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XBLIG inspection: Arkedo Jump! (or: how to make a good retro-styled platfomer)

An ongoing look at some of the titles available on XBLIG, with an emphasis on both excellence and originality...

Jamie Mann, Blogger

November 17, 2010

5 Min Read

Note: this article is loosely based on the original review at http://www.xboxindiegames.co.uk/...

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the platformer theme is highly popular on XBLIG - by my count, there's been over a hundred released to date.  There's a lot of variation to be found among these hordes, but most tend to offer a fairly generic experience.  However, every now and then, you get something which completely blows you away.  And Jump! is one such game... 

It all starts with the distinctly retro-cubic 3D artwork of the boxart image, featuring a character somewhere between Indiana Jones and Harry from Pitfall!.  From there, the 8-bit feel is further reinforced with the single-sentance plot - "A giant Iron Crab appeared, dropping bombs everywhere it goes. What is this all about? Do something, Jumpboy!" - and nailed firmly in place by the gloriously rendered pixel artwork and level design.

However, for all that the graphical design is evocative of the Atari 2600 classic, Jump! takes a significant amount of inspiration from Bombjack: the objective in each level is to to collect a set of bombs before they explode - though unlike Bombjack, some of these must be collected before their timer ticks down. Naturally, there's more to the game than just jumping between platforms: there's stalacties which fall as you pass underneath, platforms which crumble away or disappear, fire-pits from which man-high flames erupt and boulders which tumble from the ceiling. There's also a set of enemies which must be avoided - crabs, bats, limb-tossing skeletons, sleeping snakes - and ultimately, the Iron Crab mentioned in the story must be confronted. Each level also contains a set of items besides the bombs - coins, jewels and extra lifes are the main collectibles, though there's also the occasional knife (which can be carried through to later levels), treasure-chests and piggy banks - the latter two are related, as the piggy-banks will turn into bombs once the appropriate treasure-chest has been collected - though this isn't always the only criteria...

All told, this is classic platformer-101 fare, but the way in which it's presented makes a huge difference.   Arkedo decided to go for a relatively unusual graphical approach: the game is made up of three "layers", each of which is rendered at a different resolution. The static background is high-resolution and beautifully detailed; the platforms use "medium-resolution" tiles and the characters (including Jumpman) use chunky, low-resolution "pixels" reminiscent of the Commodore 64 or Atari 2600. Thankfully, the developers weren't afraid to mix high-resolution effects with the low-resolution sprites - the flames from the firepits being one example - and the results are simply stunning.

Beyond the graphics, the audio is just as good - the developers opted for traditional bleeps and 8-bit style chiptune music, which fit in perfectly with the graphics and gameplay. Finally, there's lots of little comments attached to the level introductions and death-alerts - references and in-jokes about old games and movies (including Indiana Jones, natch).

Thankfully, the gameplay manages to live up to the high standards set by the presentation. The controls for Jumpman are responsive and smooth - and the collision detection on his upper half is fairly generous, allowing you to get away with more than you might otherwise expect. Earlier levels are generally fairly easy to complete once you've understood the layout - the ticking time-bomb theme is only used in a few set pieces, so there's generally little time pressure. The only real joker in the pack is with the bats - where everything else follows easily predictable patterns, the bats move all over the place on a pseudo-random path.  Getting past these can be frustrating, though with patience, it is possible to learn their patterns...

Admittedly, there's something of a tendancy towards difficulty-via-obscurity on the later levels: the levels scroll both horizontally and vertically, so it's all too possible to find yourself trapped or killed because of something you had no way of predicting.  However, the game partly compensates for this by offering an extra life on most levels, so with a bit of care, it's generally possible to repeat a given level until victory is achieved. Which is good, as one of the few things I don't like about Jump! is the complete and deliberate lack of checkpoints or game saves. The developers seem to have felt that this is in keeping with the "retro" theme, but the "all or nothing" principle from the early days of gaming was due to technical limitations, not developer preference!

All told, barring the lack of checkpoints, this is exactly how retro games should be made: new technology, old-school stylings and modern level design.

Better yet, if you do manage to perservere for the hour or so which it takes to complete all 30 levels, this unlocks a "challenge" mode, where the aim is to collect all of the items in all levels. And if you manage to completing this task, then you're granted access to a previously hidden 31st level, described by the developers as the "uberhard robot level". They're really not kidding: the level is several times bigger than any of the standard levels and virtually every single step of the way requires pixel-perfect precision and timing.  As a guide: it took around 3 hours for me to play through all of the "normal" and "challenge" levels: defeating the 31st level took over two hours!

Finally completing the game is highly satisfying however, and the game is entirely deterministic, so success or failure is completely down to the player. With that said, there's a few things I'd like to see changed - savepoints are obviously number one on the list, but it'd also be nice to have a more robust reward structure: currently, there isn't a high-score system, levels aren't timed, there's no bomb-timer bonuses and the money you collect vanishes at the end of each round.

Still, these are more niggles than issues: if you have any form of retro-gaming interest, or are just looking for a challenge, then Jump! is exactly what you're looking for!

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