Fuelled by nostalgia we’re seeing a resurgence of the 2D platform game from smaller developers looking to relive the glory days of the late 8- and 16-bit eras – though thankfully they’re generally better-crafted than in the time of the “platform glut” of that era of gaming. Dreambox Games’ new WiiWare game ROBOX is one of the most recent to grace the Wii Shop, combining the open-world exploratory feel of Super Metroid with the difficulty of old-school platformers like the Super Mario series.
>In true retro fashion there’s a paucity of choices in the startup screen: start one of three possible save games (good for a household with multiple players) or view the credits. An opening text sequence introduces the story of a robot probe dropped on an alien world. Damaged in the landing, our hero – looking like a cross between a car battery and “Marvin the Paranoid Android” from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – must fend his way through assorted hostile alien lifeforms whilst trying to collect the tiny, but helpful creatures who will effect his repairs.
As befitting a game of this type the controls are very simple and use the remote on its side with buttons for jumping and shooting. Despite the use of an arm cannon to blast a few enemies, this is definitely more of a platforming game and you’ll find yourself hopping over obstacles and having to bounce vertically through mountains and trees as you explore strange alien environments.
Your overall mission is to collect tiny creatures found in globs of yellow amber scattered about the vast game world. Once you have them you’ll need to effect repairs by switching to the alternate play mode inside your robot via the “-” button. In this portion of the game you point the remote at the screen in order to select the little creatures and move them about with the d-pad. Each has different abilities you’ll need to figure out on your own, but they work together to repair damaged circuit pathways to switch on weapons and other enhancements used in the bulk of the game. You can only use each one once, meaning you’ll always be on the lookout for that next bit of amber to get something else turned on to help you reach more places in your planetary survey.
There’s a further mode of play in which you shoot bugs with the pointer during intervals where your robot travels through the trees squished into the side of a giant caterpillar, but this merely serves to break up the platforming sections from time to time. Mostly you’ll be jumping and occasionally blasting enemies in order to pick up that next little critter to try and turn on another enhancement.
If I have a serious complaint with Robox it’s the level of difficulty which symbolises pretty much everything I dislike about platforming games in general. There’s plenty of leaps of faith where you’re up in the trees and cannot necessarily see the platform you need to jump to; missing it can mean a bit of a slog before you can try again. Often you’ll need a small running start to make leaps at the limit of your abilities or there will be obstacles that inflict damage and cause you to fail a jump unless you time it just right. The frustration factor can be pretty high – especially considering you can go through some serious gaming hell only to find a bit of amber outside your reach because you haven’t gotten that extra jump boost repaired.
Checkpoints abound and save points seem nicely placed, but even so there’s a few gauntlets to run where a mistake means repetition and there’s no margin for error. Given you can only take three hits before falling to pieces (though over time you’ll be able to increase that figure) you’ll find yourself starting back at the last checkpoint a lot. You can transport between save points, but without a map your only clue of where to go next is the indicator showing the total number of amber pieces to find in any sub-level on the transport screen. You’ll have to be the kind of person who enjoys exploring just for the heck of it (and doesn’t mind respawning enemies) if you’re going to perservere.
Although I’m clearly not enamoured of the game’s genre or difficulty, what I cannot complain about is the brilliant artistic vision Robox presents. This is definitely amongst the most beautiful Wii games full-stop, with an art style clearly inspired by funky animated films like Yellow Submarine and Allegro Non Troppo. The creatures and landscapes are full of character and there are wonderful touches like butterflies flitting about. Despite terminal frustration in my time with Robox, I always enjoyed the brilliantly animated inhabitants, quality sound effects and the soundtrack.
There’s a lot of game here (and a good-looking one at that), so if you do like the old, hard-as-nails platform games of yesteryear you’ll probably get on well with this one. For novice gamers or folk who like their games less than back-breakingly challenging, tread cautiously: this one’s definitely for the core platforming crowd.