Steam Backlog: Electronic Super Joy: Groove City

By Shamus Posted Monday Jul 3, 2017

Filed under: Game Reviews 35 comments

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.

Yes, that's the Pope under the Laser-Nipples sign. Obviously this game is pretty highbrow.
Yes, that's the Pope under the Laser-Nipples sign. Obviously this game is pretty highbrow.

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.

Right around here is where I gave up on the game.
Right around here is where I gave up on the game.

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.



[1] 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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35 thoughts on “Steam Backlog: Electronic Super Joy: Groove City

  1. ehlijen says:

    Could the amount of seeming verisimilitude that affects your enjoyment?

    In hotline miami, as I understand it, death mostly comes at the hands of gun toting enemies. In a platformer, death comes mostly by chasms and traps, I believe.

    Gun toting enemies are easier to see as opponents with agency (even though they have none), and thus can be easier to build a motivation to overcome them. Chasms and traps in platformers are not opposing agents. They are quite openly specifically placed to oppose you as the player, not as a character.

    To me, that makes a shooter (top down, fps, 3rd person, whatever) feel more immersive while a platformer feels more like I’m fighting the game’s designer, not any in game opposition.

    It’s that extra layer of separation between me as a player and the designer as the force impeding my progress through the game that comes from dressing up the arbitrary game rules with a facade of agency.

    1. Syal says:

      In an action game, you’re also clearing out the obstacles. You can backtrack to a previous location where all the enemies are dead. If you backtrack in a platformer the pits are still there and you’ll have to redo the jumps.

  2. Sarfa says:

    For all Hotline Miami is an action game, a lot of the game there is hiding behind doors, carefully looking at what is in the room you’re about to enter and formulating a plan to kill everything, or setting ambushes for folk going around corners. That is, Hotline Miami has a lot of stealth and strategy, and is thus closer to something like Metal Gear (in how it plays) to a more conventional action game. In my case certainly, Hotline Miami thus does not engage the same part of my brain as a reflex based platformer, or other brawler type game’s.

    1. Thomas says:

      I was wondering if it was the strategy. If you’re stuck in Hotline Miami you can think about whether there’s a different way to solve the problem. In a platformer you know what you screwed up and the solution is to not screw up next time.

  3. Profugo Barbatus says:

    Perhaps part of the issue is the lack of varied approach to solving something that’s stumped you, or killed your interest.

    In Hotline, your obstacles can be tackled in different ways. Maybe you’ll smash the guy down with the door and gun down his friends, maybe you’ll lure them out into the hall and mow them down, maybe you’ll rush through the building to get to a backroom you can use as a fatal funnel. They come down to the same couple of solutions, but if one isn’t working its usually feasible to try another.

    With a 2D platformer, there’s very rarely multiple approaches to solving a section. If an area requires you to perform a flawlessly timed double jump followed by kicking off a wall to just be able to reach a ledge to climb up, there’s not really anything you can try and do different. Never seen a 2D platformer that lets me go find a ladder for that one section I can’t scale otherwise.

    Its why I don’t really like 2D platformers myself, at any rate. There’s one right way to do things, rarely there’s a cheeky second way, but otherwise its ‘figure out what the dev intended you to do exactly, or get fucked’. Not usually my idea of fun.

    1. Decius says:

      > Never seen a 2D platformer that lets me go find a ladder for that one section I can't scale otherwise.

      Genre twist?

    2. Labinsky says:

      2D Platformer snob here. What you’re saying about 2D platformers is absolutely true–of the weaker ones (at least what I consider the weaker ones). My least favorite type of 2D platormers are the “pixel-perfect” ones where you have a very limited jump, and at any given time, there’s only one platform you can reach from your current position, and you have to jump at the very last moment. That’s not an interesting challenge, and it boils down to how precisely you can time a button press–not a skill you can easily improve, so if you’re not skilled enough, you need to keep trying the same strategy again and again until you get lucky. I’ve played the original ESJ (this one must be a sequel), and while it had some interesting challenges, the majority were of this type, and while I enjoyed it, I didn’t love it. That said, if the presentation is varied enough, the lack of ambiguity in these challenges can result in a thrilling sense of mastery when you finally beat them (I loved the treasure chases from Rayman Origins).

      The better 2D platformers give you multiple options at all times and make you figure out which one will not get you killed. Do you jump to this platform or that, do you jump now or wait for that trap to move, etc. In games like this, there’s often one “right” path through the level, but it takes some puzzling to figure it out. Usually these games have a moveset with abilities in addition to moving and jumping in order to facilitate this puzzle solving. Probably the best examples of this type are Dustforce and the platforming sections in Guacamelee .

