Mute Crimson

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Merge the Memory Bit Studios for Xbox 360, originally released in 2011.

Title
Console
Publisher
Developer
Players
Year
Mute Crimson
Xbox 360
Merge the Memory Bit
Merge the Memory Bit
1P
2011


CONTEXT
Mute Crimson was clearly inspired by the decades of heritage 2D action-platformers that came before it. Gameplay elements from other 2D titles are incorporated, familiar tropes are explored, and new gameplay elements are gradually added to each world, providing a steady yet steep increase in difficulty as the game progresses.

As level designs and enemy layouts teach the player lessons in movement and tactics, new lessons are piled atop old and merged together into new scenarios, each requiring more precision than the last. With familiar gameplay steadily escalated and tweaked, the game is practically a study in platformer design. It takes what is known of games past and remixes it into an entirely new experience, while inciting flashbacks to specific moments in Super Mario Bros., Ninja Gaiden and even Mega Man.

Patrick Derosby, also known as Apoxxle, spent the year preceding the release of Mute Crimson with a game each in the puzzle, shooter, and action-adventure genres, all of which were released on the Xbox Live Indie Games channel.

Block Puzzle’s Revenge is a falling block puzzle game that presents itself as a variation on the familiar gameplay of Tetris, except that the game is 4 screens wide, allowing pieces to be moved between screens. Countdown timers stand above each field, waiting to enact penalties against the player who neglects any given section. Penalties include blocking out the top of the field and preventing the player from seeing a falling block, speeding up block falling in a given section, and restricting the directions in which a block can be moved. Some “nonstandard” shapes are included as well, meaning that your old Tetris strategies may not always work here.


Run Rectangle! Jump! Shoot! is a sidescrolling twin stick shooter with a very minimalist design. The player and enemies are represented as simple rectangles, with a second rectangle representing the weapon being carried. The player is tasked with navigating a platformer-style environment while shooting other rectangles, avoiding being shot himself, and avoiding pitfalls. Each enemy type behaves differently and has different types of projectiles, which adds an extra layer of strategy to defeating them… and there are some rectangle bosses as well. Environmental navigation is a bit slow overall, and involves jumping, climbing ladders, and even hanging from the ceiling.


Null Divide is an action-adventure title that features a ship traveling through non-linear exploration-based environments. The game does have some simple quests that involve finding a key to open a particular door, but the more clever progression comes from locating powerups that increase your abilities and allow you to move into areas that you could not reach previously. Control is dual analogue, with one stick moving the ship and the other firing, allowing for an equal mix of action and exploration. The game also features several boss fights. The developer later went on to release an enhanced version of the game, called Null Divide+, featuring an updated soundtrack, keyboard and mouse support, a boss rush mode, and a number of programming fixes.



PREMISE
From the description:

PLATFORMING NINJA ACTION ** Many levels of platforming action! ** Climb walls and slash enemies! ** Get collectibles and go for fast times!

CONTROLS
A - Jump
X - Sword



MECHANICS
Mute Crimson is an action-platformer with a distinct visual style. Everything in the game is presented in black and white, with certain key things – such as spikes, checkpoint flags, and sprays of blood – appearing in red. There are also spinning yellow collectible squares, one per level, many of which are placed in challenging, hard-to-reach areas. Collecting each of these squares requires mastery of the controls and a firm grasp on the game’s movement rules. The game keeps a per-level accounting of which collectibles you’ve obtained and which you haven’t, and players who are looking for an added challenge can re-enter any area from the level select screen at the main menu. Collecting every spinning square counts toward the in-game achievement system, which also rewards level progression and your overall game completion time.

Movement within the game’s world is very strict, but the levels are built around your precise abilities. You have a standard platformer jump height of 1.5x, but this height is not variable. There are many situations where a platform can only be reached at the exact maximum jump height, where overshooting the target would lead otherwise to death. You have a double jump as well, which increases your height to 3x. Unlike most games that offer a double jump, you won’t be double-jumping your way through the entire game; a narrow margin for error generally allows for only well timed double jumps, especially later in the game.

Another movement tool at your disposal is the wall climb, which allows you to freely move up and down any surface, ala Ninja Gaiden 2. If you climb all the way to the top of a wall, you will automatically mount the next platform. However, pressing down at the bottom of a wall does not allow you to disconnect, which means that it’s possible to get “stuck” if you accidentally grab a wall or jump into a single-square climbable object. The only way to manually disconnect from a wall is to press in the opposite direction and jump.

Due to the somewhat odd character design, your little ninja fellow looks a bit like a caterpillar when he climbs, given that both arms and both legs are visible during the action. The character also assumes a square shape when jumping, making it more difficult to line up jumps, since the character loses his otherwise vertically-oriented shape. Certain ceilings can be hung from as well, allowing for hand-over-hand horizontal movement.


