What’s your videogame origin story? Everyone has one; it’s the game that hit you like a radioactive spider bite the first time you played it and turned you into the gamer you are today. I’ll bet for most gamers, it was one of the classic 2D side-scrolling platformers that were popular on 8 or 16 bit systems from way back when. I certainly remember the day my friend got his Nintendo Entertainment System and fired up Super Mario Bros. for the first time. I could tell the world was changing. However, it changed for others and not me. So while all my friends transformed into heroes and stomped every mushroom ever, I looked on, slightly confused by this colorful, odd, and, to me, incredibly difficult bit of Japanese electronic wonderment. I asked myself, “What was the big deal? You run to the right and jump, FOREVER.” But eventually I too was blessed with my own spider bite in the form of Lara Croft and traveled a very different path than those old friends on the way to gaming heaven.
But I’ll never forget those strange summer days that I spent in dusty basements or stuffy bedrooms watching my friends dominate Bowser and save Princess Peach. Now that I’m old enough to have developed some hindsight and a mild longing for a clichéd reconnection to those days long gone, my thoughts return to the side-scrolling platformer. I’m driven by unseen forces to seek them out like a salmon is driven to swim upstream, and occasionally I find something that reminds me how much fun can be had by simply running to the right and jumping forever, with nary a broken hooker, headshot, or 3D spinning blade trap to be seen.
Recently, I played another such game with none of the trappings of the modern world. The Fancy Pants Adventures features all the hallmarks of those great side-scrollers of the past: Shinnies to collect, enemies whose heads need to be pounced on to overcome, bottomless pits, and a mainly left to right flow of gameplay. Will it take me back to those dusty basement and stuffy bedroom days of my youth? I guess you’ll just have to read on to find out.
Based on the popular flash game developed by Brad Bourne, The Fancy Pants Adventures (heretofore known as TFPA) takes the protagonist, Fancy Pants Man, and sets him in a new adventure in and around his home of Squiggleville. There is a narrative this time around. It involves pirates that have kidnapped Fancy Pants Man’s sister, Cutie Pants Girl, and some nonsense about stealing the Mayor of Squiggleville’s bathtub. It’s silly to be sure, and absolutely not integral to one’s enjoyment of the game itself, but it is there - complete with dialogue that appears in comic book-style word bubbles.
It’s appropriate that TFPA uses comic book styling in its presentation because its most striking non-gameplay related feature is its hand-drawn art style. And what an art style it is, too. Bright, bold, multi-faceted and multi-layered, TFPA is one of the best looking downloadable games I’ve ever seen. It’s not rocking show-offy textures or anything, but it is 100% gorgeous to look at. Honestly, I’ve never been quite so affected by 2D graphics before. I just love the way the game looks and am a little surprised that I can still be moved by a visual style that I thought lost its relevance years ago.
Anyway, TFPA’s ten Levels range from industrial areas that sport shipping containers to leap from to beaches and forests, and everyone is intricately designed with multiple layers in the background giving each an impressive faux depth that I greatly enjoyed. I found the amount of detail both in the levels and on Fancy Pants Man to be almost equally impressive. FPM’s hair and pants (yes he’s still sporting his trademark orange pants - more on that later) flap in the wind as FPM runs at an almost Sonic the Hedgehog-like speed. Artistically rendered clouds of dust are kicked up whenever FPM lands on a surface, slides to a stop, or changes direction. All in all the visuals were a treat, vaguely reminiscent of Kirby’s Epic Yarn in their simplicity, but better looking.Just as strong as the visuals, or perhaps even stronger, is the soundtrack. The ever-present music is energetic and propulsive, but always with a hint of melon-collie, as if the story of FPM’s quest to rescue his sister is more important that it actually is. It never got repetitive for me despite the fact that there aren’t that many different tracks. I didn’t count the actual number, but it was less than the number of levels in the game. Repetitive or not, I liked the music so much that often I would leave the game on pause and go do other things just some I could hear the wonderful music in the background.
Sound-effects wise, TFPA is much more workmanlike. It’s just your standard assortment of dings, bings, and rings as you collect squiggles and stars, and impact sounds when you attack enemies. Even the sound FPM makes when he takes damage seems unremarkable, that is until you’ve put a few hours into the game and realize that it’s ALWAYS THE SAME DAMN SOUND! After a while that particular sound, similar to the sound a ten year old boy might make if he stabbed himself in the hand with a pencil, made me contemplate some very dark things, things that I don’t ever want to talk about or think about again.
