With the explosion of digital distribution, we are currently in a renaissance of arcade and puzzle gaming the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the early 80s. Small, simple games are dominating again as developers use their digital games’ small size and easily understood premises to reach millions of new gamers. For arcade fans like me this is great news, and new titles like The Splatters, freshly released on XBLA, show that a simple concept can go a long way when used smartly. But as always there’s a dark side to any booming craze, and this time it’s good old fashioned laziness: consumer laziness, and developers taking advantage of that by being…well, lazy. Of course I’m talking about Angry Birds.
What frustrates me about Angry Birds is not that it is a simple game—you’ll find dozens of simple games in the list of best games of all time—but that it is a simple game that takes relatively little skill to master, and mastering it takes little more than basic trial and error. Games don’t need to be inherently complicated to be great, but mastering them should take some kind of skill and practice so that you feel a sense of accomplishment. A game without challenge is simply a toy or toybox—the difference between Half Life 2 and Garry’s Mod. Of course I love Garry’s Mod, but it’s not a game…it’s a distraction. A supreme example of the modern gaming distraction that is being continually added to and enhanced by dedicated fans, but a distraction nonetheless. I would argue so is Angry Birds and the majority of throwaway apps, without the benefit of Garry’s Mod’s creativity, endless mods and new content no less. When games that offer mere idle distraction as opposed to active engagement start making all the money, that’s when the genre starts dumbing itself down.
This is my problem with casual gaming as a whole. When the casual craze began we were expecting simplistic, non-challenging casual games to be the training wheels for a brand new generation of gamers—grandparents, younger siblings, significant others who normally wanted us to didn’t understand our passion for gaming. But it’s been over six years since the Wii launched, and the exact opposite has happened: gaming has gotten progressively simpler, dumber, and less challenging. Instead of inducting new gamers into the fold with gradually more complex and challenging games, the casual boom just keeps feeding more rudimentary pabulum to an audience eager to scoop it up, but only because they’ve never tasted anything better.
Almost everything comes with mandatory training wheels and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to remove them, or in cases like Angry Birds, we’re just getting overhyped baby toys. These trial and error time-wasters don’t inherently bother me, but when they’re getting far more praise, attention and sickening amounts of cross-promotional merchandise than they deserve, that’s where I get a little annoyed. Especially when equally simple but far more rewarding games like Tetris, or The Splatters, are ignored.
So what does all this Sean-rant have to do with The Splatters, the game this review is ostensibly about? Well I’d like to make the case that The Splatters is the exact kind of game we need to reverse this troubling trend toward dumbness currently saturating the casual game space. It’s the classic example of a game that is easy and fun to pick up, but difficult to master. Now that’s a description fit for Pac-Man, Tempest or Galaxian.
The Splatters however isn’t part of that family of arcade classics. In fact at its core it’s a physics-flinger like Angry Birds. The difference is Splatters has a lot more going on under the hood. Developed by Israel-based indie studio Spiky Snail Games, the premise is basic but strange: you control a collection of cheerful smiling blobs of goo, who want nothing more than to go out in the most spectacular, combo-riffic way possible. They do this by flinging, zipping and sliding around arenas and coating strategically placed clusters of bombs with their slimy guts. It’s a quirky idea but refreshingly odd and gleefully morbid—just foreign enough to be intriguing but not “LOL omg SO random!! XD” as in the case of Angry Birds and their egg-thieving swine.
Like any good arcade-style game, The Splatters starts off pretty basic. You’re given a couple of the titular grinning slimes and one or two smallish piles of bombs to set off, placed in locations that are relatively easy to hit. At this point you’re limited to single shots and simple, open levels with few features and obstructions.
Of course it doesn’t stay that way for long. The game has an adaptive tutorial system that teaches you each new element and move as you go, and while these pointers are so rudimentary at the beginning that they get a little annoying, they’re invaluable later on. After a few levels you’re given the ability to change direction mid-shot—Splatters isn’t a fling and forget affair like Angry Birds—and while at first you can only adjust your course once, later on you can do so two, three or even more times, desperately trying to conserve momentum while hitting as many disparate bomb groups as possible.
Splatters’ mechanics are not nearly impossible to predict like the structure-toppling physics behind Angry Birds—a troublesome fact that makes Angry Birds rife with trial and error. Splatters does however still take a measure of predictive skill that you can hone over time…a skill that must constantly adapt and improve as the levels get harder. In no time you’ll encounter speed-boosting wedges placed along curves and loops, huge dangling bomb clusters in the shapes of people or spiderwebs, and jutting spikes that can either end a shot in failure or strategically burst your Splatter in a bomb-sliming explosion. Eventually you can even wind time back and forth much like Prince of Persia, which builds up momentum and lets you target multiple bomb clusters in a single shot.
If you’re completely stumped you can even watch developer runs that show different ways to complete the current level, but this reminds me more of the “Super Guide” feature in recent Nintendo games; it’ll help you if you’re stuck but it won’t hold your hand. The Splatters is the rare puzzle game that takes actual skill and reflex to play well—the tutorials don’t ruin a level for you by showing you basically how to do it, because you still need to nail the timing and execution. This takes away the dreaded “puzzle game guilt” of watching a hint or tutorial when you’re lost. Splatters is a strange hybrid of stunts and puzzle, much like Portal, where style and quick thinking are just as crucial as figuring out the cerebral aspects of a level.
The Splatters has three basic game modes and they cover a good range of play styles. The basic stunt tier is called Become a Talent, and has the usual progression of challenges from basic to advanced. This is the mode that teaches you to play the game so it’s a good idea to run through at least half of it before tackling the other modes. Combo Nation is the game’s time attack mode, but with stunts instead of a ticking timer: you can’t afford to stop between shots and analyze the situation, but must keep the combo meter from running out. Combo Nation is all about instinct and how good you are at playing the regular game, testing to see how many of the moves, stunts and tricks have become second nature to you.
The third mode, Master Shot, is the complete opposite. Here it’s all about setting things up precisely and playing a perfect game, completing challenge shots that take careful aim. You’ll use up your entire bag of tricks in this mode, pulling off those extreme game-breaking stunts and often completing shots or moves that the game stipulates.
Unfortunately The Splatters doesn’t have a multiplayer mode, but it does support stat-tracking and leaderboards. That said, the developers did think of almost everything else. There is a wealth of tweakable options, including the ability to play the game in more color-distinct shades for colorblind gamers; the normal gameplay is color coded so that slimes will only detonate bombs of their corresponding color, so it’s pretty cool that Spiky Snail considered this ahead of time and included this feature so the game was more accessible.
The Splatters really snuck up on me. I’m not the biggest fan of puzzle games and I’m increasingly skeptical of the casual movement because you’re never sure whether you’ll be getting a fun retro-style arcade game or just another tired, boring rip-off. Spiky Snail’s new game made me seriously re-evaluate my position of casual puzzlers and physics-flingers in particular; it’s amazing what you can do with the genre if you add a healthy dose of creative thinking and take a general “why not?” approach.
While I don’t despise Angry Birds or its innumerable imitators, it does bother me that a decidedly unimpressive game gets lavished with so much attention when innovative new titles like The Splatters have to fight tooth and nail for some recognition. In my mind The Splatters is up there with Peggle in the category of good, worthwhile physics puzzlers. Hopefully more people will agree with me that it’s worth the 800 MS points for a fresh take on an often-cloned genre.