The Basement Collection Review

By now, Edmund McMillen has become a staple in the indie game development community; between his role in the hit documentary Indie Game: The Movie and his half of the development for Super Meat Boy, he ranks among the indie greats such as Jonathan Blow, the developer of Braid. So now we have The Basement Collection, which is a motley crue of games previously created – alongside varying partners – by McMillen, that is also chock full of extras that may, depending how much you care about the development process of games, tickle you pink.

The content in the package is structured very simply: there are seven “core” games in the package that are playable from the get-go, and then there is a plethora of bonus content. Each of the seven core games is tied to an unlockable item, with these either being a game, video footage, sketches, etcetera. The Collection also contains extras from within each game such as sketchbooks, audio Q&As, and even segments from Indie Game: The Movie. This method of earning new content is hardly anything new, but I do have a few problems with it.

For one, you have no clue what you will unlock ahead of time. While you can see this side content for each individual game, the main accessory items simply appear as padlocks on the menu’s carousel that indicate which title you must beat. No indication is given to the nature of that item. I understand McMillen would like it to be a surprise, but I would have preferred pursuing the unlocks I wanted first rather than beating a hard game just to unlock a sketchbook about a different title that I don’t care about. This leads into my other problem with the content that I will never see for varying reasons: I paid for the damn content! Just let me see it! The two hidden games in this bundle make for great examples: one of these is A.V.G.M. which is unlocked by beating Coil; as for the other one, I have no clue what it is or which game I have to beat to unlock said mystery title. I guess I could go on Google and find out relatively quick, but that information should be available to me from the beginning and be provided by the game.

 

I do quite like the main menu carousel and art.

 

So unlocking the content is a pain, but to what degree of quality is the content? Well that depends on its very nature. As I mentioned before, there are nine games in the collection. Full disclosure: I have no experience or information about the ninth game as I never managed to unlock it. The titles in the collection fall into three fairly distinct categories: platformers, story experiments, and other. There are two platformers in the group, called Meat Boy and Spewer. Meat Boy is a prototype that lead to Super Meat Boy, so as you'd expect, the game is less refined than its successor. The less refined quality of the game isn't considerably problematic, nor is Meat Boy terrible to play, but some issues such as the lack of controller support (since it was a flash game) and imprecise controls differentiate it from its intense younger brother. Meat Boy serves more as fan service and an origin story for SMB rather than an expansion full of old levels to play through.

Spewer is another platformer, but unlike Meat Boy it relies more on the mechanics rather than the levels to keep it interesting. You control a small worm that can "spew" a limited about of vomit that can either be used as added propulsion for jumping higher and longer, or it can be used as a thicker medium for the worm to travel in where he has control over every direction. Using the vomit -- which can be eaten back up and used again in the same level -- and some basic platforming, the player must reach the door on each level to progress through the forty or so levels that comprise the game. Spewer is an interesting concept, but it too falls prey to the same problems of Meat Boy, which is that the movement and jumping don't feel precise enough for this kind of game. Maybe Super Meat Boy has spoiled these games with its best-in-class controls and overall feel, but these games lack the responsiveness to justify playing through all of the games' levels. They may not be terrible, but Meat Boy and Spewer bring a lesser degree of polish than Super Meat Boy, and thus they feel antiquated, leaving them of little worth in the overall package.

The story experiments category of the collection contains three games. First off is Coil, the most tentative game of the three. What makes Coil special is the way that the story is given to the player and the way that the gameplay is handled. When the game starts off, a screen of text relays the first bit of storytelling. To pass this wall of text, the player must first swirl the mouse in the direction of spinning arrows. When the screen vanishes, a game scene will show up, and the you must accomplish some minor goal, such as moving across the screen or eating all of the pellets. However, Coil tasks players to figure out what is expected of them without any guidance or directions. After you complete the task, another story screen appears, and the cycle repeats until the game ends. Coil provides an interesting concept but sees problems with the execution. The game only lasts about ten minutes but intends to establish a connection with the player to make the story more impactful; in the end though, this connection doesn't really work – a notion that was reaffirmed by McMillen himself in the Indie Game: The Movie excerpt that can be accessed by beating the game.

Triachnid also tries to establish a connection with the player to make it more poignant, yet again fails to do so in a meaningful way. The main gameplay behind Triachnid entails a spider with three legs that move individually in order to traverse the world. According to a video segment included in the package, when the spider is hurt by over-extending any of its legs, McMillen engineered the arachnid to cry in a feminine tone to make the player feel bad about harming the creature. In reality, the attempts to create sympathy for the spider feel shallow, and the gameplay is not very interesting or fun.

