Knytt Underground

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by nifflas for PC, PS3, Vita, and Wii U, originally released in 2012.
Knytt Underground presents the story of a young female sprite named Mi who is fated to prevent the end of the world by ringing 6 bells. The girl is unable to speak, but she meets a pair of fairies early in her adventure that speak for her. After the world above was destroyed by war, the creatures from the surface moved underground, and the entire game takes place within the confines of an elaborate cave system, made up of over 1,800 interconnected screens. The floor, walls, and ceiling are solid black, but most of the backgrounds are detailed and colorful, with the background imagery and ambient effects changing based on the region of the cave system.

Knytt Underground is the latest entry in the Knytt series, occupying the same universe as Knytt Stories and Within a Deep Forest (see 2D CRED section below), and those games feature a similar – though less detailed – aesthetic.

The game is divided into 3 chapters, although this is somewhat misleading given that the first 2 chapters really act as an introduction to the universe, with the third chapter comprising the bulk of the game’s content.

When you begin your quest, you take the form of Mi. She moves very quickly, has a 1.5x jump, and can climb virtually any vertical surface, allowing her to scramble quickly from one side of the screen to the other. You can climb to the top of walls and mount ledges, and you can also grab ledges by jumping against them. You are not able to climb across ceilings or on sections that angle away from the wall, and this is used in the level design to restrict your movement, blocking access to a given area, or guiding you in a specific direction.

When climbing a wall, pressing away from the wall will cause you to drop back down, whereas pressing UP and away will allow you to jump away from the wall. This is somewhat more cumbersome than offering a separate button and can lead to situations where you accidentally cause yourself to fall. Also, pressing up at an angle will cause you to jump when you mount a platform. In open spaces, this works well, but it can be problematic in tight quarters as your fast movement reduces the level of precision. Failure is rarely a great setback, however – unless you fall down into an area where you can’t get back up – as there are generally checkpoints in each room, or at least checkpoints that return you to the last major action you performed before you failed.

Chapter 1 is spent learning the basic controls, speaking with NPC’s, and going on fetch quests. For the most part, conversations with quest givers are unpleasant. Quest givers tend to have entirely selfish motives for sending you out to grab whatever doodad they’re looking for, and they freely admit that the door that blocks your way is only in place so that they can extort precious items before allowing you to continue.

While the world itself is designed to immerse you wholly in its atmosphere, the dialogue serves only to shake you out of it. Exploration and progress requires that you speak with numerous shallow and disingenuous people that you’d just as soon murder if that was a gameplay option. Furthermore, the dialogue itself is sophomoric and uninteresting, and riddled with unnecessary pejoratives. This is not an adventure game that will immerse you in its narrative. Fortunately, quest givers tend to mark your map with the exact location of the item they want from you – and your quest log allows you to accept multiple quests simultaneously – so you just need to find the room, retrieve the object, and return with it.

Chapter 1 ends abruptly, tossing the player back out to the main menu to enter the gateway into Chapter 2. There, everything changes. Rather than controlling Mi, you instead assume control a bouncing ball named Bob, and no explanation is provided as to why you are suddenly an entirely different character with different mechanics.

In this ball form, you are continuously bouncing. You have one button that makes your bouncing more vigorous and another that makes it less so. The high-energy bounce allows you to access ledges far above anything you could have reached as Mi, and the low-energy bounce allows you to get through narrow passages.

Very soon, you’ll need to start employing advanced techniques, forcing yourself to bounce quickly against angled “bumpers” to send yourself soaring into new areas. You’ll also need to set yourself up with some very high drops which allow you to rebound and reach higher ledges.

Chapter 2 takes place on a different part of the map than Chapter 1 (the upper right rather than the upper left), but you will cross into previously explored territory toward the end of the chapter, which ends as abruptly as the last. Technically, the two chapters are occurring simultaneously, with both Mi and the ball entering some mysterious teleportation tube at the same time and somehow being merged together. Again, this content makes up a small fraction of the overall adventure; this is really the player’s introduction to the game world, and it serves as an excuse to have a lead character who can transform into a ball at will.

And so the third chapter begins, with Mi alternating between her bipedal and ball forms to traverse the environment. At this point, the 6 bells mentioned at the start of the game are marked on your map. All of your previous explorations as either Mi or Bob are cleared from the map, and only the 6 bells remain.

