We’re now at the point in gaming as a medium where we can begin to cannibalize our own past. Enough time has been spent with enough genres where we can now start releasing titles with primitive enough graphics and abstract settings and just expect you to know how they work. Let’s take VVVVV for an example – great game, but abstract and difficult enough to the point where you’ll really only appreciate it after suffering through years of platform/puzzle games. As a big fan of most shooters from before about 2005 or so, I had long waited for something similar to happen to the FPS. Last year’s Rise of the Triad came close but wasn’t quite what I needed. This game has finally arrived, but I couldn’t have expected it to look so much like Katamary Damacy.
Lovely Planet is exactly that game, and I couldn’t be happier. The debut project from presumably Japanese developer Quicktequila Games, Lovely Planet betrays its adorable art style with some super intense old-school shooter action, adorned here and there with a very Japanese arcade sense of progression and flow, and a plot subtle to the point the developers warn is “not told at all – you won’t know what hit you”. Maybe not quite what Telltale or Naughty Dog fans want to hear, but enough to keep gamers of a certain stripe interested, if not outright excited.
Shorn of trappings like “a deep plot” or “need for an intensely detailed sci-fi artstyle”, Lovely Planet is free to focus on what should be the most important thing in a game: the gameplay. Your character turns on a dime, accelerates quickly, and jumps like it’s 1998 through a series of just-complicated-enough levels constructed of…puffy clouds, picket fences, soft edges, and deadly apples. The enemies all die in one hit and look like squares making angry eyes, only occasionally bothering to fire back at you. Level traps like apples that kill you when they hit the ground and cute poisonous blobs of Claymation-something require you to stay on your toes, but you’ll never find yourself beset by anything like ‘bad level design’ or ‘hunting for keycards’.
If it sounds kind of sparse so far, it is – but that’s the point. Lovely Planet doesn’t so much have levels as it does obstacle courses. Every level is a tiny, intricately designed nugget of joy and jumping that, if played correctly, shouldn’t take you more than two minutes to finish each, and that’s if you’re having a hard time and/or trying to dig out the secret areas (which do little more than chime a loud bell upon discovering one). The point of each isn’t to amble around waiting for a cutscene to kick in, or trying to find some magic trinket to further your progression. All you have to do is kill every baddie, make every preposterous-looking jump, and find the magic lavender pillar at the end of every level.
But it isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds. One hit from any of the enemies will reset your score and send you right back to the beginning. Miss a bad guy, and even if you live to touch the goalpost you’ll be forced to do it over again until you kill every last one of them. And even when the enemies themselves aren’t the problem, enemy placement is. Many of the obstacles, like the insta-death apples that kill you when they touch the ground, the sad-faced grey hostage squares that will restart the level if they get hit in the crossfire, or the deceptively-sized disappearing platforms, force you to constantly be aware of your surroundings, and your repeated attempts at each level will invariably start resembling a choreographed dance: jump here, fire twice at these two apples, turn the corner but keep moving since there’s a frowny face right behind that puffy tree...so on and so forth. The need to remember the levels’ layouts and enemy placement lest you face another humiliating one-hit death makes Lovely Planet feel like any number of classic Japanese arcade/8-bit action titles; to be specific, it might be summed up pretty well by calling it a “really adorable first-person Contra”.
So there’s death around every corner, you’re constantly jumping and weaving to avoid purple enemy hellfire, and the slightest mistake sends you back to the beginning, cowed for your failure. This game is probably grimdark and totally brown, right? NOPE! This is one of the cuddliest games released in the past 15 years that doesn’t say Nintendo anywhere on it, and I mean that in the best way possible. The world of Lovely Planet (the planet in question, perhaps) is a world of soft surfaces, brightly pleasant colors, and absolutely no shadows or textures, anywhere. It’s not an inaccurate comparison to draw between this game’s aesthetics and that of Katamari Damacy, but it’s sort of a lazy one. In a vague sort of way, Lovely Planet recalls that beautiful time between the release of the PS1 and the death of the Dreamcast wherein it was okay for games to be bright and colorful, and experiment with goofier art styles. Picture a first-person take on the Parappa the Rapper universe, or a less disturbing and better-lit LSD: Dream Emulator (or one of Osamu Sato’s works, with less baby faces) and you’re headed in the right direction. When I say this could have easily been a PlayStation or Saturn game, I mean that in the best way possible. The cheerful earworm music and unabashedly fun art style help to liven up a genre that, even at its most fun, is still primarily militaristic hardware and earthtoned demons, and any shooter fan put off by the aesthetics is missing out hard.