For anyone with any experience of Nintendo’s online attempts, you’ll know that my use of the word ‘attempts’ as opposed to ‘triumphs’ is no accident. They’ve just never really grasped the importance of having a strong online presence both in terms of multiplayer components to games and having a large, extensive, intuitive download service (though I should point out I’ve actually defended Nintendo’s lack of online multiplayer in their key franchises, chiefly because I’m a lonely bastard who doesn’t care about multiplayer!). Wii ware is something of an inside joke amongst the indie game community, especially with developers. For those that aren’t aware, Wii ware has a 40Mb size limit…no wonder devs hate it! However, with the 3ds, and with the Wii U on its way, Nintendo seem to be learning their lesson.
Mighty Switch Force came out last December and was one of the first big eshop releases that was a new, freshly developed game as opposed to a virtual console release. Its name invokes a definite Japanese air and the game certainly follows through on this; it is unashamedly anime inspired (curiously its developer ‘Wayforward’ is U.S. based). You take control of Patricia Wagon (see even the names are an authentically Japanese/Western mess), an officer of the Mighty Switch Force (sod this I’m using an acronym from now on!) who must capture a horde of escaped, scantily clad female prisoners… yeah this is one of those games with pretty minimal narrative context and you know what? It doesn’t need it either, we’re here to experience a unique twist on the platform/shooter not an insightful story.
The gameplay is what really fascinated me about MSF. It uses the 3D to excellent, if understated effect. As you navigate through the games’ 16 levels, you’ll come across lots of yellow blocks, some of which will be transparent and therefore in the background, others will be opaque and therefore in the foreground. By using the L shoulder button (or the A button) you can switch the blocks between background and foreground, allowing you to progress through a level. You can get caught out though; if you switch whilst standing in front of a background block, the block will hit you and push you into the screen, taking a life away. This sounds like a trivial ‘it’ll never happen’ type scenario but you’ll find yourself jumping between sets of blocks, some of which are background, some foreground, and you’ll have to switch quickly mid jump and you really can get caught out if you’re not careful. Later on in the game, you’ll also encounter red and green blocks. When you stand on one of these colours, blocks of that colour will remain in the foreground and will be unaffected by switching. This can have a profound affect and can end up rearranging a level’s layout and by extension, how you get around in said level.
There are some truly ingenious level designs in MSF, the way in which you have to navigate a level in order to find all the prisoners gradually develops from simple in the game’s earlier levels, to some pretty complex, labyrinthine stages later on. These are also compounded by the platforming nature of them game. Like with Valve’s excellent Portal series, the puzzles are not merely an intellectual challenge, oh no…there’s a physical component to them too. Once you’ve figured it out, then there’s the matter of actually doing the jumps, which brings me on to the controls. The games’ final level where you ascend a dauntingly tall tower is a shining example of this.
The game’s controls are pretty standard fare for a sidescrolling platformer/shooter. Circle pad for movement, L/R for switching, Y for shooting, B for jumping. Patricia handles like sidescrolling shooter protagonists of old like Contra, that is to say she moved at one speed and one speed only…don’t like it? Suck it. It feels slightly odd at first, especially after years of being used to variable walking/running speeds but once you’ve played a level or two it feels fine and actually helps the game out; some of these puzzles would be pretty difficult if your speed varied. Jumping is also something I have to criticise. Just as it is with all platformers, it takes a little while to get acustomed to how close to the edge of a platform you can get before jumping off in order to get your maximum distance. This can cause a few hiccups throughout the game where you’ll balls up a jump and end up at the bottom of a level and have to work your way back up again. It wouldn’t matter so much if you weren’t being timed! Thankfully though, the level design means that this is rarely a problem and certainly didn’t ruin my enjoyment, it was merely frustrating on the odd ocassion when it happened.
Speaking of that timer…another bed bug it seems. You’re timed on how long it takes to finish each level and each of the levels has a ‘par’ or average completion time. The problem is that these times are ludicrously short, often no longer than a minute per level. When you’ve finished the game you’ll come back and revisit these levels and find you’re probably able to finish them quicker (not least because when you finish the game you’re treated to a new gun that demolishes everything. It certainly speeds things up!) but even after multiple attempts I still haven’t broken one of these times. I’ve come close..but not close enough. However, the times are just for personal glory and won’t impede your progress at all, there’s no tangible reward for besting these times.
The games’ aesthetics are another stand-out in my opinion. The visuals could be summed up as ‘retro’ in that they are 16-bit hand rendered sprites. At first it may feel like a throwback to ye olden days of the SNES or the Sega Megadrive/Genesis which will feel like a warm jet of nostalgia to some, but may be like a fart in the face to younger gamers. However, it’s not all a blast from the past; the 3D effect I think, has found its soulmate in retro 2D platformers. You see aside from being useful in the game’s core switching mechanic, the 3D effect actually makes the game look interesting too. It gives it this electronic-age pop up book feel which I for one found very enjoyable. It’s something which has to be seen (much like anything on the 3DS) but also something that I think gives 2D platformers on the 3DS something of a unique aesthetic and I hope it is appreciated by older and younger gamers alike. The other half of the aesthetics; the music is something else too. I’ve actually created a youtube playlist of the soundtrack to MSF, it’s that good. It’s full of upbeat tunes which really get the blood pumping, happy, energetic electronic melodies which fit a game like this perfectly. Like its visuals, the audio is overall a retro affair; 16-bit MIDI instruments that are remeniscent of many a Megadrive side-scroller, but with a modern touch. They’re mixed with a few other layers of modern synth sounds and satisfyingly meaty electronic drum tracks. It’s something that won’t be to everyone’s taste but I think it’s one of the catchiest soundtracks I’ve heard in a game for a long time.
I highly recommend downloading a copy of Mighty Switch Force if you own a 3DS and haven’t yet ventured in to the eshop yet. At £4.50 it may seem a little steep, especially when compared to mountains of 69p games on Apple’s app store. However, I really think it’s worth it. Yes 16 levels does fly by too quickly but I for one don’t regret spending the money and I think developers like Wayforward should be rewarded for their efforts, as should Nintendo for finally getting their arse in gear with downloadable titles!