Friday, November 7, 2014

Platformer of the Month Nov. '14, Kid Klown in Crazy Chase

at 6:00 PM
The platformer is the seminal genre of video game history. Always adapting to trends and technologies, never out of style, it provides an underpinning for action games of era after era. Platformers are responsible for our sense of space and navigation; they form the bridge that transports reality into digital worlds. Without platformers, we'd all may as well be playing shuffleboard. Each month we dive into the deep well of platforming history, hoping to find forgotten treasure or even an extra life. We'll be bringing you everything we uncover here at the Platformer of the Month Club.

Game: Kid Klown in Crazy Chase
Year: 1994
Developer: Kemco
Publisher: Kemco
Platform: SNES, GBA

Oh we are starting this off on one hell of a foot. A size 23 foot. I've got two words for you. Up. Down. Clown. Town. Kid Klown. Crazy Chase. Okay, back to using full sentences. Actually my first note looking at that boxart is that our mascot here (indisputably one of the most acclaimed of the 2D era) is more your classically-styled harlequin (or Christmas elf) than what I first picture as a clown. I guess it's only in 21st century America that clowns have developed that firm image of "orange afro rainbow pants and party hat". Kid Klown looks almost... respectable.

Speaking of classically-stylization, that's one thing this game doesn't! Kid Klown himself might remind you of a Sonic the Hedgehog or a Bonk, but the tightly timed uni-directional gameplay is hedged in future memories of now-popular "endless runners" like Canabalt, Flappy Bird, or Bit Trip Runner. But hey, the game uses traditional running and jumping controls and challenges the player to navigate a course, so it's only reasonable to approach it as a platformer.

So is Kid Klown a Lost City of Atlantis, defining trends a decade yet to come, or is it shallow tripe meant to capture the lowest common denominator? Don't make a joke about "what if it's both?". I did that in my head and it got sighs all around.

How is the game's aesthetic appeal?
Yourself: It's impossible to play Kid Klown without visions of Road Runner dancing through my head. The developers definitely made the most of their trial-and-error gameplay as a setup for varied physical comedy bits. While the individual traps aren't much to look at, Kid K's pratfalls are drawn out to downright whacky levels. He jerks his body three or four times before tearing his head out of a block of ice, floats gently to the ground after being flattened to a pancake, and shakes off water like a dog. A lot of old platformers show cartoon influence, but Kid Klown takes it an extra one half to three quarters of a mile.

The soundtrack has an appropriately jaunty tempo but I can't say I found much to like in the composition.
Golem: By 1994, the Super Nintendo was churning out high quality graphics, and Kid Klown benefits from an attention to detail. In the city level, Kid passes by mundane skyscrapers and through standard construction sites, only to be flattened by a swarm of comically undersized sedans. The contrast between realistic settings and jokey elements goes a long way to sell the humor here.

As for music, Kid Klown sets the right pace and tone for a nutzo chase, but  fails to provide any memorable melodies.

How does the player character control?
Golem: Hold down to make Kid Klown run diagonally down-right along a straight path, and use left or right to strafe either direction. Up will let you slow and eventually halt Kid, but he can never move backwards. Aside from running, the only other function is a jump with a fixed height.

Holding down to move diagonally allows Kid's path to take more screen space, but it also makes judging his trajectory more difficult. Additionally, having to hold down can be troublesome when you need to be precise with moving left and right (it's just easy to fumble on the control pad).

Interestingly, the options menu offers an upside-down control scheme for left-handed players.

Yourself: 4-way isometric control tends to bother me, but here it works mostly fine since you're only moving in one general direction. Using d-pad down for what amounts to an accelerator is unpleasant though. Kid has momentum and controls essentially like a car, which leaves me wondering how smoothly the game might have felt had it used A for accelerate and B for brake. Hell, I actually might get out my emulator and try it.

What kind of non-aggressive elements guide the player's path?
Golem: Balloons. Each stage in the game is littered with balloons Kid can grab by jumping. They can either have a coin, health recovery, some damaging element (like a bomb), or an all-important card suit (heart, spade, club, or diamond). However, what's inside remains a mystery even on repeat playthroughs.

While most balloons will contain the same thing time and again, on each play of a stage, the four suits will be randomly distributed to different balloons. The catch is that you need all four suits to clear the stage. Luckily, if you reach the end of a stage without all four suits, the game loops you with no penalty and keeps all balloons the same.

Aside from balloons, stages feature the occasional platforming element. A springboard here, a moving platform there, and a balloon to ride down a cliffside.
Yourself: There are also coins strewn about the path which unlock bonus stages.

What kind of enemies impede the player's path?
Yourself: Most of what you'll battle in this game aren't so much enemies as they are traps. Banana peels, lava arcs, crab claws and fire hydrants all stand in between Kid and his rival, a bomb with a spade on it. There are typically three means of avoidance: run around, jump over, or stop. The game is pretty reasonable in introducing new and more complex enemies, as stage 1 is comprised largely of things to be jumped over (bushes, cannon balls, spike pits), stage 2 features a lot more that need to be run around (cars, caution barriers, falling pots), and stage 3 is the first time you'll really need to stop (for fire walls, falling boulders, and lava).

Though there are essentially only three responses they'll inspire, the challenge is in learning the traps' timing. How long is it between a shadow appearing and a boulder falling? When is the next car going to speed across the road? You'll generally need to pick up the rhythm of the level and get a good sense of the distance Kid can jump.

