PEGBRJE: Super Skull Smash GO! 2 Turbo and Desert Mothers

Pixel simplicity and VR complexity.

Don’t mind me, just taking this skull for a stroll

Super Skull Smash GO! 2 Turbo is a retro platformer made by TACS Games, an one man indie studio, and published by Poppy Works out of the United States. This little adventure features a megenta coloured individual who is tasked with twarting the Evil King once again as he attempts to create an army of the undead to curse the locals, defile the grounds, and just continue being the worst of people.

Gameplay follows a relatively standard pattern to what many can expect in a platformer — there are platforms, and the player must jump across them. There are short and high jumps based on how long the button is held, and wanting to jump farther requires a bit of a run up utilizing the run button. The maps are littered with collectible coins that can be found in precarious positions, and even more dangerously placed is the singular gem for the entire map. None of this, however, is how players actually beat each level, because there is technically no end goal in which to reach. Instead, Super Skull Smash takes its name literally by making the only way out of each level tied to the skeletons themselves. See, skeletons are the standard enemies found across hundreds of platformers; hop on their head and they fall over. However, they leave their skulls behind when they do, and after a short amount of time they will eventually respawn to continue wearing a hole in the ground as they walk to and from their path. Players need to grab these skulls and return to the Holy Cross to purify them, and it is only after all the skeletons have been returned will the level be over and the player can move on.

This creates a very curious style of platforming, centred less on how the level scrolls and instead treats each level as more of an enclosed zone in which to explore. There is verticality to go up and down, but going back and forth is important to find where all these skeletons are, and the return journey back to the cross is just as important as the journey outwards. Thing is, the cross doesn’t want the skeletons to be carried over, but dropped — which means that the player can throw the skulls or kick them along the ground. What this creates is a hilarious scenario of collecting skulls and maneuvering the way back while treating the skulls as more of a projectile that can collect coins and utilize springs rather than just carrying them. It lead me to some times just throwing all of them back down towards the cross, and if I missed I would just stomp on their new body and deliver them (This did, however, lead to the awkward moment that I would throw them off the cliff and be unable to finish the level, so watch out for that). It’s a fun twist on the standard exploration formula, one that rewards understanding the layouts of the maps and careful exploration tactics.

Make no mistake, however, for Super Skull Smash GO! 2 Turbo is still a retro platformer; that is to say, brutally hard. There’s only one life to work with early on until bonus stages are beaten for their extra lives, and that single heart can be removed in an instant. Since every level is contained, there are no checkpoints at all meaning that death is a complete restart of all of the progress, and the farther players delve in to the Evil King’s plans the more dastardly the platforming layouts become. I personally know that I’m bad at platformers so this might not account for much, so do go looking for other opinions on the difficulty. Or just hop right in and find out for yourselves how challenging it can be; you who enjoy difficult platformers will love the alterations to the formula while fighting off bosses and levels alike, while the rest can still enjoy the lovely pixel animations and enjoyable soundtrack. Hopefully you can stop the Evil King’s plans in my stead.

I uh… what?

Every so many pages, another game appears within the bundle to remind me that there are works of art and media that exist beyond the scope of my understanding. Sometimes it is because it shares experiences outside my own, or crosses in to realms unfamiliar. There are always a few, however, that transcend everything and simply exist within a framework that I cannot fathom.

Desert Mothers is an interactive VR experience by Aaron Oldenburg, who’s had works featured throughout the world for their combination use of interactive media and story telling through artistic imagery, and had included 1000 Heads Among the Trees earlier on. This time, instead of terror mixed with my confusion, the experience follows an entity who remains within an uninhabited location to experience the world through completely different ways outside of that which a human normally can. As one can imagine, imagery through surrealism begins to become apparent, and the ritual begins again.

So let’s talk about what I do understand. Players are able to control the hands of the entity in a first person environment, for we are also the representation of the individual ourselves. Every button does something, and the game itself is about discovering what each input actually does to alter the world state itself. For example, I discovered I could draw with my left hand, which could trigger bizarre events or just create different coloured lines in to the 3D space in front of ‘me’. There was also the ability to view what the player looks like from the viewpoint of another object, still able to maneuver the hands but from a completely new perspective. I also do understand that this title is definitely made for virtual reality, as playing without it gave me a slight disconnect from the experiences; I wasn’t in there to experience them, I merely was witnessing them through a lens. It still created the atmosphere and visual surrealism, but I was detached from it rather than being immersed within.

I wish I could tell you exactly what I didn’t understand, for that in and of itself is what makes this game so surreal. Events occur to those involved that are influenced by the actions taken, yet I cannot exactly figure out what would be the trigger for many of those actions. Rain would fall, the drums would beat, seasons would change and I would be swept along for the ride with a feeling that I had done something yet completely unaware of exactly what it was. Time just marched forward yet stood still, as if the player was unable to fully grasp the concept of time while still being a part of it. My understanding of the shapes and the elements would be questioned as they would disappear or alter their state, yet I could never tell if it was them, or if it was me.

If this sounds like rambling, that would be because it is, for Desert Mothers is not something that can be easily summarized with simple words. It is an experience best done within a fully immersed setting, giving imagery to those who are willing to witness it while creating a new experience every time it is played. It is also best done in multiplayer to continue the ritualistic feeling of the entire ordeal, as each individual will receive a different set of visions and events to compliment those around them. The point is, Desert Mothers brings together the concepts of what it means to understand where and what we are within our environments, creating a meditation experience that doesn’t really make sense unless it is experienced first hand. If you can, try it out and see for yourself just how difficult it is to quantify afterwards.

Links?

Game Dev who decided to take on the monumental task of giving an overview of all 59 pages in the bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. We keep going.