      But the best 2D platformers are those that give you a very generous jump and task you with navigating a dynamic series of obstacles. There’s often at least half a dozen “right” paths through the levels, and a nearly infinite number of wrong ones. Super Meat Boy and the recent Donkey Kong Country games are mostly good examples. Skilled players can skip over half of the available platforms, but that’s rarely the easiest approach. But because of the huge number of options available at any given moment (despite basically being limited to three or four inputs!), you need to forge your own path through the obstacles rather than following a predetermined path. Some of my favorite levels in Super Meat Boy have so many moving parts that no matter how much you practice, you’ll never end up having the exact same run twice, so you need to develop general strategies and make decisions on the fly.

      This video has a few good examples of SMB levels that follow this type of design:
      Aside from the timestamp, 1:12, 2:20, 2:49, and 3:44 are other good examples.

  4. Thanatos Crows says:

    As a person who bought the base Electronic Super Joy for pretty much the same reasons as you probably did, but generally enjoys 2d platformers I really must wonder what’s wrong with the game. I too lost interest very quickly. I think I booted the game twice. All I remember is the gameplay feeling unsatisfying and frustrating, kinesthetically. As it looks like I still have the game installed I might just give it another try, just to poke around and see if I can figure out why it felt so..bad?

    1. Syal says:

      I bet it’s the laser nipples.

  5. John says:

    Electronic Super Joy: Groove City is too long a name and too awkward to type for me to want to do it more than once. I could never write an entire blog post about it. Shamus must be made of tougher stuff than I.

    1. Mousazz says:

      Why not just copy paste the name then? Copying Electronic Super Joy: Groove City once makes Electronic Super Joy: Groove City trivial to, ahem, “type”. You can do the same for the italics version of Electronic Super Joy: Groove City, by simply copying the tags around Electronic Super Joy: Groove City along with the name itself.

      1. John says:

        I may possibly have been not entirely serious. Sorry.

        I still think that Name I Refuse to Type Again: Especially Not When Using My Phone is a bad name though.

  6. Alrenous says:

    I feel exactly the same way about that kind of platformer. But if we’re talking a Terraria or metroidvania platformer, I love it to death.

    The ability to fight back is a key point. If the enemies can kill me but I can’t fight back it reminds of unpleasant real-life analogues. Similarly the instant death due to everything feels artificial and gives me a sense of empty frustration. I um, sort of, don’t really like Mario games, especially 2D ones. They can be okay, I guess. At least in Hotline Miami it makes sense that being bullet’d immediately ruins your day.

    Why are goombas dangerous? Do they have poisonous skin? Is Mario a glutton that tries to eat anything vaguely mushroom-shaped that comes to hand? Do they bite? Headbutt? I had the infamous Battletoads, and I liked it as enemies had to play an actual attack animation. I wouldn’t mind nearly so much if the goomba also died when Mario ran into it, and I’m very sad that only kiddy game Kirby implements that mechanic. Also I do get the sense the goombas are satisfied when they kill me, but not particularly upset if I make it to the end of the level. Mostly irrational, of course, but knowing that doesn’t make it go away. The asymmetry between the player and the world really grinds my gears. The game world has all the affordances, is allowed to do all the different interesting things, has the lion’s share of the satisfying moments, and all I’m allowed to do is choose a direction and when to jump.

    Come to think I’d much rather play a Mario-style platformer as the dungeon master.

    Finally it doesn’t feel strategic at all. There’s a right path. It is exactly equivalent to jumping through hoops. It’s down to building muscle memory to successfully execute the path. This is not particularly fast; every time I don’t make it that goomba is getting a satisfying kill (in my hallucination); and I’ve done the kind of thing before, so success is guaranteed. The only real obstacle between me and the end is patience, and if I felt like challenging my patience I could, you know, not play a videogame, and allow the time to pass by itself.

    Whereas the platforming in a metroidvania gives me the opposite sense, bringing the game world to life. I like Secret of Mana but the land feels to me like passable/not-passable masks. I want the landscape to have some kinaesthetic reality. The more, the better. (Ironically the first dragon quest manages this with hills.)

    Similarly I frequently want to explore interesting landscapes by jumping up them. Don’t show me interesting backgrounds if I can’t go there! Ideally to climb the thing, save, and jump off. I always remember Morrowind and Ultima because there’s little worldbuilding vignettes and unique loot you can find by exploring for random holes in the wall. Even Link to the Past does this in a couple places.

    Because there is no right path in a metroidvania, if a particular set starts annoying me I can choose another. There’s a meta-layer to the platforming, some judgment involved about how I get from point A to B, and the challenges I face are to some extent self-inflicted. (The best kind.)

    On the other hand metroidvania can’t normally make enemy-based jumping challenges because I’m going to literally kill the challenge with my arm cannon. I pine for a platformer where you can fight back but it’s difficult and not intrinsically rewarding, but instead a cost that must be weighed against the benefit of not having to take the risk inherent to sneaking by. A platformer wherein neither killing everything works nor sneaking/dodging by everything works. Ideally with some random monster generation so I can’t simply memorize a path the first time through and never have to think about it again.

