Disclaimer: If you inherently can’t stand timing-based platforming and a certain level of trial-and-error/memorization, this game is not for you.
Mario really changed platforming huh? I mean he pretty much created it with his appearance in Donkey Kong, but it was Super Mario Bros. that defined core platforming mechanics for years to come. Chief among these is the jumping itself: SMB added a momentum based system as well as variable jump lengths depending on how long you held down the button. Put these together and you had a game that just felt better than any other game at the time. Fast forward to today and we’re in a resurgence of the genre, with a new SMB, Super Meat Boy, taking its place as king with the most refined Mario controls to date.
How does 1001 Spikes fit into this? Well…
1001 Spikes scales back the jump mechanics to pre-Super Mario Bros.; there’s no momentum system or variable jump based on length of button press. Instead, there are just two jumps: a jump that clears 1 tile and a jump that clears 2 tiles.
What does this mean? Well as far as negatives go it means that you never get the same sense of great game feel as you do in Super Meat Boy. That’s not to say the game feels bad though; you can change the direction of your jumps in mid-air, so it’s not clunky like Castlevania or Ghosts n’ Goblins. It also means that it’s more accessible; you have to worry less about mastering a complex physics system and more about your timing and reflexes. With more reliable jumps you can also have more daunting challenges, without a lot of the error in the trial-and-error.
But the biggest thing it facilitates is puzzles. It’s not always advantageous to use the high jump, even with jump correction; the game makes you use both. You see, most of the game’s obstacles are traps, with slight visual clues of where they could be. This works synergistically with the jump system; you’ll have to constantly think on your feet about where traps could be located and how to handle them, but because of the rigid jumping you’ll also have to problem solve about what sequence of jumps and landings to use to get you to your goal. There are a lot of “puzzle platformers” out there but more often than not they’re puzzle games that just happen to be platformers. This game uses platforming as its puzzle mechanics; rarely do I see a game so multifaceted and yet so singular in its design. Even once you’ve carved out a path you’ll still have to think quickly to execute it; unlike platformers like Meat Boy there’s no clear break in between obstacles. Traps add an extra sense of cohesion to the levels as you have to keep moving and thinking on your feet with no time to catch your breath. It’s a really unique feeling for a platformer, and frankly it’s exhausting at first. But as you play more, you’ll get better at the game and at the quick thinking and memorization needed to complete each level. While the game doesn’t build in the sense of reward like Super Meat Boy does, it doesn’t really need it; by the time you beat each level, you’ll have gained the satisfaction of solving a puzzle and of executing tight platforming in one.
This is all reinforced by a smart lives system where you have to actually learn how to play the game, and not just muscle through it like Meat Boy, so that you can preserve your lives and prevent yourself from starting over from the beginning. It – oh wait, you don’t have to start over? You just get three more lives? …Then what’s the point?
This is the start of a few baffling decisions; why have a life system at all? Or a level skip option? Why is there a store anyway? I get that it creates a strong connection between the side modes and characters and the real gameplay as Aban but it ends up feeling grindy and “pay-to-win”.
Speaking of side modes and characters, this game has a lot of content! There’s a single screen Mario Bros. style fighting game, a Kid Icarus style climbing game with scroll locking, and The Lost Levels, which actually is the game I expected except in short form, with a reduced number of levels and only 101 lives, but a Game Over if you lose them all. It doesn’t introduce any new mechanics but it does put them together in new ways, and to be honest a shortened form probably works better for that Game Over concept anyway.
The best part of the game though is the level design. With rigid jumps and movement speeds there’s already a lot of potential for fine-tuned gauntlets to jump through, with a lot of pixel-perfect platforming that really matches the aesthetic and gives you the feeling that nothing about this experience should have been any different. But what’s great is how it layers it: every level has a teaching layer, a “get through the level the first time” layer, and a speedrunning multiple path layer, and everything in the game is created with these layers in mind, all without ever sacrificing internal logic. There are no scripted events here; everything is created using the tools given, and anticipation of how the player will tackle it. So let’s say there’s some spikes on a timer, and there seems to be a conveniently different colored block as a safe spot. Well that block is going to have logic to it; it’s not going to be just arbitrarily discolored, but discolored because, it has hidden spikes in it, or maybe it’s actually a cracked block and will break when you stand on it. When all of these layers and the logic within them come together it creates a world that feels like it existed before you and will continue to exist after you’re gone, rather than just a series of arbitrary obstacles. You create the timings yourself, there isn’t one set way you have to do it; a favorite mechanic of mine includes pushing a sliding ice block, that you can jump on and ride. Its velocity is set and firm, but it’s up to you to set it into motion, not the game. This is a damn fine platformer, and in my opinion, probably bests Super Meat Boy as my favorite to date.