You also have a weapon in the form of a sword, which has but one frame of animation that shows it sticking directly out in front of you for a second before disappearing. There is a short delay between “swings”, so this keeps you from simply holding the sword out and charging forward. There a handful of enemy types, hat wearing ninjas and a red dogs being your primary recurring foes. Hitting enemies with the sword causes them to explode in a huge spray of blood, cutting them in half and sending one half in one direction and the other in the opposite direction. The same happens to your character when you are killed. But most of the time it’s the environment itself that is your greatest enemy.


Most levels are filled with a variety of deadly objects, ranging from spikes to arrow-firing statues to laser beams. Anything you touch will kill you instantly, but the game has reasonably-spaced checkpoints to keep you from backtracking too far, and none of the game’s 40 levels are terribly lengthy. There are times when you will invariably launch yourself headlong into an unforeseen danger, but it’s rare that this is unfair given the placement of the checkpoints. If anything, your sudden burst into a sanguine spray adds a bit to the game’s humor. Most unexpected deaths are easily avoided the second time, with a loss of only a few seconds of gameplay.


It’s interesting to note that your enemies can be killed by environmental hazards as well, so sometimes you can simply avoid an enemy and watch it run head-first into a row of spikes, giving way to a humorous spray of blood. Dogs will always run in a straight line, whereas enemy ninjas will walk slowly toward your position on the X axis.


There’s only a bit of dialogue in the game but all of it is presented in purposely bad Engrish. For instance, at the beginning of the game, the main character states, “Happens something which in my town! As for color is it somewhere?”, and at the first climbable wall will remark, “The time when it climbs the wall, investigates!” Most of the dialogue appears at the start of boss sequences, with each exchange becoming more nonsensical than the last, adding a bit more humor to the game. Some of the levels are humorously named as well, with some being mere descriptions of the type of gameplay presented. For instance Level 1-4 is called Jump-Jump-Slash, and features areas where you’ll need to double jump (jump-jump) and perform midair slashes to enemies standing on platforms.


Once you’ve learned to jump, attack, and climb throughout World 1, you’re introduced to blowing wind in World 2. So now you must make precision jumps across bottomless pits and attack enemies while dealing with a strong wind that engages and disengages at predictable intervals in the same fashion as Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels (SMB2/J) The wind always blows from the right to the left, meaning that you’ll have to wait for it to stop before attempting jumps to the right. But later you’ll need to wait for the wind to engage so that you can clear extra-long jumps to the left.


Wind pushes you around even when you’re standing on the ground or hanging from the ceiling, and it affects enemies as well. There are even some new enemies, stationary spiked balls that roll toward you when the wind blows, forcing you to jump over them against the wind or wait for them to stop moving so that you can skip quickly past.

World 2 also introduces arrow-firing blocks which often appear in tall vertical rows. You can even climb them, but you’ll need to be careful when they activate (indicated by a red glow) lest you be turned into ninja giblets. Here again, you will need to take the wind into account, as you may have just enough time to escape a row of arrows if you make a run for it during the calm, whereas running against the wind will slow you down and prevent your getaway. Arrows can only be fired in one direction, and cannot penetrate solid blocks, so escaping these attacks is a matter of timing and understanding the level layout… and often this means jumping off of an arrow-wall and running for your life.


World 3 takes place in a cave and adds falling stalactites to the equation. They’re deadly when they’re falling, but they become platforms when they hit the ground, allowing you to reach higher areas. There are also some disappearing blocks that appear over rows of spikes, requiring precise timing to cross, and there are a couple of levels that are mad vertical races against rising walls of fire. A new enemy makes an appearance as well, a hovering eye that moves in fast and then slows down when it gets near you. This enemy spells trouble if you’re trying to hurry, and is especially difficult when you need to do a lot of precision platforming… which is when it tends to show up.


The numerous suspended platforms in this area necessitate the learning of an advanced technique, namely the falling double jump. In most platformers, you initiate a double jump at or near the apex of the jump. Here, on the other hand, you will often be placed in situations where you will need to jump into the air, allow yourself to fall, and then jump again. This technique is needed frequently and comes in handy for the game’s later levels as well. You also need to be aware that you can drop down from a ceiling or walk off of a ledge and perform a double jump (technically a single jump) in the air on your way down.


This is the point at which the game begins to break away from a casual platformer and become a game of technique and precision, comparable to the likes of Aban Hawkins & the 1000 Spikes, Platformance: Castle Pain, and Spelunky. Knowing your full range of movement and limitations is the key to progressing from here on out.

World 4 takes place in an industrial complex with conveyor belts that move either left or right, functioning differently than wind in that it only affects you while you are standing on the ground. The level also introduces lasers which fire at predictable intervals. At first, you’ll just have to deal with a few, but it’s not long before you’re running through rooms that are completely packed with lasers, leaving but a single square of safety. Mixing conveyors and lasers together makes for some challenging runs where you need to make a running leap and then suddenly reverse direction lest you be pulled into impending laser fire.