    1. Syal says:

      Goombas have arms, they’re just hidden beneath their jowls, along with the machetes those arms carry.

    2. AReasonWhy says:

      You know out of all Nintendo platformers I tolerate Kirby the most. You might be onto something.

  7. Vegedus says:

    Oh man, I know the feel. I don’t think I’ve cared for platformers in years. I think the only platformer I’ve liked in the last 10 years is Super Meat Boy. I’m not entirely sure why either. I have the slightly disgusting theory that I’m just not that interested in anything that doesn’t include bloody violence. If it doesn’t have that, it gotta have some skinnerboxing RPG mechanics or story to keep my attention.

    1. Thomas says:

      In fairness this sounds like it took Super Meat Boy as an inspiration. Super tough, instant respawns, generous checkpoints.

  8. 2D plaltformer adventures, part 1/180…

    How many more of these games are you going to be playing?

    1. Syal says:

      Well, you start at videogame=1, divide by number of music tracks in the game, then multiply by number of electronic tracks in the world…

  9. Dev Null says:

    I feel the same way about twin-stick isometric platformers where the primary source of difficulty seems to come from moving your joystick back-and-forth to adjust for the position of a moving camera in order to move in a straight line. Over at a friend’s house on the weekend, I tried a Tron game. After dying 3 times in the exact same place _during the movement tutotial_ I decided it was probably not the game for me.

  10. Christopher says:

    Is this just a pc vs console deal? I have the same instinctual resentment towards RTSs, old pc rpgs, fps games and point & click adventures. They’re genres that arose out of control methods that are completely different from what I grew up with and what I’m used too, and most attempts to translate them to consoles feel bad to me.

    For me, a 2D platformer is practically the ur-game. I love just moving around in them, though granted there are some I like more than others. Auto-scrolling levels are always frustrating.

    1. Cybron says:

      Maybe it’s not even resentment – could just be a lack of acclimation. I was all console gaming through my childhood, but I’ve been on a PC basically since I got my first real job, and I still don’t like those genres at all.

      For its worth you can play console games with controllers on PC. I’ll use keyboard for some things but I still use controllers for 70% of my games.

    2. Daemian Lucifer says:

      I dont think so.Im a pure pc master racer,but I love metroidvanias and a bunch of 2d platformers,even though I play all of them just on my keyboard.There are plenty of old nintendo games that Ive enjoyed in emulated form,like the marios,contra,ghouls ‘n ghosts,etc(again,all on keyboard).

      Taste is only loosely connected with what youve grown up with.

  11. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Could it be down to controls?This game does not require the mouse,right?Have you played mark,of the ninja?If you like that one,maybe its down to controls.

    1. Dreadjaws says:

      Mark of the Ninja is an entirely different kind of game. Rather than being in a fast-paced race against time and depending on reflexes, MotN relies on patience, sticking to the shadows and knowing when and what to strike. It has more in common with the Arkham predator sections than with Mario, Sonic or this game.

      Yeah, they’re both technically 2D platformers, but that really doesn’t tell you much. Technically Tetris and Peggle are both puzzle games, and they play very differently.

  12. Cybron says:

    I love platformers. I bought the original Electronic Super Joy and only played it for 4 hours (which is nowhere near long enough to finish it). Part of that is because I didn’t like its sense of humor, but I also think it may just not have been a great platformer. It’s not that it was too hard, because Bunny Mist Die is the golden standard for “good game that’s way too hard” and I’m still tempted to go back to it all the time.

  13. The Snide Sniper says:

    Something to consider:

    The gameplay of your average 2D platformer is, effectively, 1D. Yes, you can jump (and some even allow you to backtrack at a different height), but at any given time, you only have ~6 choices to decide among:
    * Go left
    * Stay still
    * Go right
    and the “and jump” versions of the same. In most cases, the only question to ask is “should I be in the air at this time?” Without extraordinary effort to avoid it, 2D platformers often become games composed entirely of hidden quicktime events. You’re holding right (or left) and trying to get the timing right for a button push.

    Even for this alone, the decisions in a top-down 2D game tend to be more nuanced (geometrically speaking) than those in a 2D platformer. You have more options for approach, and failure can often be avoided by moving a little bit in some direction. When you fail, you can probably say something like “if I didn’t run out into the open then…”

    1. Nixitur says:

      Boiling down games to which actions you have at your disposal makes almost every game sound simplistic. I could probably boil down most games, even great ones, to “Sometimes, you press this button, sometimes you press the other button, wow, you call this interesting?” and that wouldn’t be very useful at all. And I think it’s pretty clear that just throwing more options at the player does not make the game better or more nuanced. If I give you 100 options, but the best one to take is always obvious, does that make it better? I think a game is more nuanced if the decision as to what option to take becomes harder and precision platformers excel at that. It’s a matter of analyzing your surroundings.
      That’s also why I don’t agree with your “hidden quicktime events” point. Because the whole point of quicktime events is that you know exactly what action to take (what button to press), but the difficulty is in the execution. For most platformers, at least the good ones, the decision as to which action to take is pretty tough and there is very rarely just a single way to do it. The execution is pretty tough, too, of course.

