A story-led plat­former spread­ing a bit of ro­bot love

Games Master - - Contents -

Old-school plat­former takes Ho­race from hum­ble clean­ing ro­bot to hero. A jour­ney we can all ap­plaud.

Paul Hel­man would like to think of his de­but game as “a triple-A SNES ti­tle,” and to play it is to un­der­stand why. It’s an old-school plat­former with plenty of con­tem­po­rary bells and whis­tles that be­lie the fact it’s been as­sem­bled by just one man.

De­spite the con­sole in­flu­ence, from the start it pays homage to a host of vin­tage games: there are blink-and-you’llmiss-them nods to Em­lyn Hughes Soc­cer and The Last Ninja dur­ing the open­ing scenes, while there’s a (thank­fully brief) Spec­trum load­ing screen flash as the epony­mous ro­bot boots up. And its ti­tle screen mu­sic will be in­stantly fa­mil­iar to play­ers of a cer­tain vin­tage: it’s Beethoven’s Moon­light Sonata, which Hel­man cheer­fully ad­mits is a di­rect lift from 1984 clas­sic Jet Set Willy.

“One of the main rea­sons I wanted to do chip­tunes of clas­si­cal mu­sic is that every­one knows it,” he says. “Mu­sic is con­stantly used in films and TV shows, but ob­vi­ously I can’t end a scene by fad­ing up an Oa­sis song or what­ever. But I can with any­thing over 70 years old, thanks to the pub­lic do­main.”

One early se­quence, for ex­am­ple, sees the mu­sic shift from Schu­bert’s Un­fin­ished Sym­phony to Boc­cherini’s Min­uet (Google it, you’ll recog­nise the tune). It’s a use­ful short­hand, Hel­man ex­plains. “It in­stantly tells you that we’re some­where classy and a lit­tle bit old-fash­ioned. It’s kind of a cheat, but in the same way that a film cheats to set up a scene.” In­deed, the cutscenes aren’t like those in many games of this ilk, which tend to use a fairly static cam­era and text boxes to tell their sto­ries. Ho­race’s tale is nar­rated (the ro­bot’s dead­pan tone is re­spon­si­ble for much of the hu­mour) with cam­era cuts and zooms bor­row­ing the vis­ual lan­guage of TV and cinema.

Wot, no ski­ing?

Even given Hel­man’s ex­pe­ri­ence as a dig­i­tal artist, these story se­quences have been a time-con­sum­ing process, and the de­vel­oper con­cedes his am­bi­tions have oc­ca­sion­ally got the bet­ter of him. “If it’s two or three char­ac­ters hav­ing a chat framed like a sit­com I can gen­er­ally get about a minute done in a day,” he says.

“I didn’t want you to get halfway through and you’ve sud­denly got flamethrow­ers”

“But with any­thing more ac­tion-based… there are sev­eral scenes where I’ve an­i­mated about a dozen char­ac­ters, and that slows me down. In those cases, I’m lucky if I get ten sec­onds done.”

The game’s im­pres­sive demo sug­gests it’s been worth the ef­fort, the con­text lend­ing ex­tra drama to your ob­jec­tives. At first, Ho­race is put to use as a clean­ing ro­bot, col­lect­ing bits of scrap to tidy lev­els up, while avoid­ing col­laps­ing plat­forms, mov­ing sparks and cir­cuit-fraz­zling wa­ter haz­ards. But in an­other sec­tion he’s tasked with res­cu­ing a drug-ad­dled man who’s about to jump off a roof as soon as he fin­ishes a gui­tar solo; later, he’s asked to save a fam­ily from a burn­ing man­sion.

It’s here that his most im­por­tant power-up comes into play. Grav­ity-de­fy­ing boots let him walk on walls and ceil­ings, and they’re the only way to avoid the spread­ing flames. Hel­man says he ini­tially planned for the boots to ar­rive much later in the game. “It was the last power-up you got, and grad­u­ally I kept bring­ing it fur­ther and fur­ther for­ward. Ob­vi­ously it broke all of the game­play de­sign at that time but once I dis­cov­ered that it was in­cred­i­bly fun to stick to any sur­face while ex­plor­ing, I re­alised that this was the game.” He tested the idea out by recre­at­ing World 1-1 of Su­per Mario Bros, and hav­ing re­alised how much it would fun­da­men­tally change the game, he es­sen­tially restarted work from scratch. It’s cer­tainly not the only abil­ity you’ll get your hands on, though Ho­race will never fire a weapon in anger. “As I’m sure you’ve no­ticed, the char­ac­ter is in­cred­i­bly in­no­cent,” Hel­man says. “I didn’t want you to get halfway through and you’ve sud­denly got flamethrow­ers and bombs and you’re go­ing around mur­der­ing peo­ple.” So in­stead you get a bal­loon that al­lows you to tem­po­rar­ily float, while a shoul­der-barge lets you break through frag­ile walls.

Su­per Meat Bot

The game’s later stages ramp up the chal­lenge, though Ho­race’s move­ment and in­er­tia are just about per­fect, and you’re acutely aware that any deaths are no­body’s fault but your own. It’s no sur­prise, then, to learn that Su­per Meat Boy is one of Hel­man’s in­flu­ences – even though our ro­botic hero feels a good deal heav­ier than his fleshy coun­ter­part. “If you’re good at Meat Boy you’ll get through a stage in ten sec­onds; if you’re bad at it it will take you ten min­utes. I wanted to cap­ture that kind of feel­ing.” In­stant restarts cer­tainly help al­le­vi­ate any frus­tra­tion, and you’re only ever re­set to the start of a room when you die.

Hel­man has been forced to rely on his 11-year-old nephew for con­struc­tive feed­back, since the rest of his friends seem im­pressed – and un­der­stand­ably so. “Every­one I’ve shown it to has said, ‘What are you do­ing? This looks like a real game made by a team of ten peo­ple!'” He laughs. “Well, that’s the idea!”

A Hal­lowe’en party of­fers light re­lief af­ter a fraught res­cue, though Ho­race is quickly called into ac­tion once more.

The game’s tu­to­rial is baked into the plot, as Ho­race’s abil­i­ties are put through their paces by his own­ers. That re­minds us of, er, Knack. But we like this game.

The game’s sense of hu­mour is on full dis­play in the news­pa­per head­lines that doc­u­ment Ho­race’s more dar­ing ex­ploits, though we’re not sure we ap­prove of print me­dia be­ing called ‘nearly dead.’ *hys­ter­i­cal sob­bing from Team GM*

Ho­race’s tie lets you know which way is up (or down) when he’s wear­ing his anti-grav­ity shoes, in case in­verted bath­tubs weren’t clue enough.

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