Mute Crimson+

A game by Iced Lizard Games for PC, Mac, and Linux, originally released in 2015.
The original Mute Crimson was one of the standout titles on Xbox Live Indie Games when it was released in 2011. In the years before Steam Greenlight, the Xbox 360 offered indie developers the opportunity to develop and sell games for the system on a dedicated channel, removing many of the industry’s traditional gatekeepers and resulting in a wild frontier of self-published indie titles of vastly varying qualities. Despite the large number of nigh-unplayable garbage that eventually filled the marketplace, many games stood well on their own and have gone on to see releases on other platforms.

Mute Crimson’s developer released a number of other titles on Xbox Live Indie Games, including Block Puzzle’s Revenge, a falling block puzzle game with time-based challenges and a wide playfield; Run Rectangle! Jump! Shoot!, a sidescrolling twin stick shooter; and Null Divide, a space-based action-adventure. Null Divide received a remastered release as Null Divide+, and now the developer has returned with Mute Crimson+.

A common theme throughout the developer’s previous works was that they all featured very simple visuals, and Mute Crimson was no exception. Offering what can most kindly be referred to as “programmer art”, the crude visuals belied the quality of the underlying gameplay.

Mute Crimson+, on the other hand, has a dedicated artist and composer to round out the experience from an aesthetic standpoint, although the game offers options to play with the original graphics and sound, as well as an unlockable Classic Mode with the full original game. While the graphics are improved over the original, the color palette is still very limited, focusing on whites, blacks, and grays, with red (or blue in the game’s Color Blind Mode) being reserved for blood sprays and dangerous obstacles.

The presentation is further improved with extended cutscenes that carry over the original game’s purposeful “Engrish” writing. While bad translations are representative of the 8- and 16-bit era, this sort of goofiness is best appreciated in shorter bursts. Mute Crimson+ offers several multi-screen cutscenes, almost all of which have at least one purposeful grammatical error. Still, there is humor to be found, such as the ninja shouting “Agreed!” at the end of each conversation, and a boss in the form of a moth who proposes that the ninja sit down and play a game of cards rather than fight.

Mute Crimson+ offers more than a mere overhaul in its presentation; it remixes level layouts and boss encounters as well. The basic mechanics from the original game are still in place, as are a few setpiece moments, but this is essentially an all new adventure. In addition, the original game featured six acts, with the first five acts introducing new gameplay, with the sixth requiring the player to apply everything he had learned to that point. Mute Crimson+ features an all-new seventh act, with nine new challenging levels and an even tougher final boss encounter.

The ninja protagonist comes equipped with a 2x nonvariable jump, as well as a double jump that can be initiated from a jump or a fall, allowing for some added precision that is absolutely required in the game’s later levels. In addition, the ninja can climb any vertical surface ala Ninja Gaiden 2, and he can jump away from walls, but this is a small hop rather than a full jump.

The ninja also has a sword that he uses to kill enemies in a single hit – accompanied by a huge spray of blood – and enemies tend to run straight toward him. As such, the precision platforming elements make up most of the game’s challenge, with combat being fairly simple outside of boss encounters. Most enemies are ground-based, but the ninja can also slash his sword in the air, which is useful against a number of bosses.

In addition to 1-hit kills for enemies, the ninja also dies in a single hit. Early levels offer numerous checkpoints, greatly reducing the amount of repeated gameplay, but the frequency of these checkpoints is reduced in the back half of the game, requiring that the player complete tougher platforming sequences with fewer mistakes. Players have infinite lives, although an unlockable Arcade Mode tasks players with completing the entire game with a stock of only nine lives.

As a secondary challenge, each non-boss level offers a single yellow coin, usually hidden or placed off the beaten path. Collecting these coins requires that the player thoroughly search each area and often requires him to perform advanced platforming techniques. As coins are collected, new unlockables are opened, including a sound test, a boss rush, and a “doom timer” that adds a strict countdown clock to each level. If the player manages to collect a coin but is killed before reaching the next checkpoint, the coin is lost. However, levels may be replayed in any order to seek out missed coins.

