Curse of the Crescent Isle

A game by Last Guy Games for Xbox 360, originally released in 2010.
Let’s get this out of the way right up front: Curse of the Crescent Isle isn’t just a game that looks old school; it’s also a game that plays old school. You can take that as a positive or a negative if you wish. Many of us who grew up playing the original 2D platformers have frankly lost the skills to play games that are high on challenge and low on hand-holding. We look upon chunky 2D sprite art with a sense of nostalgia as we recall the days when the infinite free time of childhood allowed us to master even the most unforgiving games, through sheer perseverance and memorization.

But they were still some pretty good games, weren’t they? Just because you can’t get past World 2-2 of Super Mario Bros. without blowing your first continue doesn’t mean the game is lacking somehow. It’s just that most games have eschewed both the 8-bit aesthetic and the 8-bit gameplay in favor of 3D worlds with veritable floating arrows pointing you in the direction of progress.

Curse of the Crescent Isle serves as a reminder of what makes some of those 8-bit games stand out in our minds, namely that the entire game is built around a single interesting mechanic, which is then permuted upon in a variety of different ways, reaching its zenith as the player masters all of the tools that the game has to offer within its otherwise simple confines.

That design theory is the basis of this game. It’s a simple platformer where you have the ability to pick up your enemies. But it’s what you can do with those enemies that makes all the difference.

There are a handful of games that allow you pick up one enemy and toss it at another, or to ride on said enemy to travel through the environment. Most gamers will recall this being the basis of much of the gameplay in Super Mario Bros. 2 and it was also featured in the more recent Apple Jack. While this style of gameplay is certainly present in Crescent Isle, it’s not the core focus of the game. Instead, it’s all about how these enemies affect each other and the environment.

Every enemy you grab has its own properties that can – and must – be bent to your purposes to navigate the levels. The game, at first, seems to be trying to emulate the gameplay of Super Mario Bros. 2, with pink ghost-like enemies that can be tossed at one another to stun them. In fact, if you gave up playing the game after its first level, you’d be left with the impression that it is simply a fair attempt at emulating SMB2 with little else to offer.

But after the first level, that model comes unglued, and a whole new world of gameplay possibilities opens up to you. When you encounter a drill enemy, you’ll find that it’s useful not only for getting across rows of spikes, but also for flipping it beneath you to break rocks and open up new paths. In fact, flipping enemies beneath you isn’t even a power that you have at the beginning of the game; you learn this skill after completing the first level.

The drill doesn’t just wobble lazily along as you command it. Instead, it bounces atop obstacles and enemies like a pogo stick (or perhaps like Scrooge McDuck’s cane in DuckTales). It also forces you to consider the environment since you’re bouncing madly about, and even the act of breaking rocks causes you to bounce upward as they are destroyed. Then, shortly after you learn how to use this tool, you’ll find an area with rocks to break above you. The press of a button flips the drill over your head and allows you to drill upward, jumping up against the rocks to demolish them as well.

But wait, the path that you have opened above you is too high for you to jump through. How do you continue? Well, you can grab another drill, place it on the ground, and use it to get extra height by bouncing off of it with the first drill. This is one of the more basic examples of enemy use in the game. As you continue, you’ll encounter several new enemy types, many of which must be used in conjunction with one another.

The game is still a platformer at heart, and there are plenty of genuinely challenging pure-platforming sections spread throughout the adventure. You’ll be making precision jumps, ascending tall towers of tiny blocks, jumping over spikes, dodging balls of fire, and contending with blocks of ice that will crumble if you stand on them for too long (and enemies that will break the ice blocks as well). But each level also has a number of environmental puzzles that require a bit of brainwork to get through. If you’re stumped at how to get to the next section, it’s because you haven’t taken one of the available enemies into account.

As mentioned, some enemies are simply good for tossing into one another. Others, however, offer gameplay- and environment-altering powers. For instance, there’s a bug-like enemy that wanders along across the ceilings. Grab one and you can ride it. Flip it above your head, and it will pull you up to the ceiling. You can use this to get over pits of spikes, but you have to be careful, because there are spikes and other dangers on the ceiling as well.

At first, this enemy works similarly to a reverse gravity effect, but later on you’ll encounter huge spiked eyeball enemies that change position whenever you flip the bug. You’ll have to navigate an entire maze Metal Storm-style by flipping between the floor and ceiling, and eventually navigating around these eyeball enemies as well.

Another very useful enemy is an icicle, which introduces itself by demonstrating its ability. Namely, it drops down from the ceiling, hitting the water below and turning it into ice. Any body of water can be frozen (for a limited time) by using this creature, but enemies can be frozen as well. If you’re having visions of the ice beam from Super Metroid (or Metroid II), then you’re right on track with some of the environmental challenges that you’ll eventually face.