      Just because a game makes more use of its allotted screen space doesn’t automatically make it better or more interesting, in my opinion, but if you want to look at a 2D platformer that makes full use of the 2D space, look at N (or N+ (or N++)). Every level is contained in a relatively small square space and you’re mobile enough to jump over half-way across the largest ones. The jumping mechanics are incredibly intricate and how long you hold the button, when and where to jump on a slope, whether to repeatedly jump up a slope, whether to turn around sharply before jumping and more all greatly change the arc of your jump. Most levels have an absurd number of possible paths to take. And it’s controlled entirely with three buttons.
      Do you have many options at every point in time? No, you either hold left, hold right, stay still and you can hold jump. Are the decisions you take incredibly nuanced? Oh yes.

      1. The Snide Sniper says:

        You are absolutely correct that I’m simplifying things — and likely correct that it is simplifying too much. More damning, however, is the over-generalization.

        There are certainly 2D platformers, such as the N series, that provide more interesting gameplay than “did I jump within the time window”. The best of these do this by adding extra layers to the gameplay, including skill-based pathfinding (“There’s the safe route, but if I time it right, here’s a better one”) and relatively soft failures (“I died, but if I make it past that turret just a little bit faster this time…”).

        From the screenshots of the game in the original post, it appears that these layers of intrigue are missing. You have a window to make the jump, and that’s it. This may be unfair — it’s certainly judging a book by its cover — but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make to avoid adding a game I think I’d enjoy to my queue.

  14. Nixitur says:

    Interesting, I had the exact opposite experience. I’ve played and loved the original Electronic Super Joy a lot. And then I tried to get the collectables. And then I tried to speed through levels without dying. All in all, I’ve put 12 hours into it.
    I’ve played Hotline Miami for, I dunno, maybe half an hour and just could not get into it at all. I think it has to do in large part with predictability. Yes, ESJ is tough, but deaths aren’t as sudden or unexpected.
    In Hotline Miami, I might just die because an enemy turned around in a split second and shot me and then I have to figure out exactly why. And knowing exactly when an enemy might move towards you or when it might shoot you is not an easy call to make.
    In ESJ, I can see the spikes and chasms. They don’t move, I can plan around them being static obstacles. There’s enemies that just move back and forth and there’s homing projectiles, but they’re slow and homing is very predictable. Even if it’s an autoscrolling stage, there’s still several seconds of me seeing the either static or extremely predictable obstacles and being able to plan around them. The rules of how everything reacts to you are much simpler than in Hotline Miami.
    In essence, Hotline Miami felt far more like trial and error than Electronic Super Joy ever did. In Hotline Miami, when I die, I know that I did something wrong, but not what or where. In Electronic Super Joy, I know that exactly.
    I’ve only played the original, so I suppose Groove City might be different in many respects, but I kind of doubt it since it seems quite similar.

  15. AReasonWhy says:

    I have a similiar problem in that I enjoy a variety of both 2d and 3d twitchy games which require precision controls, but 2d platformers aint one of them. I just decided one day I am not having fun of them and I avoid them since. I loved hotline miami but give me any of those hardcore platformers and I will hate everything in life immediately. This extends to 2d puzzle platformers and 2d brawling. The only 2d platformy thing I can think of I enjoy it metal slug (more of a shooter anyway) and… rayman (the reboots especially), for a reason unknown to me.

  16. Emilios Manolidis says:

    Last year I sent you a PM via twitter if you wanted a review key for Emerge: Cities of the Apocalypse. You haven’t replied, or tried the game yet WHY SHAMUS WHY

    …oh. 180+ un-played games you say. Hmmm. Alright. Take your time. I’ll check with you again around 2020.

  17. Phil says:

    I have some strange condition where my brain just can’t computer physics in 2D side-view platformers. I don’t know why, but I’m simply incapable of timing even the simplest jumps reliably. I don’t have the same problems with first-person 3D platforming, though. I have no idea why.

  18. RJT says:

    This series promises to be interesting. So now would be a good time to send you Steam gift games that can surreptitiously sneak onto the list to be reviewed, right?

  19. Fade2Gray says:

    I have a similar compulsion to buy 4X games even though I’m terrible at them and they can’t hold my attention for more than a couple hours. It’s gotten to the point where I have to consciously choose never to open the store page for any 4X game because I know I’ll get sucked in by the grand themes and promises of endless hours of fun that I’ll never realize.

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