In the opening levels, players must complete basic platforming challenges while wall climbing, double jumping, and sword slashing their way through the environment, as well as climbing hand-over-hand across hanging pipes. The second act introduces wind, which operates similarly to the wind in Super Mario Bros. Lost Levels (SMB2/J) in that it activates and deactivates in predictable intervals and is accompanied by blowing leaves. This makes platforming more challenging, as players may need to wait for the wind to die down when moving against the flow, or use it to their advantage to make a long leap with the wind at their backs. Wind even affects enemies and some small spiked blocks which can be pushed slowly toward you.

Later levels introduce falling stalactites that kill you when they fall - but they can also be used as platforms once they land - and long rows of lasers that fire intermittently. Some blocks crumble or disappear slowly when touched, leading to challenges where running across the ground will cause it to give way, as will using blocks as a climbing surface, leading to some tricky time-based challenges, often with the player suspended over lava. Some levels even feature lava rising up from below, forcing the player to move forward quickly or be swallowed up by the molten substance.

Things become more complex in Act 5 when arrows are introduced, each of which has a different effect on gravity. Left and right arrows cause gravity to move to the side, whereas down arrows double the effect of gravity, and up arrows reduce it. Effects are stackable, so players encountering an up arrow and a right arrow will face reduced gravity that pushes them to the side. It’s even possible to reduce or negate the effects of gravity while falling, causing the player to fall slowly downward – often between rows of deadly obstacles – or arrest his descent altogether to hover in the air. Conveyor belts further complicate matters by pushing the player in one direction while gravity may be pushing him in another.

The sixth act introduces keys, as well as teleporters that retain your momentum, adding a number of complicated platforming challenges. Keys are very unusual in that they appear locked in transparent blocks, and players may jump to these blocks and stick to the sides of them, but standing on top of the blocks causes them to disappear and activates the key. When the block disappears, the player may initiate a double jump as he falls, and this is often required as the blocks are frequently suspended over lava. Many levels feature large open areas with multiple routes and a locked door that requires the player to track down multiple keys (with no checkpoints in between) to open the door and continue.

Boss encounters are similar to those found in the original game, but they are somewhat more complex. Also, the Null Divide ship boss has been replaced with a giant laser-firing machine with a big red eye at its center (you might be able to guess where its weak point is).

Most bosses are vulnerable to sword strikes as they move in to attack the player. After getting hit, the boss will move back and become temporarily invincible, as denoted by its flashing red color. During this time, the boss will continue to attack, and the player's only recourse is to dodge out of the way. After a few strikes, the boss becomes vulnerable once more, although its attack speed generally increases during the fight. Some of the boss fights are tougher this time around, introducing more complex patterns, and one encounter now takes place over a pool of rising lava instead of a solid floor.

The aesthetic improvements have changed the tone of the game considerably, giving it a more serious tone overall, despite the silly cutscenes. The protagonist in the original game looked almost nothing like a ninja, and he transformed into a spinning square when jumping, whereas the new ninja tucks himself in for somersaults and sports a constant scowl. Small spikes are now animated, making them appear as wobbly tentacles, projectile launchers now shoot meaty fireballs instead of tiny arrows, and new background details show moving tentacles and falling blocks. In a cute touch, enemies encountered during the outer space sequence now wear space helmets… even the dogs and floating eyeballs. Oh, and the projectile-tossing monkeys have been replaced by projectile-tossing snakes.

The new visuals not only make the game easier on the eyes, but also make certain environmental objects easier to understand. For instance, conveyor belts are now traditional animated platforms, as opposed to directional arrows, and key blocks are now square instead of tombstone-shaped. The original game featured a number of spinning objects against black backgrounds, which was somewhat disorienting, and had bosses that would occasionally turn black, making them difficult to spot in the darkness. The new game removes the spinning objects, has bosses that turn red instead of black, and offers detailed backgrounds instead of solid black.

The original Mute Crimson was developed solely by Patrick Derosby under his Merge the Memory Bit Studios label, under which he also released Block Puzzle’s Revenge, Run Rectangle! Jump! Shoot!, Null Divide, and Null Divide+. For the development of Mute Crimson+, Patrick joined forces with artist and composer Thomas Smith to form Iced Lizard Games, which later went on to release CometStriker.