World 5 introduces gravity effects that change the way your character moves and makes you take extra consideration of the environmental layout. The changes seem simple at first, with arrows aiming in one of 4 directions, indicating the direction of gravity. A DOWN arrow indicates double gravity, UP represents half gravity, and LEFT and RIGHT arrows mean that gravity will be aimed in one or the other horizontal direction. A circle returns all gravity to normal, though most of the world takes place within gravity-affected areas. Later on, you’ll even encounter some areas that combine two different types of gravity. If you pass an UP arrow and a RIGHT arrow, then gravity will be halved and you’ll be pushed to the right.


Double gravity means that you won’t be able to jump very high at all, making every short leap quite dangerous. Sideways gravity works similarly to the wind from the second world, except that you can’t run against it. Running against horizontal gravity causes you to stop in place, unless you happen to be standing on a conveyor that is pushing in the opposite direction (once again, gameplay elements are mixed to new effect).


Finally, there is half gravity which makes environmental navigation much more difficult than you might think. You now jump twice as high and twice as fast, and you can double jump even higher, but you fall toward the ground very slowly. However, you’ll want to conserve your double jump for just the right moment due to the environmental layouts. There are often very long rows of spikes that you must jump across, and wait until the precise moment to engage a double jump to take you the rest of the way without hitting the ceiling. There are also some vertically-aligned spike-laden corridors that leave very little margin for error.


Finally, you will enter World 6, where practically every trick you’ve learned will be called upon, including a few new tricks tossed in for good measure. The two biggest gameplay changes in the final level come in the form of teleporters and keys. Teleporters appear as spinning crescents. When you enter one, you pop out of another, with your direction and momentum intact. As usual, the game will ease you into the use of these teleporters, and then throw in several at once.


Keys start out fairly simply as well, with each door requiring a certain number of keys to open. You’ll actually have to do a bit of backtracking here, and this is one of the few instances where being killed could cause you to repeat a goodly chunk of gameplay. However, what’s most important to note is that keys work differently than any other object in the game; namely they allow you to perform a double jump after you’ve picked one up, even if you’ve already done one. As such, you can infinitely double jump across rows of keys, and by the end of the final world, you’ll be required to do so with some regularity as you navigate across open pits of spikes. A bit of difficulty is added by the fact that it’s possible to stick to the side of a key (wall climb) if you hit the jump a little low; this is the case with any type of small block platform.



BASTARD CLASS ENEMIES (What's this?)

Projectile-Flinging Monkeys While their monkey-ness is debatable, these little guys are certainly ornery, and they take great pleasure in turning you into a bloody mess with their projectiles. This short enemy stands still and charges up, flashing red before tossing a large square-shaped projectile at you, and the projectile will move straight to wherever you’re standing. Great, you say, I’ll just move.

Ah, but the trouble is that they often appear in areas where your movement is restricted, such as World 4 where you’re surrounded by lasers and conveyor belts. To make matters worse, sometimes you will encounter several at once, and in many cases, they’re tucked away in areas that cannot be reached with your sword. As such, you are often challenged with sprinting between dangerous obstacles and projectiles as you hunt for a safe spot… or making a mad dash toward a checkpoint flag.


BOSSES
Each world ends in a boss fight, but the number of levels you must face increases as you pass from one world to the next. The first world has only 4 levels, with a boss appearing at Level 1-5. However, by the time you reach World 6, you’ll be challenged with besting 8 levels before you are able to take on the final boss.


World 1: Squid?
Your first boss encounter is against a (possible) squid with one googley red eye. It moves slowly toward you, and you’ll die if it touches you. When you hit the squid with your sword, it will turn red and fly backward. While red, the boss is temporarily invincible and it begins a new series of attacks.


The squid changes shapes, growing spikes out of its top, while its spinning legs make for a flat underside. It bounces back and forth across the floor while invincible, attempting to ram into you and kill you. After a few bounces, it will return to its normal white form, and the pattern repeats. Each time you cause more damage, the bouncing will speed up, and it will bounce more times before stopping. On the 4th hit, the boss explodes into a huge spray of blood.



World 2: Jungle: King Moth
In the preceding level, you had to deal with gusts of wind that would appear periodically, pushing you back to the left. Well, the wind doesn’t stop just because you’re fighting a boss… in fact, the wind is core to the boss’ strategy.


This boss is a moth that spins and bounces around the room. Hitting it with your sword causes it to turn black (it cannot harm you during this time) and fly up to the top of the screen, out of your reach. There it will drop spiked balls to the ground, which are affected by the blowing gusts of wind.


While the spiked balls are blowing along, the boss will turn red and move back into play. There, you must jump over the blowing spikes, moving against the wind gusts, while also attempting to avoid the bouncing red moth. Eventually, the moth will return to its white form and the pattern will repeat.


