If you’re a regular reader here at Out of Left Field, you are probably aware of my love of 3D platformers as a genre. And even if you aren’t a regular reader, you may know of my affinity for covering indie games (see, for instance, my new master post of indie game reviews!). So, naturally, I love looking for indie studios’ 3D platformers to try and write about.
This is a field that had been fairly open in the recent past, but that’s rapidly becoming no longer the case. There are of course the big names that have achieved the lion’s share of attention, particularly Gears for Breakfast’s A Hat in Time and Playtonic’s Yooka-Laylee. And deservedly so; I played and loved both of them! I’ve even covered both of them in the past here (the former, and the latter), and I’m super excited to see their upcoming endeavors in the genre: Gears for Breakfast has already shown some of their next game, Here Comes Niko!, while Playtonic has added a publishing unit to their studio and has announced they’ll be handling Fabraz’s forthcoming 2021 release Demon Turf.
And they’re hardly alone in this space, now. There have been a lot of other major releases here in recent memory, a group that I would say includes titles like Playful Studios’ New Super Lucky Tale, ROBI Studios’ Blue Fire, and Nicolas Meyssonnier’s Pumpkin Jack. These are all interesting titles in their own right, and I may even be writing about one or more of them later.
But right now, I want to look at even smaller titles; think of it perhaps as a tier below them as far as notoriety goes. These games have had even less attention, and while it’s understandable in these cases, I do think a lot of them also have interesting elements to them, and I think it’s worth highlighting them in some capacity, explaining what they do well while also discussing their shortcomings. And if nothing else ,if you’re in the hunt for fun bargain titles, these all provide a solid bang for your buck! So join me now, in this round-up of the smaller names of the genre; all of these are titles that I’ve played and enjoyed.
Evo\Wave (MagnaVex Entertainment) & Macbat 64 (Siactro)
These two games make the most obvious tradeoff a small developer or team can make, with games on the short side. But if game length is a concern for you, I feel like it might help to point out that neither is expensive, either (Evo\Wave is even free, in fact), and I think they’re both fun experiences despite their short runtimes.
There are other similarities in the two projects, too; both are love letters to the types of games the devs loved playing, and both look visually impressive in their own ways. Evo\Wave uses a barebones story about a technology world as an excuse to take a visual run through gaming history. Each of its three levels focuses on a different decade’s aesthetics, with the first world taking its style from ‘80s vector graphics, the second taking the low-poly shapes and teals, purples, and neon from the ‘90s, and the final level moving towards the increased complexity of the 2000s 3D platformers.* While the number of levels is a little on the short sized, each one is reasonably sized and has a decent number of collectables in it, with plenty of things going on in each one to keep you amused for its entire runtime.
*Speaking of, I guess we’re going to start seeing 2000s nostalgia cropping up in games now, huh? Not sure what to think about that, especially in this case; I see where MagnaVex was going for the third world, but I don’t feel like I have the words to describe these aesthetics quite yet other than “yeah, I think I get it”. Usually these design trends become more obvious with added hindsight, though.
Macbat, in contrast, goes for smaller levels, but more of them. And rather than a tour of different graphical styles, it instead stays with one that is totally in line with the Nintendo 64 (hence the name) and its contemporaries. It still changes things up, though, by making several levels specific references to games from the era, from a jungle level that includes a cameo from Donkey Kong 64 composer Grant Kirkhope, to a 2D level in the style of Kirby and the Crystal Shards, to a Kart Racer level that looks straight out of Mario Kart 64, to a fixed-camera horror world a la Resident Evil. These loving callbacks and careful references pack Macbat with a hell of a lot of charm, and it kept me smiling the whole time.
In fact, the levels are probably a little on the small side in part so that Siactro* can cover many more ideas, which is a big part of the game’s appeal. It’s an interesting change of pace from Macbat’s predecessor, Kiwi 64 (which I also went back and tried, out of curiosity), which went for a bigger level, but only one. In the end, I definitely got my money’s worth out of it (the game is listed at just $2), and I’m now also curious to try out his newest release, Toree 3D, which looks like another ‘90s throwback, only this time to the games of the Sega Dreamcast.
*Probably worth noting here that Siactro is one person, the screen name for developer Marcus Horn. The only other listed credits on the game’s webpage are JD Moser (music) and Laura Bamberger (CGI Rendering).
Evo\Wave is available on Steam. Trailer
Macbat is available on Steam, Itch.io, and Switch. Trailer
Regina & Mac (Diplodocus Games)
Regina and Mac is interesting largely because it goes in a radically different direction from most projects like this. For small teams, making a small game is kind of the go-to decision, but Regina & Mac goes big. Like, as far as quantity goes, there are nine worlds, and you need at least 64 floppies (the game’s main collectable) to beat it, numbers that put it more in the neighborhood of Super Mario 64 (15 worlds, 70 stars to beat) than Macbat or Evo\Wave. Sure, Mario 64 was bigger overall, but Regina & Mac still has a heck of a lot in it for a game made by a five-person team (and two of whom are credited exclusively for music*).