If you simply charge forward and attempt to ring the bells, you will find your efforts quickly thwarted. Each bell is blocked by a door, and each door is manned by some selfish prick who wants you to go and fetch him something before he’ll open the door. Each gatekeeper wants a certain number of items in order to let you pass, or you can pay them off with the in-game currency, although you’ll have to fetch that too. Often, you’ll need to perform fetch quests for other people in the game world in order to get the items you need to complete a fetch quest to open a door to a bell.

So, you need to ignore the only 6 areas marked on your map and do everything else. This is directly opposed to the design of games like VVVVVVV and LaserCat (which are also made up of interconnected single-screen environments) where you have the whole world laid out before you but no idea of what your destination is. Once you have accepted the fact that the bells are off-limits, you are free to explore the environment at your leisure, uncover treasures and hidden items, and solve environmental puzzles. If you get stuck somewhere, you can leave and come back later… or perhaps even access the room from another direction.

Exploration is where the game truly shines, and this is the bulk of the experience in Chapter 3, broken up only by the occasional NPC speed bump. Different areas of the cave system are themed differently with entirely different atmospheres and challenges. Some areas are packed with laser- and electricity-emitting robots (and different types of robots have different behaviors), where others focus on navigating through dark environments or leaping over pools of lava or acid.

Some areas involve pressing buttons to make solid walls passable, and others involve precision jumps or difficult ascents. Some require that you transform between the ball and sprite forms to bounce up high and grab a climbable wall. Every unexplored screen promises something new, and tight level designs offer micro challenges in environmental traversal, punctuated by more difficult areas that hold valuable items or currency as a reward. If you casually explore the game world and collect all of the things you find along the way, you can eventually return to the quest givers and gate keepers and hand over what you’ve collected in order to continue on and make your way to the bells.

A number of the more complex puzzle solutions span several screens and involve the game’s magic system. Spread throughout the world are a number of glowing colored orbs, and each of these orbs temporarily grants a new ability. For instance, the green orb allows you to fly a short distance in any direction, and these areas often have complex geometry that must be navigated, long distances that must be traversed, or great heights that must be reached before the effects of the magic wear off. In some of the more challenging areas, orbs must be used in succession to navigate from one to the next without hitting the ground or being killed. Orbs grant abilities as follows:
  • White: A projectile weapon used to destroy robots
  • Green: Free flight in any direction
  • Red: High jump
  • Blue: A horizontal air dash, which allows you to travel in a straight line until you run into a solid object or manually disengage
  • Yellow: A vertical air dash, which operates in the same way as the horizontal dash, except that you fly straight up
  • Purple: Invisibility which prevents robots from being able to see you

Knytt Underground works well as a casual, directionless exploration game, although the dialogue and specified objectives run counter to this design. Varied themes and layouts offer constantly changing locales even across the vast expanse of its enormous world, and tight level designs offer specific challenge-based environments that push the player to use all of his strategies to overcome them. The time-based magic abilities and various robot types add an additional level of depth to environmental puzzle solving for players who are willing to stick with the game and plumb its great depths.

Knytt Underground was developed by Nicklas “Nifflas” Nygren, an independent video game developer based in Umeå , Sweden. He got his start making smaller freeware games and continues to work on smaller experimental and participating in game jams, in addition to the major releases listed below. Many of his games are punctuated by solid black or simple patterned surfaces with stylized backgrounds, which lends a similar atmosphere to these titles.

The Knytt series got its start with the freeware PC release of Knytt in 2006. The game stars a small person called the Knytt who was abducted by a UFO, only to have it collide with a meteor and crash land on a nearby planet. Both the alien and the Knytt survive, and they must search the planet for the ship’s parts so that they may escape. The game is an exploration based platformer featuring a large world made up of single screen environments.

The Knytt can jump and climb walls as he explores a number of environments, including underworld and overworld locations, deserts, ruins, and even the sky. Water, spikes, lava, and goo are the primary environmental hazards, and there are a few enemies which must be avoided. Outside of the primary objective, there is very little offered in the way of a narrative, leaving the player to focus on exploration.

