Alex Phillimore: (alex.phillimore-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2013-04-04 04:36:39
Mutant Mudds and Retro Platforming
Mutant Mudds (3DS/PC/iOS), like many modern, retro-themed platformers, is a difficult game. The first level is enough to attest to that; you die in three hits, spikes instantly kill you, and platforms fade in and out of existence, requiring perfectly timed jumps to navigate them. The game consistently ramps up the difficulty, and while the levels get longer, the 4:00 minute timer counting down to your demise does not. You aren't only battling against the devilish platforms in Mutant Mudds, but you're also battling against your own ability to not slow down for even a second. Doing so brings you one step closer to death, and it is very possible to run out of time on these challenging levels.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we play games that push the boundaries of being 'difficult' to being 'unfair'? And what is it about retro-flavoured platformers that still appeals to us as gamers? On the one hand you have the claim of nostalgia; it makes sense that if you grew up on a diet of platformers on the NES, SNES or Sega Genesis, you may wish to revisit that old style of gameplay. However, there are plenty of younger gamers whose first console wasn't a 16-bit piece of hardware and who still love these deliberately 'old-fashioned' games despite having not grown up with them. Therefore, it can't entirely be a desire to revisit gaming's past that makes us want to play these simple platformers.
In a sense, though, I would argue that platforming games are not only one of the 'purest' gaming experiences, but also one of the most rewarding. In good platformers, you rarely have anything to blame but yourself when you die. Difficult platform games require a player to practice and to master the flow of gameplay and the precision of controls. You can't lower the difficulty level in a game like Mutant Mudds - if a level is kicking your ass, you either get better or you never advance. While this may seem unforgiving to some players, and is enough to turn some casual gamers off, it is precisely the fact that platformers can be 'hardcore' that gamers looking for a challenge embrace them.
Many platform games do look back to a gaming era that has passed, but it is a testament to the quality of the original gameplay mechanics that these platformers still play extremely well. While games such as Super Mario Galaxy (Wii) reinvented or adapted a lot of platforming tropes, others such as Donkey Kong Country Returns (Wii) kept almost the exact same aesthetics as the SNES titles, only with more polished graphics. That the game still plays incredibly well despite using gameplay mechanics designed several console generations ago is fascinating and does a good job of explaining why we still enjoy platformers today: simply put, it is a form of gaming that has not yet gotten old.
And, in titles such as Mutant Mudds, we actively seek to emulate not only the old-fashioned gameplay, but also the old-fashioned music and graphics. Mutant Mudds has a great chiptune soundtrack and blocky, pixel-heavy visuals. It could have easily come out in the early 90s; the game deliberately adheres to tried-and-tested design choices that people know and love. It's hard to put your finger on what it is about retro graphics and gameplay that ensures we keep coming back. Arguably, it is the timelessness of said qualities that keep them engaging.
Not everyone wants Hollywood-style production values and graphics that look almost real. Sometimes, suspending reality is exactly why people wish to play video games, and there are few better ways of doing so than playing a game like Mutant Mudds where hovering over chasms and shooting mud monsters with a bubble gun is the norm. There has been a revival of these retro platformers in recent years, and it is encouraging to see that there is still a place for games that deliberately tap into gaming's past. Games like the original Super Mario Bros. (NES) may have invented the platform game genre, but it is nice to see that the impression they left on gaming is still being emulated and refined today.