*Fun fact, for those who didn’t notice it while clicking around their site: Diplodocus Games is also the Switch porter and publisher for the aforementioned Siactro!
So, how did a team that small manage all of that? Well… part of it is that the game’s graphics are more “functional” than “pleasant to look at”. Most objects in the game, from characters to landforms, are composed of basic shapes with flat, single-color textures. I’m hardly one to care about high-end graphics, which I think the video game industry as a whole invests way too much time, money, and effort in; but even I was skeptical when I saw that trailer.
And yet... it works! The levels are well made, and enjoyable to explore. The platforming is smooth; in fact, it has far and away the best controls of all of the games here. This also works well with the graphical limitations, since platforms and obstacles are a lot easier to add than new characters, and the lack of detail or unique objects doesn’t really make the tasks any more difficult. And thanks to that, it can make most of the objectives in the game platforming-based without feeling disproportionately frustrating. Every failure just made me think “oh, I was close, I almost had it” and try again; I never felt the need to blame any sort of input problems (and the game ran well enough that I wouldn’t have believed myself if I did make that claim).
This focus on the platforming also means that Regina & Mac came up with a lot of ideas for movement and abilities, so it can keep throwing new mechanics at you that open up the world in different ways. It manages to juggle a lot of ideas while not getting redundant or overwhelming the player or letting anything go to waste.
I don’t know that I ever got around the graphics, but I don’t know that the game expects me to, either. It even occasionally calls attention to this issue, sometimes in casual naming of locations, sometimes with self-deprecating humor, wearing this identity on its sleeve in a way that’s kind of endearing. If nothing else, it can serve as something of a yardstick, to see how much gameplay can make or break a video game for you. But personally, I think Diplodocus Games managed to build quite the virtual playground.
Regina & Mac is available on Itch.io, Switch, Xbox, and Wii U. Trailer
Poi: Explorer Edition (PolyKid)
This is the most arguable entry here. It’s definitely longer than Evo\Wave and Macbat, and its art is a lot higher quality than Regina & Mac. But I ultimately decided to include it here because: A) I don’t think it got a ton of attention (it certainly got less than the 3D platformers I mentioned in the opening); B) it’s a small game that is well-made and it could still stand to be highlighted, since I’d like to see more from PolyKid; and C) I had things to talk about, and Poi proved a useful conduit to discuss them.
Poi is the debut effort of PolyKid, a small indie studio based out of the Bay Area. It’s a well made collect-a-thon, featuring four main worlds plus a variety of other levels (including a post-release mini-world), and it’s all well-made enough that I took the time to 100% it. But there’s also something missing that I couldn’t quite put into words.
But a recent KingK video on Super Mario 3D World gave me the language to explain what I was feeling. KingK asserts that story matters, even in Mario games, which generally have a pretty strict formula they follow. But even within those confines, there’s room to do different things narratively, whether it’s the tweaks to the events, or the art direction and world design and what they convey, or the central conflict driving the game, or the existence and design of a hub world versus those decisions while going with a level select, or the characters and how they interact with you, or the small snatches of lore!
Just like in any other creative work, everything in a game is put there deliberately, and those small decisions collectively give you a lot of space to work with, when added up. To go back to KingK’s usage (and a point of reference for anyone who has gotten to play them on the 3D All-Stars Collection), Mario 64, Sunshine, and Galaxy all feel very distinct in character when you compare them directly, even though they are all still Mario games with similar plots. There might be a better term for the net effect of all of those decisions, but for now, I’m okay referring to it as Story as well.
So how is Poi in this regard? It’s… fine. The framing device the game decides to use for its adventure is that the player character is an orphan who seeks adventure, and you're taken in by an older explorer who lost his medals for adventuring, and now you’re helping him recollect them. It’s not a lot to go off of, although there are some elements that work well (the soundtrack goes hard on big fanfares, and the hub world is a combination zeppelin-pirate ship), but there are also a lot of elements that don’t sell that identity quite as hard, which I think is kind of a necessity for how bare-bones it is. For instance, there are rather generic woodlands, volcano, and ice worlds that seem pretty standard compared with what you see in other games, which undermines that “big adventure” angle a bit.
But it does pick up, which is a big part of the reason I stuck with it! The worlds in the back half of the game finally tap more into that spirit, and the fourth world actually introduces a multi-level storyline that keeps things moving forward at a good pace. And the final level that serves as a finale is exciting, and I wish it had been fleshed out a little more and tied into the rest of the game earlier. In all, it’s a respectable first effort with strong points and a lot of potential, and that clear progression over time makes me interested in seeing what PolyKid does next with the experience they picked up here.
Poi is available on Steam, Switch, Xbox, and PS4. Trailer