Hype is a strange and fickle beast. It’s formidable, for sure, and capable of transforming even the smallest independent projects into full-scale commercial monoliths. It’s the force that keeps most Kickstarter projects afloat, as well as the force that distorts films like Baz Luhrmann’s recent Gatsby adaptation into oversized summer blockbusters. Hype, often seen as the most approximate gauge of commercial success, brings with it larger audiences, bigger budgets, and most importantly, higher expectations. As you might imagine, hype is exponentially more influential in the indie community, where prosperity is far from guaranteed. Simian Squared, the developer behind the anticipated iOS platformer The Other Brothers, has benefitted immensely from the so-called hype machine. Unfortunately, their latest title, an homage to 8-bit gameplay mechanics, falls flat in the face of such grand, suspenseful expectations.
In an interview with 4PlayerNetwork, the project’s lead artist and jack-of-all-trades—Giuseppe Landolina, described the title as “a nod—more than anything—to Mario; not a satire.” Strangely enough, that’s not really the case. The Other Brothers, as a pixelated, side-scrolling platformer, is significantly much more than a “nod” to Mario titles of past generations. This is a game that lives and breathes in reverence to bygone decades and their associated mechanics. The same interview had the team describing their work as a “modern-twist on the era,” which unfortunately, opens the floodgates to a sea of relevant comparisons. Lamentably, there’s nothing here that captures the joy (or even nostalgia) of the works they’ve attempted to emulate.
If we are to agree that the twin protagonists of The Other Brothers are our contemporary Mario and Luigi, than the team at Simian Squared should be ready to accept the countless juxtapositions that have been justly forced upon them. One easy comparison comes in the form of the game’s art direction. The Mario Brothers were initially drawn with pixelated precision, and thus, The Other Brothers (Joe & Jim) must be as well. To that end, the title’s aesthetics are pixel-perfect, an inspired fusion of retro-styled graphics and modern lighting techniques that pays homage to the games of past generations. Many levels feature phenomenal parallax (backgrounds that move subtly in relation to a player’s positioning) alongside scenic landscapes and grungy subterranean labyrinths. Judged by these aesthetic values alone, The Other Brothers stands as an impressive feat of visual design. Regrettably, as an iOS contemporary to NES platforming, the game needs much more than a nice coat of paint to distinguish itself in the overcrowded App Store marketplace.
As seen in every game from Sonic the Hedgehog to Canabalt, three hallmarks of a masterful platformer are controls, structure, and mechanics. This is where The Other Brothers veers sharply off-course. Put bluntly, the game’s controls are about as stiff as a Mushroom Kingdom flagpole. They’re artfully wonky, even to the point where you’ll be on Amazon shopping for an external controller that’ll work with your iPhone. You won’t always jump where you expect to, and moving quickly requires considerably more effort than it should. Even with a patch offering three control schemes and resizeable buttons, there just isn’t a way to make the game’s movement feel fluid or intuitive. As the difficulty level intensifies in later stages, it becomes clear that the controls are worse than unreliable. They’re plain broken.
On another level, the game’s virtual buttons feel improvised, as if created as a work-around solution to an impenetrable roadblock. Acrobatic movement, despite behaving as the essential adhesive that holds the platforming genre together, becomes an infuriating challenge. The game’s stiff joysticks are made even more exasperating by the inherent limitations of a touch screen. While it’s not often that a reviewer will judge a studio on their choice of platform, it’s clear that the iPhone is not the best venue for a game of this nature. In an age where a flawless platforming engine can be downloaded in seconds, it’s hard to believe that something this fundamental could be so blatantly discounted.
In an attempt to be fresh and inventive, the young studio responsible for The Other Brothers has thrown a handful of the genre’s most prominent idiosyncrasies into a broken blender of faux-innovation. The result, a tasteless smoothie of sloppy, disheveled level design, will make you long for the days when your only goal was to get from left to right. Forget linear side-scrolling, The Other Brothers’ stages are torturously sprawling, and somehow equally overcrowded. You’ll see plenty of mobsters (enemies), pigeons (health), and oilcans (coins), but no reasons to stop and look around. Imagine ripping the cartographic spine from the most convoluted Metroidvania title you can think of, removing nearly every reason for exploration and back-tracking, and then throwing in a few dead-ends for good measure. That’s the average stage you’ll be trudging through. There’s also a timer and score-counter, but chances are, you won’t be having enough fun to bother with either.
Here’s where the game’s most glaring issues lie. The Other Brothers isn’t fun, satisfying, or even joyfully nostalgic. Simian Squared has failed in far too many ways, almost to the point where you stop counting their casualties and start to wonder what type of game they were trying to craft in the first place. Succinctly: the game’s comedy is forced, the levels are too busy, the game’s mechanics aren’t expanded upon, the controls are erratic, the difficulty curve is chaotic, and the various enemy types are poorly, unfairly, and downright infuriatingly programmed. What this amounts to, in an encompassing sense, is a title that’s so focused on adapting an existing formula that it forgets what made the original successful to begin with. Mario and Bowser didn’t flourish as a result of great art design; they survived on the game’s underlying mechanics. Players bought Nintendo classics because they were fun, polished, and engrossing. None of those traits have carried over to the newest rendition, as they’ve all been hashed and rehashed into a “modern-twist on the era.”
When The Other Brothers was still funding on Kickstarter, hopes were high for the iOS underdog. Markus “Notch” Persson (of Minecraft fame) began turning the gears of the hype machine when he pledged five-thousand dollars to the project. The issue with hype, however, is that it’s based entirely on promises. The issue with promises, as Peter Molyneux seems to understand, is that they don’t always pan out. So when the game’s App Store listing advertises “zany boss fights,” “revolutionary touch controls,” or “high replay value,” you’ll take that with a grain of salt. The Other Brothers features a whopping two boss battles, terrible controls, and best of all, a record-breaking feat of six whole stages (as compared to 32 in the original Super Mario Bros.).
As should be shamefully obvious, hype is a double-edged sword. Suddenly, Jay-Z and Kanye West are providing the soundtrack for a film based upon a book set in the 1920’s. Suddenly, the term ‘RealD 3D’ enters the working vernacular of literary critic. Believe it or not, it’s possible to update and adapt an aging intellectual property without distorting the very qualities that made the original successful. With the newest Gatsby rendition garnering a reprehensible 55% average on Metacritic, however, it’s clear that this isn’t an easy task. Surely Luhrmann understands this by now, but the developers at Simian Squared? They’re still working on a patch for the controls.
- The game’s hand-painted, pixelated art-style is stunning and detailed
- The soundtrack is playful and fitting
- One of the enemy types looks like Waluigi, which is cute
- The game’s controls are downright broken
- Comedy is attempted, but with limited success
- Enemies are frustratingly programmed, sharply affecting gameplay
- Levels are too complex and busy
- The game features only two boss battles and six stages
Boston-based writer, artist, designer, critic, loser & storyteller. Focused on the intersection of games, culture, narrative, and art. KillerStrokes on XBL, Steam, PSN. @Wherbit on Twitter. http://willpowerarts.com/