You Have to Win the Game

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Pirate Hearts and Minor Key Games for PC, Mac, and Linux, originally released in 2012.
You Have to Win the Game is a short metroidvania platformer made up of a series of interconnected single-screen environments with the room titles on the bottom of the screen, offering a basic structure similar to that of VVVVVV, but without the gravity-flipping mechanics.

One of the things that sets this game apart from VVVVVV or other games in the genre is its lack of a map, which requires that the player commit the layout of the complex game world to memory. However, the game can be played from start to finish in a single sitting (although you’ll have to work a bit harder if you’re going for 100% completion), allowing players to keep the layout fresh in their minds.

The game features incredibly simple mechanics, offering only a 2.5x variable height jump throughout the bulk of the adventure. The player starts in a room with a tree and an exit to the right. Hinting at what’s to come, there is actually another exit leading out from the upper right corner and a passageway in the ceiling, neither of which is accessible from the start.

When the player moves to the right, he is introduced to the basic mechanics. Again, hinting at things to come, a money bag sits atop an unreachable ledge in this room. Touching a bell acts as a checkpoint, and getting killed by spikes – or any other danger – returns the player to the last activated checkpoint. On the default setting, the player has infinite lives.

The game also offers a “YOLO Mode” which disables checkpoints and saving altogether, and deletes all of your progress upon death (only the most dedicated players need apply), as well as a strange Playable Cat mode where the player controls a cat instead of the regular character and has nine lives with which to complete the game. In addition, expert players are invited to try the game’s Extra Spicy setting which remixes the level layouts and provides a significantly more difficult experience, with more spikes, more enemies, and harder jumps, and it requires mastery of the mechanics in order to survive.

As players collect money bags, an indicator in the lower right of the screen shows the total completion percentage. However, even in the opening few screens of the game, the player begins to experience the complexity of the level design, with numerous passageways that lead to areas that are inaccessible with the player’s default abilities. And so, while the game world is entirely open, the player’s path through it starts out quite narrow, and it unfolds slowly as the player collects pickups and earns new abilities, per metroidvania conventions.

In the first half of the game, the player doesn’t gain new abilities, but rather picks up orbs that turn certain outlines into solid blocks, similarly to the colored block switches in Super Mario World. Activating these blocks allows the player to slowly reach new areas. Things really start to open up when the player discovers the double jump and wall jump abilities, which allow the player to reach almost any point in the environment.

These advanced abilities are accompanied by a sharp rise in difficulty as the player moves from basic platform hopping to stringing together multiple wall jumps and double jumps, moving over and around rows of spikes. From here, it is up to the player to test the edges of the known world and look for ways to expand his exploration outward, eventually leading to the game’s end point (and one last humorous challenge for players looking to 100% the game).

Despite the basic physical structure of the environment, there are a number of complex challenges and clever puzzles to be overcome throughout the experience. These include several areas where rooms repeat infinitely when attempting to transition from one screen to the next, with just one opening leading to the true exit. On the other hand, wrapping around the screen is sometimes required in order to make progress or get to certain money bags.

Treasure bags remain collected even upon your death, often allowing you to grab a bag and then kill yourself to quickly return to an earlier area. However, bells are sometimes placed immediately beyond screen transitions, forcing the player to activate the checkpoint and deal with the challenges at hand. Often, the player is prevented from backtracking by the use of out-of-the-way platforms or the lack of a certain skill, forcing him to press forward and return later to grab any treasure he may have missed.

Most of the enemies are simply meant as obstacles to be avoided, requiring the player to be mindful of their patrol routes. However, the player will occasionally find large enemies that spew out a colorful spray of projectiles in arc formations, which requires close attention to the timing so that the player may run through the shower of dots without getting hit.

By default, the game is presented in a way that mimics a typical 1980's CRT display, with a visible curve and screen glare, to more closely represent what players would have seen if playing the game on a computer monitor back in the day. While there is an argument among retro gamers as to whether the fuzzy CRT or hard pixel offers a more accurate representation of classic games, the choice is ultimately left to the player, as the CRT mode may be disabled in the menu, resulting in a crisp-edged pixel experience. In addition, the game defaults to a 4-color CGA mode, but players may also opt to play in full 16-color EGA glory for a more colorful experience.

You Have to Win the Game was released as a freeware title in 2012 and was later updated to include a more difficult remixed campaign as well as the Playable Cat mode. The game was developed by Texas-based developer J. Kyle Pittman under his Pirate Hearts label.

J. Kyle Pittman worked previously at Gearbox Software on such titles as Borderlands, Borderlands 2, and Duke Nukem Forever. In 2013, Kyle founded Minor Key Games with his twin brother David, who previously worked on Bioshock 2 and The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. Under this new label, the studio released an enhanced version of You Have to Win the Game in 2014, leading up to the release of if its sequel, Super Win the Game.