Many traps can be dealt with by any of the available means - when Kid is stopped he can walk left or right without moving down at all - but they may not be equally cost-effective. Likewise, being in the right position on the cross-axis is crucial for grabbing balloons, so you may be forced into jumping over a preceding trap that you would've just run around were you ignoring them. Taking the safe route is something that comes into play on repeated loops when you know which balloons you're aiming for.

How are player character mechanics varied?
Yourself: While Kid Klown is absent any power-ups or character selection, some level-specific elements affect the way the character moves. Steep hills show up in a couple places (I think only in Stages 1, 3, and 5) to introduce a speed boost, linearly increasing difficulty via reflex time. Stage 4 is entirely an ice level, as usual decreasing friction so the character takes longer to get going and stays in motion longer after the control is released. I didn't have much trouble with the ice stage, and in fact I think the game let up a bit on the trap difficulty to account for it.

Not really a mechanic, but Stage 5 decreases visibility to a small circle around Kid K. Like the speed-up, this basically just increases necessary reflex time.

How are individual levels built from these elements? Does this facilitate exploration?
Golem: Towards the start of the game, in the first two stages,  elements pop in for brief moments soon to be followed by a different challenge. In stage one, Kid scampers away from rolling logs, weaves between hurled axes, and leaps over shrubbery all in the same breath. In the later stages, ideas pick up a little more consistency, such as the ice stage that places two rising/falling block segments right after one another.

There's always a great variety to the hazards, but their placement picks up a more consistent verse/chorus structure later in the game. This keeps the early game fresh and frantic while lending the later game more of a get-down-to-business-and-study feel.

Yourself: The game uses mild randomization to create some variety on replays. As mentioned above, the suits hidden in balloons are shuffled around every time you die or restart. Occasionally individual traps will also be position-shifted (a bush that was on the right is now on the left, etc.). There is theoretically an optimal path to each level established by the consistent placement of coins in balloons; however, the unpredictability of suit location means on a first run the player will need to check every balloon anyway. So the randomization defeats the purpose of the collectibles altogether.

On continued loops, a player can refine their approach to account for balloons they've already checked. Since looping is a punishment for not succeeding on a first try, it feels weird for it to add complexity to the gameplay - the structure suggests a good player is one who can grab all the balloons on the first try, not one who can learn their contents.

How is the boss variety and how do boss fights generally work?
Yourself: No bosses to be found here. Our main villain, the Ace of Spades, is just a constant nuisance.
Golem: There were bonus games after stages (sometimes). They weren't bosses, and we didn't figure out how to win them.
Yourself: I kid klown you not, there was an air hockey game where scoring in either goal costs you a chance. How do you win this? Sigh. I looked it up and it's that you have to score three goals to get a one-up. Meaning if you don't have three chances to start out with (chances are determined by coins divided by 10) then there's no point in even trying.

What is the overarching structure of the game?
Golem: Five stages, all in a row. If you run out of health or time, you spend a continue and restart the current stage. If you reach the end of the stage without every suit, the stage loops while preserving balloon layout. If you grab all suits on each stage on your first run, the game can move at a quick clip; miss just one suit, and you replay a stage, slowing the pace considerably.
Yourself: At the end of each stage, Kid grabs a key. If the stage is completed on the first loop, he also gets a heart. At the finale, the player is presented with ten keyholes, 60 seconds, and a princess locked in a cell with a time-bomb. You can select the placement of your keys, but each can only be used once and there is no indication which might be the one and only correct keyhole. So it's pure luck whether you screw up and witness the princess explode right before your eyes. The internet tells me that getting it right leads to a better ending (depending on opinion) and getting it right AND getting all the hearts is necessary for the best. The hearts challenge makes sense for replay value. The keys not so much.

Word on the street is that getting the best ending opens up hard mode *<:O]

How is the learning curve and difficulty?
Yourself: For a game that allows only 3 retries, Kid Klown is pretty forgiving. Allowing the player to loop through the stage if they missed any items is a good call and alleviates the frustration of close misses and screw-ups. The levels mix things up enough that they require individual learning, so that's solid too. Unfortunately, the core gameplay - timing jumps within fixed windows - does nothing to differentiate style or skill of play, so each challenge is extremely binary - either you get hit or you don't. A minute to learn, no additional time to master.
Golem: Kid Klown features tweaks to make it more forgiving, such as loops and a generous health bar, but the core concept--collect four randomly placed balloons without passing them (on a diagonal course, no less)--is harsh. On the other hand, building a mastery of the courses led us to collect balloons more consistently, so the learning process itself had a nice incline to it. We'd start out a course entirely confused, gradually warm up to its challenges, and eventually zip to balloons as needed. It's just that, as Yourself says, there's not much past that. Perhaps the suits could've been an optional challenge rather than a necessary one.

Play again or recommend?
Golem: While Kid Klown finds excellent execution, its core concept is so ornery and shallow that it's hard to recommend. I had fun yelling at it.
Yourself: Check it out on Youtube or something. It's a "cool, I didn't know this game existed". The wacky face-plants are where the game finds most of its identity and they don't have much lasting value.

This was a really inappropriate game to flex this survey. Look forward to a better entry next month, when we'll be playing Maximo: Ghosts to Glory!

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