Another gameplay-altering enemy is an ugly green ghost with a huge eyeball. By itself, it doesn’t seem to have much to offer, but its real power is the affect that it has on other enemies. Namely, any enemy hit with one of these ghosts – whether you toss the ghost or use it to bounce – causes that enemy to quadruple in size. Hit it again, and it will return to normal. Environmental puzzles begin to get a bit complex with the addition of this enemy, but it leads to some rewarding solutions.

The game also features several boss encounters, but these do not rely heavily on creative use of the various enemy types. You may die a few times while you attempt to work out the method to defeating them, but most do not present a terrible threat. In most cases, the boss’ weak point is readily apparent, and it’s just a matter of setting yourself up to exploit it.

Your health is represented by 3 hearts along the right side of the screen. You will occasionally find hearts within the levels, which will restore one lost heart. There is nothing else on the HUD. There is no inventory. You will not level up. And you’ll never have more than the 3 hearts that are available at the outset. In fact, other than enemy flipping, you have all of your abilities from the start of the game.

No tutorial explains what you need to do. The only help that’s offered is a diagram on the pause menu that shows you how to pick up and toss enemies, and how to run. Otherwise, you learn to play just as you did with the games of old… by experimentation. With only 3 hits on your health meter, it’s easy to die, but the game has made one modern gameplay concession to balance the frequency of your deaths. Namely, you get infinite continues.

But don’t get too comfortable… you’ll still die plenty, and there are no save points in this game. That’s right, just like those old carts you used to play, before battery backup and memory cards were invented, you have to make it through the whole game in one sitting. The game plays by the old rules, and this design choice makes the weight of your successes (and failures) in the later parts of the game all the heavier. If you’re having a hard time making it past a section, you have to decide whether to keep trying, or to power down and try again later from the beginning.

UPDATE: The developer has released a patch that adds a password feature (accessible via the pause menu), allowing players to pick up from where they left off. The patch also increases the overall speed of the game somewhat.

Any time you die, you’ll be sent back to the last screen transition. Usually, this is just a few seconds of gameplay, but you will sometimes need to struggle to reproduce a failed puzzle solution several times before you get it right. Your failure will result in your frustration, but it makes every inch of success all the more rewarding.

It is possible to whiff on a puzzle solution and lose an enemy that you need to complete the level. If that’s the case, you can drop back to the pause menu and restart at the last screen transition. Happily, your health is restored back to 3 hearts at every transition, eliminating the need to commit suicide upon entering a challenging area with only 1 hit remaining. (This is a surprisingly uncommon design, despite its logical benefits.)

The premise of the game is that the king’s daughter was kidnapped by a warlock on the day of her (arranged) wedding. The warlock intended to cast a spell on the king, but it instead turned the people of the land into the various creatures that you encounter on your journey. As you defeat each boss, you are returned to your throne room, and you may speak with the townspeople who have been rescued.

Each time you return, there will be more people, and each of them will treat you to a bit of dialogue that changes as you play. For instance, a man speaks to you about his missing wife and kids (and jokes that you needn’t hurry to rescue them). Later, when his wife is returned to him, he thanks you, but mentions that his sons are missing as well. There’s a bit of humor spread throughout as well, such as the struggling musician, or the man who dreamed that he was turned into a “toastyfrog”, a reference to the forums that the developer hails from.

And while there is a town and people to speak with, the game is still entirely linear. Once you’ve taken your respite and visited with your people, it’s off to the next level. From there you’ll hop, bop, climb, grab, toss, and flip enemies until you reach a boss, and then it’s back to the village again. Outside of the village, you’ll never repeat (or have access to) any of the game’s previous areas.

There are a few things that will cause you a bit of pain. For one, tossed enemies will bounce back once they strike your target. If you’re standing beneath the enemy, you’ll catch it, but otherwise it will hurt you. This can be particularly troublesome during boss encounters where you must strike the boss multiple times in order to defeat it. There are also some minor collision bugs in the game, but nothing that will require a full restart.

8 Bit Horse interviews Adam Mowery of Last Guy Games, who speaks on his 8-bit gaming influences, his level design philosophy, and how he defines "fun" in games. And he drops some hints about what games he may be working on next. Check out the video interview below, which features some footage of the game in action.

This game was released under the AdamTheOtaku label, and was created by Adam Mowery. Curse of the Crescent Isle was his first game.


Adam said...

The bugfixes and password system are in the current version that was released over the weekend. Thanks for taking the time to play and review this!

AJ Johnson said...

Fixes are now accounted for in the overview.