So with graphics and sound out of the way, that brings us to the meat of any side-scrolling platformer: the gameplay. This kind of game lives and dies by the accuracy of its controls, the intelligence of its level design, and its overall level of fun. Unfortunately, TFPA is a bit of mixed bag in this regard and actually managed to undo some of the goodwill the wonderful graphics and music had built up. There are two main problems I had. The first was that, while the controls seemed to work as intended, the momentum FPM builds up as he runs loops and slopes often expresses itself in unexpected ways. Often times these unexpected movements carry FPM into an enemy (this is a real problem at the game‘s end when enemy volume and danger goes up dramatically), off a ledge (meaning you just wasted minutes of platforming), or right into a bottomless pit of death (RAGE!!!!!!!!!!). I would even go so far as to invoke the accursed “cheap death” in describing what happens when one of these moments kill you. Sir Isaac Newton should have been TFPA’s final boss. At least then I could have worked out some of my frustrations on the man responsible for them. It was Newton who invented the first physics engine after all. (citation needed
Then there was the combat which, while solid, sometimes suffered from the same unexpected momentum moments as the platforming. FPM has four available attacks: The head stomp, slide attack, bowling ball attack, and, once unlocked, sword attack. Unfortunately, it was often hard to judge exactly where each of these attacks was going to end up. This was especially true of the sword’s charge attack and its spinning air attack. It was too easy to simply die as an attack’s unstoppable follow through carried you into other enemies or off ledges.
I wasn’t all bad, however. There were moments when it all clicked. Those moments saw me effortlessly chaining jumps, attacks, jumping attacks and more jumps together with sections of speed running that were ultimately sublime - it was like pulling off a perfect guitar solo. Those moments just didn’t happen nearly enough for me.
I also liked the level design. Each level gives the impression of immensity as you’ll often find yourself able to travel up, down, left, or right and be able to access some other part of the level, be it a tunnel, a giant springboard or cannon that shoots you up into the air, or a body of water (because FPM can swim in this one). Each level also contains 2 bonus areas that are usually a slightly more difficult take on the level it’s part of, or a challenge - such as a race, or score attack mode that sees you chaining wall jumps and other moves together while collecting squiggles to hit a target score - along with what is called a “micro-challenge” that is started by jumping on specific springboards. Doing so starts a timed collect-a-thon that rewards you with extra squiggles for completing it. And you’ll need these squiggles as every 100 collected nets you an extra life, while other squiggles act as health packs. You can also collect up to 3 stars that are used to unlock other levels and mini-games playable at your home’s arcade machine. These stars also unlock updated versions of the original flash-based TFPA’s “World 1” and “World 2.” Finally, there is one more collectible: Each level contains one message in a bottle from FPM’s sister.
This “home” I just mentioned acts as a hub world of sorts where from you can replay individual levels that you’ve unlocked, play your arcade machine and its assorted mini-games, or customize your FPM. There are over 140 items broken down into three categories: hats, pants, and weapons. Simply pick what you like and go. Combinations can get weird. For example you can kit yourself out in army pants, a baby bonnet, and a fish-skeleton sword if you like, or not; it’s up to you. However, these crazy variation will help you tell your character apart when you engage in TFPA’s up-to-four-player co-op that you can play locally with your buddies there on the couch with you or with strangers over the Internet. The co-op allows for some cooperative moves, as well. You can bounce on another player’s head to reach higher places or if you kneel down, they can kick you into enemies or bounce you into hard-to-reach nooks and crannies. However, enjoying it requires a bit of coordination as four players all doing their own things gets ridiculous, also for best results all players should be close to the same skill level. A couple of n00bs can destroy any sense of momentum and fun you’ve built up. And when that wears out, you can take them to the dedicated co-op arcade machine back home for competitive mini-games.
In the end, perhaps the issues I had with The Fancy Pants Adventures were simply the result of the years I didn’t spend playing Super Mario Bros., Mega Man, Sonic the Hedgehog, or any other popular platformer of the period. Despite that, from its wonderful art style and colorful graphics, to its great soundtrack that I can’t get enough of and its robust and fun multiplayer and customization options, TFPA has a lot to recommend it. Also, to its credit, TFPA doesn’t overstay its welcome unless you want it to. The game’s ten story levels could be rushed through in less than an hour if you were intent on not spending a second secret hunting and squiggle collecting. However, if you choose to go all out and try to achieve 100% completion, prepare to spend some time at it. Bonus areas, stars, and message-bottles can be devilishly hidden, and I often saw neither hide nor hair of the more well hidden items and area even if I was looking for them. All in all, if you so choose, getting your ten bucks (800 MSP) out of it should be easy - and lots of fun.