Finally, we have Aether, an exploration adventure game that was featured in Indie Game: The Movie. Aether focuses on a young boy that experiences his coming-of-age by leaving home and flying to different planets with his pet "thing." On each of these planets – of which there are five – the boy will run into people who are disparaged by life; the boy must then solve a puzzle on each of the planets in order to make them happy again, although he finds out that solving everyone's problems doesn't make them happy, and he returns home with a new take on life. Instead of the story, the puzzles made Aether fun, which weren't especially difficult, but the lack of guidance gives you some pride when you figure one out.

 

Time Fcuk is a dark puzzle game full of angst.

 

The three remaining games don’t really fit into the two categories above. They are more standalone concepts rather than rigidly defined pieces of genre. The first is the unlockable game A.V.G.M., which finds players constantly flicking a light switch on and off to make random items appear in a room that they can then rearrange however they liked. A.V.G.M. barely classifies as a game. This weird little experiment may be enjoyable for about five minutes, then you'll probably never touch it again.

Grey Matter plays like a passive dual-stick shooter that actually has some neat concepts. The player doesn't have any weapons and must therefore ram the enemies without being shot to kill them. When you kill an enemy, a line is then drawn from that enemies death spot to the spot of your next kill, which in turn draws a line from that kill to your third kill, at which moment a triangle forms that kills anything encased in the shape's area. Despite the neat twist on the traditional twin-stick gameplay, but Grey Matter falls prey to the same problem as other games in the collection. The concept remains great in theory, but the execution leaves much to be desired. Getting close to enemies without being shot can be a tricky maneuver, and the keyboard rarely allows for that sort of precision. Also, the enemies change as the levels progress, and upgrades can be bought, but the progress can be marked as insignificant.

Finally, we have Time Fcuk. Time Fcuk has players manipulating two (or sometimes three) planes of existence that they can then flip between to solve puzzles and reach an exit for each level. Alongside the existence-flipping mechanic, there are also crates and static boxes that can be brought from different planes to solve puzzles along with portals to zip around the map. The crazy story and pixelated presentation really help Time Fcuk stand out. At the beginning of the game, you are confronted by yourself twenty minutes in the future. You are then forced into a box for "your own safety" whereupon you need to puzzle your way through the levels to find you again. While you are in the box, a face constantly talks to and insults you every time you fail a puzzle. The surrounding elements and the solid gameplay in Time Fcuk easily make it my favorite game in the collection.

 

Aether, like Time Fcuk, is heavy on the angst.

 

What ties all the games together is the art style. If you ever played either Super Meat Boy or the Binding of Isaac, then you know the kind or art style that Edmund McMillen is known for. The assets' unsettling cartoon look and slightly mad tone is done full tilt here, although it works better in some games than others. Even the main menu carousel and the packaging around the collection feel in line with what you'd expect from Edmund McMillen. The other thing that ties the package together is the fact that the majority of the games lack a particular enjoyment. Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac were well made, looked great, and a blast to play; nothing in The Collection lives up to those games. Even Time Fcuk, which I enjoyed, did not compare to those games. While you could use the excuse that many of them were programmed in three months, with some being 48-hour Game Jam titles, that doesn't make up for the fact that they aren't enticing to play.

The extras in the collection fall under the same umbrella as the games: not terrible, but nothing that you need to experience. Among the sketchbooks, Q&A session, old prototypes, and other varying bonuses, the only things that appealed to me were the Indie Game: The Movie scenes that were cut from the final release. The Q&A sessions might be cool for someone more into designing games than I am, but for the average gamer, there won’t be much to glean from the extras.

I recommend The Basement Collection only if you’re into game development or Edmund McMillen. For the rest of us, even though the collection is only $3.99 on Steam, there is nothing intriguing here other than Time Fcuk, which I’m fairly certain can be played on the Internet for free.

Publisher: Edmund McMillen
Developers: Edmund McMillen, Tyler Glaiel.
Release Date: August 31, 2012
Number of Players: 1
Platforms: PC (Reviewed)

Josh Kowbel's picture

I'll be sure to give this collection a wide berth. I'm not a fan of McMillen's macabre art style. 

John Tarr's picture

It's unfortunate that the extras are so uninteresting. I love seeing how games evolve over their development cycle, but it sounds like his collection of experimental projects would be much more interesting as a full documentary or YouTube series.

Mason_M's picture

@Josh

I actually kind of enjoy his style. It's not my favorite, but it has some charm; the fluidity of the animations is really well done as well.

@John

I hope they release the IG:TM clips somewhere's else, since they were probably my favorite part of the collection. That being said, they are just video files in the game directory, so they would be easy to pull out and share around.

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