you’d think that more Meat Boy-likes would allow the player to restart when they know that they’ve fucked up. For some reason, a lot of them don’t. Fortunately, Lovely Planet is one of them, and that gives it a little bit of an edge over Meat Boy itself. (For a game that only uses two buttons, you’d think they’d have plenty of options for a quick restart.)
There’s a mentality amongst Meat Boy-likes that they can throw whatever they want at you. Since nothing holds any real consequence, they can throw a curveball at you whenever they want. You can die to something completely unseen, and that’s O. K.; part of the appeal is replaying a level until you get a good enough picture to beat it. Even though this activity is excused, however, I think that it should be strayed away from. I can only see it enforcing sloppy habits, and I especially don’t see a use when there’s a perfectly acceptable solution – just look at Lovely Planet. Before every restart, you’re given the opportunity to get a preview of the route you’re supposed to take in a level. This means that, should a player will it, he or she can opt out of any untoward surprises. There’s no reason this shouldn’t be implemented in other games of this style.
One of my biggest complaints with Lovely Planet was that it didn’t have leaderboards. How am I expected to have self-confidence when I can’t smugly compare my performance in a video game against others? Fortunately, this was quickly rectified, which means that I can’t even have minor nitpicks about this game. It’s just that good.
The Super Meat Boy-like is one of the premiere modern genres, and I’m so glad it’s gaining in popularity. I’m seeing more and more of these games crop up, and they’ve all gotten at least some praise. Hotline Miami, 10 Second Ninja, Dustforce, and lots of other games whose names escape me (I swear, I’m knowledgeable about this kind of thing) are leading the trend toward some gut-punchingly good gameplay. I still think that Super Meat Boy is the king of its genre, but Lovely Planet might just be the prince.
3. Structure, Levels, and Mechanics
Now that I’ve gotten all the obvious comparisons to Meat Boy out of the way, I think I’m able to dig a little deeper into their similarities. One of the most underrated aspects of Super Meat Boy is the meticulous attention to the introduction of its mechanics.
To really see that in action, though, you have to look at things on a level-by level basis. Lovely Planet is subdivided into five worlds, and each world introduces some new toys for the levels to play with. The levels are all brief, and there’s never a lull where things feel stagnant for too long. I think the game is structured as nicely as it can be.
As you could expect, “City” introduces the game’s most basic mechanics. As early as the second level, you’re introduced to the game’s two simplest enemy types: skinny triangle guys and shooty square guys. The triangles allow for excellent target practice, and they can be pains in the vans deferens if they’re some distance away. The shooty guys are pretty easily managed, if you’re willing to make a mental note of them. They pose their greatest threats when used in conjunction with more difficult obstacles. I especially like how you can shoot their bullets. It gives them an extra vulnerability to only the most skilled players. Being required to shoot at hard-to-hit enemies while being shot yourself creates really interesting risk-reward moments: is the time spent to shoot a trickier enemy worth the time spent to get a more accurate shot? Are you likely to lose perfect accuracy if you miss? It’s things like that that keep the game consistently interesting.
Around halfway through the level, “City” introduces what is hands-down the best mechanic in the game: the bombs.
…Are they bombs? I always thought they were apples, but Vidhvat said they were bombs. It makes more sense if they’re bombs, but they look like apples.
The point is that they’re the perfect target for this game. Before you hit one, you have to see what its trajectory is. This takes a second or two. When you see an apple, it becomes your primary focus. If one hits the ground, you start over. You have to balance any other threats with the apple, and they’re the perfect size to remain tough-to-hit on their own. You have to wait for them to fall to an elevation at which your monkey brain is able to hit them. If you’re daring, you can try to knock out some other obstacles as you’re waiting for it to get to where you can hit it – but that puts you at greater risk. Between waiting for it to fall to the appropriate height and figuring out how it’s moving, you always have a very strict time in which you’re actually able to hit an apple. They’re demanding, but they’re also a ton of fun. Hitting one is damn near the most rewarding thing on the (Lovely) planet. What ties the package together is a bow made of the most delicious sound effects imaginable. There’s a resounding “pop!” whenever one gets launched, and the crunch of a successful hit is… hang on… BOMBS DON’T CRUNCH! It is an apple!
“Village” is probably the most superfluous level in the game. It feels more like an extension of the first level with the core difficulty preserved. To be honest, though, I don’t really mind. I prefer the happy opening levels to the aesthetic of the later two levels, and I’m really glad the game returns to this style for the final bonus level. (The happier levels have the catchiest music, too.)
This level introduces spikes, which function almost identically to the red splotches the first level incorporates. Both designate a different region as off-limits, and neither is really worth talking about at length. It also introduces springy pads, which are a hell of a lot of fun. Aside from that, “Village” introduces no other mechanics. If there’s anywhere you can say the game stalls, it’s here.