As the fight continues, the moth will move more quickly and drop more spiked balls. Dodge the spikes and jump-stab the moth, and after the 3rd hit, you’ll be able to pin him for display in your ninja-certified giant bloody moth collection.


World 3: Dark Cave: King Eye
This battle adds a bit of verticality to the environment, with a floor suspended over bottomless pits, platforms on either side that can be climbed, and a high platform that you can jump up to and run across. You’ll need the additional space, because this boss requires a great deal of mobility to defeat.


The King Eye starts out by moving slowly toward you, firing little red eyeball enemies at you as it goes. The little eyeballs speed toward you quickly but slow down as they get closer to you. You can kill them with your sword.


When you strike the King Eye itself, it will turn red (invincible) and begin firing little eyes at you much more quickly. After it shoots a small eye, it will advance quickly on your position. As the battle wages on, it will move more quickly and wait less time before advancing, leaving you to balance killing the little eyes with dodging the King Eye. You’ll need to keep moving as much as possible, pausing only to strike down the small eyes.



World 4: Industrial Complex: Ship
This boss fight is against the main player ship from Null Divide, one of the developer’s previous games. Here again, you are offered a bit more room to maneuver, but doing so is more difficult than it was in your battle with the King Eye. You’ll need to double jump to reach the platforms, and double jump again to get up to the ceiling where you can grab and shimmy along the top of the room. Both the left and right edges of the room are lined with spikes.


The Null Divide ship moves toward you, aiming in your direction to fire off a projectile every now and again. When you hit it, it will turn red and move to the center of the screen. After a few seconds, it will unleash a continuous stream of bullets in your direction. If you keep moving, the stream will lag behind you, and you can run a full circle around the room, up and over the boss, continuing to run until the projectiles cease.


Then the boss will turn white again and start chasing you very quickly without firing, after which the pattern will repeat, but it will fire a bit faster.



World 5: Space: Squid?
The (possible) squid returns. He gains no new abilities, but the battle is considerably more difficult due to the environment. The first time you faced off against he squid, you were in a flat room with a floor extending from one side to the other, with no other dangers. Here, you must fight along 4 elevated platforms suspended over a bottomless pit, with a trio of Projectile-Flinging Monkeys unleashing a steady barrage of doom.


Getting in the first attack isn’t terribly difficult, but avoiding the squid while it bounces back and forth is far more difficult. You’ll need to time your jumps to not only avoid the bouncing spiked squid, but also to avoid projectiles coming down from above 3-at-a-time, all while not plummeting to your death off the edge of a platform.


Otherwise, the same rules apply. The boss gets faster with each strike, making it harder to avoid.


World 6: Cave of the Demon
The final boss looks something like a floating head crab. It’s red and it’s in a constant state of invulnerability, so you cannot attack it directly. Your goal is to grab the 3 keys and head for the door that holds its heart, and stab it good. But that’s far easier said than done.


This is the only boss battle that does not occur on a single static screen. Since you cannot attack the boss directly, and must constantly dodge around it, your real battle is with the environment. The boss will continue to move in on your position, and its movement works in the same way as the little red eyes: it will move quickly toward you until it gets close, and then it will slow down. This pursuit is what creates the tension and difficulty in the final battle.


Here, you’ll be tasked with platform jumping, dodging (or killing) a Projectile-Flinging Monkey, traveling through a series of disappearing platforms (twice), bouncing between tiny platforms and tiny ceiling-grab areas, moving around a huge wall of spikes, and ascending a row of conveyor tiles. All the while, you must collect keys and avoid the constantly-moving boss.


Once you get all 3 keys, you still have to get to the door while the boss chases you. Run through the door, stab the heart, and victory is yours.


DEVELOPER INTERVIEW
We spent some time with Patrick Derosby, the one-man team behind Merge the Memory Bit Studios. Patrick discusses how Mute Crimson was influenced by such titles as Ninja Gaiden, Super Meat Boy, and N+, and what kinds of elements he feels go into designing a good action game. Patrick also speaks on his level design process, how he settled on the game’s limited color palette and pixellated art style, and how playtesting helped him to balance the game's overall difficulty. And he gives us a heads-up about the next project he has in the pipeline. The video below shows lots of new gameplay, as well as strategies for grabbing some of the hidden collectibles that are spread throughout the game.




HERITAGE

Why this game should be part of your 2D heritage:
  • Wide variety of gameplay types introduced slowly throughout the game, building upon old lessons
  • Level designs play to precise rules of movement
  • Smooth escalation in difficulty
The downside:
  • Player character does not retain its native shape when jumping
  • No auto-disconnect when reaching the bottom of a wall from a climb
  • Wall climb sometimes initiated inadvertently when jumping to a small block or key

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