While video games continue to grow easier, the days of NES titles bleeding kids dry for every ounce of perseverance fade into obscurity. Super Mario Bros. built up hopes with a steady stream of extra lives and subtle learning curve that eventually spiked by Worlds 7 and 8, yet the most egregious penalty for dying nowadays resets players two minutes at a prior checkpoint. Alongside From Software, however, indie developers keep the punishment alive with retro art.
Renegade Kid belongs to that class of sadists if their latest release, Mutant Mudds, is any indication. This difficult little platformer combines the side-scrolling hijinks of Mario, the trial and error challenge of Mega Man, and the foreground/background swapping of Rayman: Origins, rolling these elements up into a “12-bit” visual package. You control Max, who could only be a stereotypical geek with his bowl cut hairstyle, massive glasses, short shorts, and lanky form. But this schoolboy genius may be the world’s only line of defense from the mutant mud monsters that have invaded friendly terra firma. With his water gun and jetpack, Max confronts the mucky extraterrestrials, venturing across screens from left to right (or vice versa) and jumping between the foreground, midground, and background at specific launch pads. The problems start here.
While the plane swapping may be a relatively novel mechanic, some enemies seem to be in the background when they actually reside in the middle, and players that leap before they look risk restarting the stage. 3D mitigated the issue on Nintendo’s handheld, but the PC version lacks such support. Numerous blind jumps to unseen ledges cheat gamers when a rival mud blocks the targeted landing zone, too. The jetpack’s water gauge refills after each hover, but with no more than a half-second before the fuel depletes, you must plan leaps and commit accordingly. You don’t have the freedom to chicken out at the last moment and return to the safety of the previous platform. Max begins each level with three hearts that cannot be replenished, which reckless jumps often rob players of, even though hesitation means impalement. This tug of war between what’s difficult versus what’s fair leaves the gameplay feeling overly cheap.
I would hate to live on Max's planet. Imagine having to leap over spikes while walking to your job in the morning.
Should Max die, he restarts the stage from the beginning. Hearing the same 8-bit themes loop endlessly as you resume a level for the 17th time drives the antagonizing nail in deeper, reminding players of their mediocre skills. Yet these environments serve a narrative purpose. Max must acquire each world’s large water sprite (gems) to help him cleanse the muddy threat, and the smaller sprites act as currency for jetpack and water blaster upgrades. When going for a perfect percent completion, having to restart the stage, re-collect the 80 sprites you had in your possession, then face the obstacle of your prior demise pushes the limits of what modern gamers will tolerate. Levels are short, but the relative time drags on forever with Max’s reluctance to run. Perhaps he should have spent a few more hours in gym class instead of studying for his math finals.
The default key bindings also aggravate considerably. With few settings beyond running the game in fullscreen, the developers let players fumble blindly with the prescribed control scheme. The A, D, and S keys manipulate the kid’s left, right, and duck directions, but W is only used to enter the portals to new levels. The spacebar, meanwhile, controls Max’s jump, just as the left mouse button fires. Why not map everything to the keyboard, you know, where it makes sense? Oh wait, they do, except the control scheme is still flawed. You could play with the arrows, Z, and X keys, but after a couple hours of restarts, which usually ended with Max cushioning his fall on a bed of spikes, I gave up mentally training myself not to tap the W or up arrow key to jump. Nothing has been done to improve the experience for PC players besides the custom key mapping. If you have a gamepad handy, plug it in for sanity’s sake, or remap the keyboard’s inputs. Even then, I never felt in full control of Max.
Each world introduces a new environmental factor to consider. Ice makes sudden changes in Max's direction impossible.
And that part remains essential to any half-decent platformer. Completing levels unlocks more once you gather enough large sprites. Within the 16 “easy” stages reside unreachable doors that require water gun and jetpack upgrades purchasable from “Grannie’s Attic.” Prepare to hunt down each gem you missed to afford the costly augments. These doors open the way to new stages that exchange the bright color palette for red Virtual Boy film layers or the monochrome presentation of original Game Boy releases. If you thought you loathed red and gray before, wait until the deaths start mounting. How long will you last before closing the 3DS or powering off the PC with authority? For masochists-in-training, Mutant Mudds PC adds 20 “Grannie” levels for an all-around total of 60. These stages are anything but casual.
At least Mutant Mudds stays consistent with a vivid, retro art style. Beyond his water gun and spectacles, no other characteristics define 8-bit Max. The same goes for the aliens. A combination of eyes and brown pixels, these mud beings pose no threat during the beginner levels, but they mutate, sprouting wings, regenerating their projectile eyes, or wielding swords and shields. As players hop from plane to plane, the 16-bit environments become less prominent. Mutant Mudds could have been released on the NES 20 years ago. Today’s technology just ensures you don’t need to blow in a cartridge to get the game working.
Renegade Kid satisfied 3DS consumers seeking any and all reason to load up Nintendo’s eShop when the service struggled to get off its feet. A retro platformer characteristic of Super Mario Bros. with smart, precise controls on a handheld? I can see the appeal there, but on the PC, Mutant Mudds challenges dozens of other indie hits on GOG.com and hundreds of similarly animated Flash games. I hold no grudges against the difficulty, though I do condemn the antiquated keyboard controls and amateur level design for the many blind leaps of faith. Maybe a sprint button would diminish the frustrations of restarting a stage, but there is no outrunning Mutant Mudds’ otherwise average qualities.
Publisher: Renegade Kid
Developer: Renegade Kid
Release Date: August 30, 2012 (PC); January 26, 2012 (3DS)
Number of Players: 1
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Nintendo 3DS