Very few retro-tinged modern games ever actually get to the core of what gaming was actually like in the eighties. Sure, some of them get the aesthetic just right – the blocky visuals, the discordant midi soundtracks, the scratchy digitsed speech. But this presentational stuff is only a part of what players experienced back then. Super Amazing Wagon Adventure, however, seems to have a unique understanding of how the actual design process worked, and how it felt to play proto-action adventures like Forbidden Forest or Tir Na Nog.
If you haven’t discovered it yet, the set up is utterly straightforward: you control a group of characters heading West across 19th century America. Action is split between side-viewed wagon sequences, where you shoot at various enemies and avoid incoming fire, and top-down viewed onfoot twin-stick shooter sequences where a single character leaves the vehicle to battle alone. The structure is randomised so no two plays are ever the same, and each mission is filled with surreal, deadpan humour. One minute you’re attempting to jump your wagon over a raging river, the next you’re being stampeded by angry buffalo, or eaten alive by giant bats. Each inhabitant of the wagon has a limited amount of energy, and you simply play on until they’re all dead – and death can come in a number of guises out there in the West. So far, I have been mauled by bears, eviscerated by zombies and riddled with bullets thanks to machine gun-toting bandits. It is weird, compelling and… utterly retro – not just in its pixellated visuals, but in its anarchic structure and design philosophy.
Sure, Super Amazing Wagon Adventure is not alone in its use of randomised missions – that’s become a reliable staple of contemporary indie game creation. But the fleet-footed eccentricity of the design is pure eighties home computer magic. The wagon movement makes no physical sense; the fact that bees are just as dangerous as hungry wolves; the minimalist text instructions that mockingly heap on extra challenges as play progresses… this is all hugely reminiscent of early 8bit titles, where lone coders often bashed stories together at the last moment to justify whichever gameplay device they felt like adding. The discordant humour, the difficulty spikes, the revery in each characters’ death (when anyone dies, a block of text explains their fate, with heads caved in by stampeding hooves, or stomachs eviscerated by bullets) – it all provides a direct link back to, say, Jeff Minter’s early work, or the Ultimate: Play The Game aventures. Even the ability to re-name all the characters takes us back to the mischievous fun of titles like Skool Daze, where you could give all the teachers and pupils rude monickers prompting hours of immature amusement.
The combination of various play types into one title also recalls the unselfconcsious, genre-defying structure of titles like Beachhead and Aztec Challenge. Super Amazing Wagon Adventure flits from one idea to the next, worrying little about cogent atmosphere or easily discernable play patterns; it recalls the era in which designers were learning the language alongside players.
It is also tough – horribly, unremittingly tough; and that is the eighties all over again. Spelunky, too, understands this aspect – like Wagon Adventure it unapologetically asks an awful lot of modern gamers, and provides them with few of the tools and resources of modern games. In these titles, we’re not nursed through endless tutorial missions, or spoon-fed micro changes in theme or plot; everything is assumed, and the player must work to decipher the necessary tactics.
Something video games have lost in the rush toward visual and thematic clarity is the willingness to confound players within a semi-formed universe. Games like Forbidden Forest told snippets of the story, through disjointed narratives and figurative visuals, and the player provided the rest – or died trying. This wasn’t about the inherent ‘limitations’ of 80s hardware – the fact that graphics could only hint at ‘reality’ – it was as much an attitude to the medium: improvisational, irreverant, cavalier. Super Amazing Wagon Adventure works because it has its own approach to basic game design tenets – health, progression, choice – just as the earliest video game adventures did. For that, it is refreshing and funny and challenging – and strangely, not at all nostalgic. It is an insular system that flirts with aspects of game design and conventional narrative, but also confronts and mocks them. It is a game, not about how games used to be, but how they should always be: worlds within themselves, existing partially onscreen and partially within the imagination and deductive abilities of each participant. It is a reminder of something really simple that somehow gets overlooked time and time again: every game design is completed by the player.
Super Amazing Wagon Adventure is out now on XBLIG and coming soon to PC