Man, you know what there sure are a lot of right now? Platformers!
Not that I’m complaining. Quite the contrary, in fact: as a wee lad growing up in the hinterlands of Michigan, the only genre I enjoyed more than Doom-style 2.5D shooters were platformers. I don’t care how goofy the mascots were, I played and loved most of them. And right now, thanks to the advent of independent developers and alternate distribution channels, there’s as many platformers to choose from right now as there were in the days before Nintendo manufactured disc-based systems. I’m thrilled about it, but with so many out there it’s hard to know which are worth a crap. Within the last year or so, one fledgling series has made a name for itself as a throwback shooter that knows what its doing: Mutant Mudds.
Mutant Mudds Deluxe, a PC port of the Wii U port/sequel of the 3DS eShop game Mutant Mudds (with me so far?), is an entertaining, cleverly constructed little platformer that challenges without being offensive. Like many of its peers, it’s a simple 2D platformer/shooter wherein you run forward, shoot charming little poopy-blob aliens with a blaster, and hop onto and over things. Where the big gameplay wrinkle comes in is your ability to transcend dimensions. Instead of complicating things with some Klonoa-style 2.5D action, everything in Mutant Mudds takes place on a 2D plane. The exploration of each level is heightened, however, by your ability to hop between ‘layers’ of the stage. Maybe I’m not explaining this well.
Imagine some kind of diorama or shadowbox. There’s a stage in the far back for tiny background elements, there’s some objects placed in the middle that are about average size, and there’s one layer right up front where everything is constructed much bigger to give an illusion of depth. Your hero, the classically silent Max, has the ability to jump to each one of these layers when standing on the proper platform. Each of these layers add subtle, but noticeable, tweaks to the standard jump-n-shoot formula. Being in the farthest layer allows you to dodge enemies more easily as everything has been shrunk down, but jumping and basic level navigation tends to be more difficult due to the decreased scale of your surroundings. Conversely, when you’re right up front, jumps tend to be shorter (as you’re a lot bigger), but your increased size makes you more prone to colliding with enemies. Even without these wrinkles, the core gameplay of Mutant Mudds is solid and well-built. The level design adds increasing challenge as you go and teaches you by example instead of blinking hint boxes, and the overall pace is reminiscent of the more deliberate challenges of a classic Mega Man title, as opposed to the breakneck Metal Slug-esq pace of many indie shooters.
Even more so than gameplay, many independently-made platformers rely on presentation to evoke warm, comforting nostalgia and Mutant Mudds succeeds better than most in that regard. The plot is charmingly threadbare, beginning with you and your Granny (who appears later on as a shopkeep) playing your 3DSes inside during a lovely summer day, when suddenly the aforementioned poopy-blobby aliens (those would be the Mudds) attack! And…that’s it! Developer Renegade Kid, the studio behind the woefully underrated Dementium series, as well as the throwback DS shooter Moon (one of my favorite games on that platform, hands-down), refers to Mutant Mudds‘ graphics as ’12-bit’, and this is pretty accurate. Too detailed to be a NES/Master System game, but maybe not quite up to the level of the SNES or Genesis, the game looks like it could’ve been on the Turbografx-16, or maybe existed on PC alongside Commander Keen and the original 2D Duke Nukem games (you know, like the very first one where he wore a pink vest). At times, you’ll find special doors that take you to bonus areas, each one of them themed after a different retro-game presentation style (and a few of them system specific) that will get a chuckle out of you nearly every time. Max animates very well, with his mop of hair flopping up and down when he lands from a jump, and his walk bobbing up and down nearly in time with the music. Speaking of, the music is wonderful. Seemingly composed on actual chiptune software, the music perfectly (and accurately) evokes the tone, melodies, and overall composition of most game music between 1988 and 1993 without any of the fake-outs in instrumentation many indie games resort to, and the whole thing is available online!
I probably sound like I’m gushing. GOOD! I DON’T CARE! Mutant Mudds Deluxe is great, and deserves to be played by anyone who has ever enjoyed a video game that came out before 1997. Beyond the tight controls and thought-out level design, the game just seems so…honest. It provides some new twists on an old gaming chestnut, but it seems done out of a sense of love, not a need to differentiate itself. It doesn’t need to. Games like Mutant Mudds will always find their audience without ridiculous gimmicks and the fact it was voted onto Steam through Greenlight is a good sign that there’s still plenty of an audience for a well-made platformer. No matter what system you try it on, if you find yourself itching for some jumpin-n-shootin, then get yourself a copy of Mutant Mudds Deluxe. Or just Mutant Mudds. Whichever.