There’s one more thing this world introduces: FRUSTRATION. This is where things really pick up in difficulty. The springy pads accelerate your speed, which makes aiming even harder than it is normally. Worse yet, the game starts to get downright mean with its design – there’s a level that taunts you with an “I
In “Forest,” the sky grows gray with clouds, which provides a nice-enough change of pace. “Forest” introduces us to shooty guys with yellow hats. As is universally-accepted nomenclature, this indicates that the enemies fire homing bullets, which make me furious. This is the biggest point of contention between Vidhvat and me: he thinks that the apples were hugely shadowed by the homing shots, but as a player, I completely disagree. Vidhvat argues that apples don’t provide an even target for the players, while homing shots provide more or less the same situation every time. Ironically, I think those are reasons why apples are the superior mechanic. It’s true that you need a few seconds of study before you can hope to shoot the apples. That’s what makes them great. They demand player reaction. Conversely, homing shots give the player fewer reasons to be alarmed. Sure, they’re great if you actually see the shooty guys, but if they’re off-screen, you’re fucked. You can be killed by something that doesn’t even have a distinct noise.
“Forest” also brings in the light… camera… loud noise… lollipops of death. I haven’t worked out a snappy name for them yet, sorry. When you walk past them, they begin emitting that most lethal of horrors, electromagnetic radiation. This particular frequency is so deadly, you can actually see how energized it is! Simply being near the high-energy red form causes instant death. These are a secondary means to get players to hustle their various bustles, and I think they’re effective. They don’t require a player to shoot at them like apples, and they can’t be shot at themselves like the moving splotches. They’re one of the stronger mechanics in the game, even if they are a little hard to name.
Look… I know this one’s for Review a Great Game Day, but I can’t help it. “Swamp” is the worst level in Lovely Planet. Damn what Vidhvat may say. The level is still fun. I mean, it’s almost the same game as the rest of it. But there are a handful of tiny changes that make an enormous change.
First: the music. I’m a hedonist, what can I say. I know the song that plays in “Swamp” might be technically well-done. I even accept that it matches the tone of the level. But that’s as big a problem. The rest of the game is a jubilant, exciting rush, and “The Swamp” is slow, ponderous, and fairly placid. The rest of the soundtrack is Vib-Ribbon; this is more C418. Frankly, I’d rather listen to something of his than the music here.
The change I’d most like to condemn to Tartarus, though, is the fucking fog. You know how Silent Hill used fog to create atmosphere and conceal its graphical insufficiencies? You know how we have fog lights on cars? You know why we have those? BECAUSE YOU CAN’T SEE THROUGH FOG. This is where the homing bullets become an even crueler mistress. In “The Swamp,” they spawn out of nowhere. You’ll be hopping along, and they’ll poof into existence. Is that acceptable? Am I supposed to see that coming? The least that could be done would be some sort of indicator where the bullets were coming from. It’s far too easy to get hit by a stray shot, only to have no idea what hit you.
There are also these all-seeing eyes that teleport you to a new part of a level. I have no idea why these exist. The levels themselves are abstract and devoid of any realistic geometries. All the eyes do is confuse and disorient the player. It’s a reminder that you’re playing a video game and creates the same weird disconnect that you see when you collide with an invisible wall or sit through a load time.
“Swamp” introduces one more mechanic, and it’s triangle guys that fizzle themselves out of existence. If they spin too long, you restart. They’re all right. I’m not convinced they’re a necessary mechanic, but they’re stationary, so I suppose they bring a flavor the apples and homing shots don’t. My only complaint is how inane the buzzing sound they make is.
“Swamp” doesn’t exactly drag – while it isn’t as fun as other stages, it’s still decently interesting – its end doesn’t come quickly enough. “Mountains” is the final level, and boy, does it show. It took me upwards of two hours to clear most of the levels in this stage. Vidhvat himself called it a pack of Kaizo levels. They’re sadistic, but they hurt so good. If you’re in for a challenge, these are the levels for you. The music in this part, it’s worth noting, is one of the best tracks I can recall in any video game – but don’t you dare find it on YouTube. I struggled through this entire game, and hearing the song at the end of the tunnel was like a reward. I implore you to do the same.
“Mountains” brings in two mechanics that work really nicely together: snow and teleporty guys. The teleporty guys allow you to advance through the level without seeming unnecessary, as with the eyes of Providence. You actually have to shoot them to progress, which means they require a bit of skill to proceed. They don’t just make you walk. The snow freezes you in place temporarily, which, as you’d guess, will kill either your time or (with support from a death lollipop or a well-placed apple) you. It has to be worked around. Usually, you do so by shooting at a teleporty guy just before landing. This leads to some intense moments where you won’t be sure if you hit your target or not.
The range of mechanics in Lovely Planet is constantly used excellently. Whenever one gets old, a new one is brought in, and I really can’t think of a mechanic that feels under-utilized. If there were a game that demonstrates what mechanics you should introduce and when you should introduce them, this would be a top contender.
The fact that a game as good as Lovely Planet didn’t get money thrown at it from rooftops is a testament to how backwards people who buy video games are. If this game doesn’t look extraordinarily fun and happy and well-made to you… well, what kind of expectations do you have, man!? Lovely Planet is only six dollars on Steam at full price, so you should absolutely give it a go when you’ve got the chance. The soundtrack’s pretty much a must-buy, too, so you should drop three extra dollars and get that. in the worst possible case, you’ll have spent nine dollars on a damn fine soundtrack – which, incidentally, is humanly impossible to dislike.
FINAL SCORE: 9.5/10
I was surprised at how extensive my love for this game was – I didn’t Lovely Plan It that way.