The various download services have always been a bastion of 2D gaming, but I can’t recall a month this packed with sidescrollers since the SNES and Genesis were in play. And perhaps most surprising of all is that there’s not a lot of overlap; though some of these April games feature nonlinear, Metroid-style exploration, all of them have a distinct voice and style.
Let’s start with the clear favorite, and surely one of the best of 2013…
Guacamelee! ($15, PlayStation 3/Vita)
Ever since DrinkBox Studios hit the scene with Mutant Blobs Attack, I knew that team was going places, but Guacamelee! exceeded every expectation. As much as I love the Metroid formula – and yes, I’m itching to tack on the always-awkward -vania suffix – I’ve seen so many variations over the years that have amounted to little more than fetch quests. Sure, your fancy new missile or double jump may get you past a certain roadblock, but that often ends up requiring less skill and more map reading. What makes Guacamelee! such a success is that it actually offers a stiff challenge. You need a certain level of dexterity to play this game, especially when it comes to the hidden rooms and power-ups. It’s not brutally difficult, but it’s nice to see an entry in the sub-genre with actual level design.
And while we (and so many others) have talked about this to death, the game’s gorgeous, luchador-inspired artwork is a reminder of how silky hand-drawn animation can still turn heads. While there are still some talented studios putting out sprite-based games (like WayForward), few are able to match Guacamelee!‘s fluidity. It’s both stunning AND functional!
Thomas Was Alone ($10, PlayStation 3/Vita)
So I’m cheating a little bit by highlighting this slightly cheaper game, but I really wouldn’t want to see Thomas get lost in the shuffle. Much like Tom Haverford in that “murinal” episode of “Parks and Recreation,” I can’t get enough of these shapes! You play as simple polygons – a high-jumping yellow rectangle or a huge blur square that can float, for instance – but through simple, occasionally too-precious narration, each “character” gets a distinct personality. These shapes represent rogue artificial intelligence, with names, dreams and emotions. It’s an interesting experiment in conveying character through minimal means, and while the story doesn’t really “go” anywhere, these shapes will gradually win you over.
They’re lucky that they’re starring in a pretty fun update on The Lost Vikings. Like that game, each shape has a unique ability, and you take turns alternating through these abilities to progress. (Early example: the orange square, Chris, can’t jump very high, so he’ll have to use pink rectangle Laura’s trampoline ability.) With as many as 7 or 8 shapes to manage later on, there’s some (perhaps unavoidable) backtracking, and I’m not convinced that Bossa Studios and co. explored the mechanics as fully as they could have, but this is still an excellent game worth your time.
BattleBlock Theater (Xbox 360, $15)
These days, it seems like Microsoft is more interested in selling you crappy pizza than video games, but at least BattleBlock Theater finally made it out the door. After seeing Behemoth’s latest at four (!) consecutive PAX Easts, I had my doubts, but this is the Alien Hominid PDA mini-game sequel I never realized I needed. Like that forgotten treasure, BattleBlock takes a barest essentials approach to platforming. The levels are all very short and densely packed with traps, and while there are a few scattered items to help you survive, your basic double-jump will get you through most challenges. Eventually.
BattleBlock can be hard, at times bringing out the same masochistic streak as Super Meat Boy, but it’s mitigated a bit by the hilarious narration from Will Stamper of Newgrounds fame. He’s a dead ringer for Dan Castellaneta (I’m thinking Robot Devil), and his manic delivery sells even the most juvenile dialogue. I adore the soundtrack, too; the “secret” scat singing belongs in the pantheon alongside the Skullmonkeys‘ “Little Bonus Room.”
Toki Tori 2 (Wii U/PC, $15)
I haven’t spent nearly as much time with this one as I’d like, but it definitely seems like a worthy successor to the original Toki Tori. With any luck, it won’t take a decade or so for this relaxing puzzle-platformer to catch on.
Toki Tori 2 has the same colorful style and plucky main character, but instead of pushing blocks and using tools, you’re whistling and stomping to manipulate the wildlife around you. Unlike the other games here, Toki Tori 2 doesn’t provide you with much context, or even basic tutorials. Instead, subtle environmental cues teach you most of what you need to know. Though this approach can occasionally be maddening, I really respect Two Tribes for respecting the player. Wii U owners (understandably) begging for content shouldn’t ignore this one.