My problem is that I’m a sucker for games with pixel graphics, neon colors, and electronic music, but those games tend to be side-scrolling platformers that I’m terrible at. Which means I have a compulsion to seek out games I’ll never be able to finish.
As I said last week, I’m going to go through some of the 180+ un-played games in my Steam library to see what I’ve been missing. This week I played Electronic Super Joy: Groove City, which I apparently purchased in September of 2014. This is exactly the kind of game that tickles my brain into making an impulse buy on Steam: Bright colors and delicious electronic music. It’s also the kind of game I’m doomed to abandon: An unforgiving platformer.
In terms of pacing, it has a lot in common with Hotline: Miami. It’s a fast-paced ordeal where the slightest mistake means death, but you respawn instantly and are free to try again as many times as you like. There are regular checkpoints along the wayIn Groove City, the checkpoints are little flags you encounter every screen or so. In Hotline Miami, you get a checkpoint when you hit a staircase. so you’re really never more than five or ten seconds of flawless performance from your next goal.
The similarities between the two got me thinking about why I loved one game and quickly lost interest in the other, and I think it boils down to the fact that I just can’t bring myself to care about 2D platforming. I have no idea why. When I died in Hotline Miami I was always compelled to try again. Oh come on, I KNOW I can get this. I’m so close! When I messed up in Groove City, I was sort of annoyed and bored. When I nailed a level in Hotline Miami, it felt pretty good. Sometimes I was tempted to reset a chapter after a sloppy start, because I knew I could do it better. When I beat a section in Groove City (or almost any platformer) I don’t feel much more than, “Eh. At least that’s over with.”
At one point in Groove City I realized I’d just died six times in exactly the same way. I could even see what I was doing wrong. I’d jumped too early every time. I’d just just sort of zoned out, like my brain had checked out and was hoping my fingers could brute-force their way through the challenge without its help. I wasn’t motivated to study the game in front of me and figure out how to play it properly.
Fifteen minutes. That’s how far I got in Groove City before I hit a series of jumps that was hard enough that I got bored and quit.
I have no idea why 2D overhead pixelated brawling is something I enjoy doing while 2D pixelated jumping isn’t. Both are reflex-based actions with an abstract presentation. Both require a good sense of distance and timing. They both use roughly the same parts of the brain. Both Groove City and Hotline Miami are focused on their mechanics and use their narrative elements for tone and pacing. You’re not playing to find out what happens next, you’re playing for the sake of the game itself and the “story” is just there to give the game personality.
I guess the one major difference is that Groove City exerts time pressure on the player. The camera moves towards your goal whether you’re moving or not, so if you fall too far behind you’ll die. You can’t really stop to analyze the space in front of you or think about your next move. You just have to go with your gut. If your gut fails you, then you’ll have to resort to trial-and-error. I’m not crazy about this, but I don’t think it’s what puts me off the game. If the time pressure were removed I might have made it a little further, but it wouldn’t fix the problem that I just don’t enjoy 2D platforming.
I realize this is incredibly unfair to poor Electronic Super Joy: Groove City. I’ve spent most of this review analyzing myself rather than the game. But I think this sort of introspection is what you have to do if you find yourself playing a game that you’re not enjoying, even though the designer didn’t seem to do anything wrong. As far as I can tell it’s a perfectly good platformer with a great presentation, and the first couple of music tracks are really fun.
The fact that I didn’t like Groove City isn’t the real tragedy here. No, the real tragedy is that I’ll probably STILL buy the next cheap, side-scrolling 2D platformer with an electronic soundtrack. And I’m sure I’ll abandon it before the half hour mark.
 In Groove City, the checkpoints are little flags you encounter every screen or so. In Hotline Miami, you get a checkpoint when you hit a staircase.
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