What Twitch is doing feels like the opposite of charity.
The nostalgia cycle, per rule of thumb, usually pumps out content to pine over every 20-30 years. The 50s become idolized by the 80s, the 90s contain sacred treasures to adults in 2010, and nowadays we get waves of memes and viral content focused on reminding you that the purple ketchup Heinz peddled did in fact exist. Game nostalgia gets somewhat muddled, given the rapid acceleration of technology gaming hardware saw across even just the 90’s. 8-bit and 16-bit sendups have become all too familiar nowadays, but the likes of the PSX Bloodborne fan demake glean into what could be next for the sensation of “Man, I remember using shoulder buttons to move the camera.”
Frogun, the newest game by developer Molegato, is unafraid to wear its influences on its sleeve. Part of its photo mode features the iconic pose from the box art for Sonic Adventure, video options include modes that imitate CRT and LED scanlines and arcade cabinets. Hell the first thing that took me for a spin was the fact you can fire the titular Frogun with R1 or the circle button, those years playing Ratchet and Clank coming full circle. All these nods and allusions to platformers of the past don’t just serve as fun reminders but ultimately inform the game’s overall feel and offer a glimpse into next steps for the beloved genre.
For most of the game you hop through multiple levels in order to help a girl named Renata find her parents who went missing during an archaeological expedition. The levels themselves consist of dioramas filled to the brim with platforming exploration, and the player is encouraged to go through all of these different caves, caverns, and ruins to find every secret possible. The free camera use through the right stick also encourages personal intuition in discovering secrets along with structuring a level to better navigate obstacles. We’ve gone through the Lakitu-held looking glass here to incorporate modern camera controls to a game so sincere in its aesthetics otherwise that it almost feels like getting a romhack or developer’s copy of the game.
The Frogun is the sink or swim mechanic of this entire game. This little buddy can help you grab and throw enemies and items, latch onto bounce-pads and walls, and later levels require you to figure out the latent Frogun tech in order to maneuver through the demanding perils ahead. Worried about spike timing? Well you can just hit the Frogun midair to delay your landing and boom, back on track. If you jump in the air and grapple to a wall, you have a split second to reorient and grapple to another wall or object in the direction you’re facing. This feature becomes a critical technique to learn in later levels Every level has an emblem for you to grab at the end, which gets filled with gems for finishing with various side objectives like no deaths, finishing before a specified time, collecting two “eyemeralds” in the main stage, clearing a hidden challenge zone, and getting all the coins littered within a stage. Completionists could spend hours learning the ins and outs of each diorama, and thankfully the lack of a death penalty means that it’s easy to experiment and learn.
That said, this is about all the praise I can give Frogun, as much as I want to enjoy it for the retro platformer it desperately wants to be. Like I said before, the Frogun is the main feature of the game, and the further you go, the more glaring its problems become. The reticle has a bit of an auto aim to it based on what you’re close to, but you can also hold down R2/RT in order to lock down and manually rotate to aim. This mechanic goes to the wayside once you’re in the air and your aim is dictated by where you’re looking. This offers its own problems when your camera isn’t oriented to what’s immediately around you as it lacks a proper zoom outside of photo mode. It’s also hard when the game actively creates a fog of vision effect in later stages that also messes with judging distances a bit. Multiple stages provide slopes for you to slide off of and jump with momentum to reach platforms but also can be treacherous tricks into falling out of bounds and restarting from a checkpoint, costing you the emerald for zero deaths in the process. I’m reminded in a way of the first Sonic the Hedgehog, specifically in this struggle between sticking to the conventional aspects of a platformer and how to navigate a stage’s obstacles and the tools given to a player that actively push against that framework.
This conflict is most apparent in the race levels, my absolute least favorite aspect of this game that brings all its faults to light. These levels introduce Jake, a boy who mistakes you for a fellow treasure hunter trying to find treasure in these ruins with his rope snake buddy. You have to race Jake to the end of a level, maneuvering through obstacles while also having to hit Jake with vases and enemies to slow him down. At least, that’s the ideal version of how these levels should be. Instead; you get levels that show strain with trying to house two player-sized characters, attempts to shortcut and navigate hindered by level geometry and the camera, and an attempt to create a rivalry that just falls flat. I’m not asking for Dante versus Virgil here but Jake comes across less like some spunky sibling analogue and more like the annoying kid in the neighborhood I would outright avoid if he was outside because I didn’t want to bother with his nonsense. There were levels where I would be behind and the rubber banding of Jake would lead to him getting perched on pieces of the level I couldn’t get to, leaving him waiting to let me lead and win. It’s a shame because I do like Jake’s design; we love a little raggedy guy! It’s just disheartening to see the game’s want for a speedrun component compromised by the very courses that try to facilitate it.
At the end of the day, Frogun has a lot of heart. This is a game motivated by that subconscious itch to pick up Crash Bandicoot or Mario 64 and have it feel like the first time all over again. The papercraft aesthetic does so much to sell its appeal, and Frogun’s music is full of nostalgia for days where the ice level was an entire motif in and of itself. I could easily see Renata and the Frogun as the face of a Saturday morning cartoon with a tie-in cereal or Happy Meal toy. The unfortunate reality is that for a game that revels in the simplicity of the 1990s, it also showcases the reality of developers learning how to maneuver through three dimensional spaces, and how every successful game was built on the backs of dozens of flops. I’m curious to see what’s in the future for the developers, Molegato, partially because this stroll through the past shows deftness in areas that I would be curious to see honed in later projects as the very nature of the platformer genre grows and evolves.