10 August 2012

Twisted Sister

Let me begin by saying how much I love my Nintendo DS Lite: A lot.

I'm sure it's partly because it's the current vessel for my adoration of handheld gaming in general, having sold my Sega Game Gear years ago. There's something magical about a personal system you hold in your hands - no cords, no mess, no TV to switch to the correct input function. Just you and the games.

But it's also because it's one sweet little machine, with some of the best software ever. Ghost Trick? Yes, please. The Mario & Luigi series? Most definitely. Professor Layton and the Umpteenth Sequel? Can't get enough.

Which is why I was more than a little annoyed when I found that quite a number of the first party Nintendo titles and other high profile games were terrible. Not all of them, obviously (I just praised Mario & Luigi a paragraph ago) but enough that I felt my DS high evapourating. Metroid Prime Hunters? Boring. Starfox Command? An insult. Okamiden? Contender for worst game I've ever tried.

So I began looking in unlikely places for the next DS experience that could recapture the magic. I went through Wikipedia's entire list of Nintendo DS games. The next great thing doesn't have to be part of major franchise, after all - it could be something obscure.

Case in point:

Giana Sisters DS, a remake of a Super Mario Brothers clone that I'd never heard of, originally for the Commodore 64.

Let me continue by saying how much I love my Commodore: Also a lot. It was my first computer, where I played my first video games and where I learned to program, so I'm left with a strong nostalgic fondness for software of the era.

So, despite it being potentially a crappy knockoff, I decided to give Giana Sisters DS a fair chance. If it was even a passably good platformer it would be a good addition to my DS library; better than the bevy of talky, overwrought offerings with poorly designed control schemes that I'd been slogging through, anyway.

To make a long story short, I was completely surprised when I played it. Far from being merely passable, it was exceptional. With every level cleared, it climbed my personal ladder of great platformers, eventually settling in the top echelon with the likes of Yoshi's Island, Klonoa: Door to Phantomile, and Ristar, as if it had always been there.

It is extremely rare for me to develop another "favourite game". Since Skies of Arcadia (a decade ago), I had assumed it might not happen again. Maybe I got cynical in my old age or something. But this year it's happened multiple times: first with Ghost Trick, then with Limbo, and now with Giana Sisters DS. (So maybe I'm actually getting soft in my old age. =P)

Despite being a DS game, I was impressed with how much Commodore flavour it managed to preserve. I know I've never played the original (I plan on it now, though), but I have played countless other games on my Commodore, and spent many happy hours entranced by the warm, friendly glow of their double-width pixels on a CRT monitor. Maybe it's the timbre of the music, maybe it's the lack of dialogue, maybe it's the solid-as-a-rock controls and physics, but Giana Sisters DS captures that transfixing immediacy that those classic games had, that sense of ultimate connectedness of being in a universe that might as well contain only you and the game.

It was probably amplified by being on the DS, not only because I was holding the experience in my hands, but also the newly added bonus feature of the bubblegum: Giana can blow a bubblegum bubble, step inside it, and fly around (ain't platformers grand? =D). Her altitude is controlled by blowing into the DS microphone, and though other DS games employ the microphone in similar ways, this was the first great use of it I'd encountered. It created a novel, almost intimate, connection with the game world that other methods of controlling intensity - such as tapping a button less or more quickly, or tilting an analog stick - have always failed at. Simply by blowing harder or more softly, intentions are immediately translated into the gameplay; only a psychic connection could do better. And, humorously, it results in one of the few gaming experiences where going "FFFFFUUUUU" might actually help.

So I liked it a lot. Which makes it all the more happy a coincidence that the team is Kickstarting an awesome-looking sequel only a month after the game became one of my favourites.

Their design philosophy behind the game - or at least what bits of it are revealed on the Kickstarter page and their site and forum - seems to be spot-on, as well, which I appreciate as a budding game designer.

But don't let me hold you up here. Go check it out and consider backing it!

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