A sequel was released in 2007 called Knytt Stories. The lead character is named Juni as she adventures across the world throughout several acts, or stories. The original release had only a tutorial and one story, but future expansions added several new stories. The game also featured a level editor.

The player is once again encouraged to casually explore a large world of interconnected screens, although the use of powerups for progression places the game more into the Metroidvania category. The additional stories offer new locales and new means of exploration, although some of them are more directly linear platforming experiences.

A third Knytt game tentatively titled Knytt Experiment was in development and eventually scrapped. Knytt Underground became the next series successor in 2012, which combines features from the Knytt series as well as Within a Deep Forest (see below).

Prior to Knytt Underground, Nifflas released NightSky, which was published by Nicalis (publishers of Cave Story+ and La-Mulana) for PC and Mac in 2011, and ported to the 3DS in 2012. The game had been in development for several years and was previously known as Night Game. While the game features a ball and shares a similar atmosphere with Knytt Underground, the gameplay is quite different.

NightSky is primarily an environmental puzzle game where players must navigate a number of physics-based single-screen environments, using gravity, momentum, and interaction with moving objects to make it from one side of the room to the other. The ball can move to the left and right and it carries weight. Players can accelerate to roll up hills, climb walls, and jump ramps, and weight is a factor in a number of balancing- and rotation-based puzzles. Some areas allow the use of additional powers, such as faster acceleration or the ability to flip gravity.

In addition to stationary objects, the player must also interact with a number of moving and movable items, including spinning fan blades, rotating gears, and rolling balls. There are also a number of physics-based vehicles that the player can push, ride, and move inside of to direct the vehicle’s speed and path, allowing for new puzzle iterations. The game offers hundreds of screens across 10 themed worlds.

In 2010, Nifflas released FiNCK on PC, which stands for Fire Nuclear Crocodile Killer. Rather than the static screens that are typical of a number of the developer’s releases, this is a scrolling action platformer that borrows heavily from the pick-up-and-toss mechanics of Super Mario Bros. 2. As in Curse of the Crescent Isle, different enemy types have different abilities, and certain areas require you to grab a specific enemy in order to pass, such as grabbing a flying enemy to jump long distances or float slowly downward. You can also stand on the backs of enemies and use them to your advantage, such as standing on a jumping enemy to perform a very high jump.

Players may pick up boxes and stack them to reach new areas or toss them to activate switches. You can even do a Klonoa-style double-jump by tossing the block downward at the apex of your jump for a bit of extra height. Time bombs start counting down when picked up, but they can be used to destroy certain blocks if the player if fast enough. There are five worlds to explore as well as a level editor.

Saira, released for PC in 2009 and shares a number of mechanics with Knytt Underground, including the ability to climb walls and transform into an energy ball to fly. The eponymous Saira has teleported to Mars and discovers that she is somehow the only remaining person in the galaxy. Saira explores a large world of interconnected environments and multiple planets as she attempts to solve the mystery of what has happened to humanity.

The game mixes platforming and puzzle solving. From an action standpoint, the game carries over much of the gameplay from the Knytt series, including a female protagonist who is able to move quickly and climb vertical surfaces, while avoiding lava and a small number of enemies. Puzzle solving is the primary means of progression, and some complex puzzles can only be solved by travelling between planets. The game offers six different endings, as well as a level editor.

Within a Deep Forest is a freeware PC game released in 2006, and it is set in the same world as the Knytt series. In fact, the ball form in Knytt Underground is this very same ball, merged together with Mi. The game takes place in the year 2500 after the world has been devastated by war. The strange premise involves a doctor who has travelled back in time and placed a bomb in an underwater laboratory that is capable of freezing the entire world and killing everything on the planet.

His first freeze attempt failed, however, mysteriously resulting in the creation of a sentient blue ball, which is what the player controls on his adventure. The player is able to increase or decrease the ball’s energy to enter narrow passages or bounce high up to reach distant platforms as he navigates through dangerous landscapes, avoiding enemies, spikes, water, and lava. The ball is capable of transforming into a variety of substances by finding various materials around the planet, which impact its basic properties. For instance, turning into metal reduces the ball’s bounce height, but the greater weight allows it to break through certain blocks and withstand strong winds.