words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Benal for PC, originally released in 2015.
Skelemania is a metroidvania starring a skeleton man who falls down into an underground area populated by single-colored enemies and talking stationary frogs. The player is offered no explanation as to what his goals are or what he is doing in this subterranean land. In fact, there is nothing in the way of a narrative in the first half of the game, and it is not until much later that the player begins to gain some context for his actions.

The world is made up of a series of interconnected single-screen rooms, divided into regions and represented by an extremely low color palette. Each room consists of only a single color overlaid onto a black background, with enemies appearing in the room’s color as well. The only other color seen is white, which is used to represent the skeleton hero, as well as checkpoints, powerups, spikes, and a few other in-game objects, as well as the minimal HUD.

The skeleton has no offensive abilities whatsoever, nor does he earn any during his adventure. Instead, he must avoid enemies whenever possible by dodging around or jumping over them with his 1x nonvariable jump. His only other starting ability is a wall jump, but it is somewhat difficult to execute this maneuver as it requires that the player press AWAY and JUMP, thus requiring precisely timed button presses.

Throughout the game, the skeleton earns new movement abilities that let him reach additional areas, per genre conventions. However, mastering the wall jump mechanic actually allows for a bit of sequence breaking, and there’s a sizeable portion of the map that is inaccessible without doing so (and also entirely optional).

The game is fairly short, with new abilities being doled out quickly during the opening minutes of the game, but there is still a fair amount of complexity. Doors block certain parts of the environment, requiring thorough sleuthing to uncover keys, and regions wrap in on themselves, often providing several ways to approach an area. In addition, secondary objectives appear in the form of skeleton pieces that need to be collected, as well as hidden warps that take the player to mysterious computer terminals.

Players earn the ability to perform a midair dive maneuver that sends them dashing in a long horizontal arc, allowing them to cross wide spike-filled gaps. One of the frogs explains to the player that the best distance is gained by pressing the DASH button immediately after jumping, rather than at the apex of the jump. However, there are a number of situations where a delayed dash can help the player avoid enemies or spikes. The dash terminates with the skeleton sliding face-first along the ground, although this can be interrupted by jumping.

A couple of abilities supplement the player’s basic jump and wall jump, including a backflip that doubles the skeleton’s jump height when a jump is performed immediately following a direction change. This control scheme means that it’s also possible to accidentally double jump, although there is rarely any penalty for doing so. As an alternate control, players using a keyboard may execute this move by pressing LEFT and RIGHT simultaneously and then jumping.

Players also earn a triple jump that must be properly timed by listening to the audio cues, resulting in a regular jump, followed by a second regular jump, and then a very high jump. The player is informed that the timing is more akin to Mario than that of the Metroid series, referencing Super Mario’s triple jump which has been in place in most titles since Super Mario 64.

Then there are a couple of strange skull-related abilities, allowing the skeleton to send his skull off separately from his body in order to reach new areas. The first of these abilities allows him to bowl his own head through narrow openings, rolling it along like a Morph Ball, except that its forward movement is out of the player’s control. While rolling, the only control available to the player is the JUMP command.

When the skull strikes any solid object, the skeleton man rebuilds himself on the spot and normal control resumes. This sets up a couple of challenging sequences where the player must maneuver the unstopping skull through a series of platforms and spiked pits, attempting to make it from one side to the other without getting killed or being stopped, and with no checkpoints in between.

Aside from specific challenge sequences, checkpoints are quite frequent, usually appearing in every room or every other room, resulting in very little lost gameplay when the skeleton is killed (and even acting as a shortcut when the player doesn’t feel like backtracking out of a dead-end room). Actual save points – appearing as white bunnies – are less frequent, appearing once per region, but these are readily accessible throughout the adventure, and the game is short enough that players will rarely find themselves making much progress without encountering one.

Most enemies follow simple patrol routes, allowing players to watch their patterns and then move safely past. There are a few enemies, however, that react to the player’s presence. These include Diglet-looking projectile-spitters that fire to the left or right when you get close, armadillos that roll up and move quickly when you’re standing on their plane, and bats that drop down from the ceiling when you run beneath them.

A map displays the game world on a 12x16 grid, showing the basic level layout and connections, but offering no additional details as to what rooms contain which objects. That said, backtracking is generally used in order to reach previously unexplored rooms, so progress can generally be made by heading to any point on the map that remains incomplete.

While there is some NPC dialogue to be found when speaking to the stationary frogs, the game’s narrative does not make itself known during the first half of the game. By completing all of the challenges and gaining new abilities, the player is able to reach new areas and begin uncovering the events that led him to the subterranean area to begin with, as well as the fate that befell his companions.

All in all, the adventure is quite short, joining the ranks of a number of other contemporary bite-sized metroidvanias, including VVVVVV, Xeodrifter, and A Mini Falafel Adventure. While players continue to gain new movement abilities, these never negate the old ones, and players will find their array of moves useful at different points. Additionally, there are a fair number of secrets to be found, and these are easily missed on the player’s first run through the game. Fortunately, the game’s short length makes it easy to hop back in for another go… or try out the bizarre Hard Mode.

Unlike the Hard Mode in most other games that simply offer more enemies or tougher environments, this game removes the player’s ability to use the LEFT and RIGHT buttons. Instead, the player must use his jump, dive, backflip, and triple jump abilities – all of which are unlocked from the start – in order to navigate the environment. Players should steer clear of this setting until after they have completed the game’s Normal Mode.

Skelemania was developed by Ben Allen under the Benal label, with music composed by Ayrayen. The game was developed as a follow-up to Ben’s Super Skeleman, starring the same skeleton character running through a world of 1-bit color-coded areas and dodging a number of the same enemy types, although Skelemania further refines many of the gameplay mechanics found in the previous game.

Prior to this, Ben developed a number of other games using a very limited color palette. These titles include The Gears Don't Grind, a gravity-manipulation platformer; Get Out of My Way I'm Trying to Eat You, a screen-wrapping platformer; Pink Monster Death Diorama, a precision platformer; and Tantibus, a JRPG.

Super Skeleman

The Gears Don't Grind

Get Out of My Way I'm Trying to Eat You

Pink Monster Death Diorama