When I played Mike Bithel's Thomas Was Alone, it had proven that simplicity is not always a bad thing. It goes without saying Thomas Was Alone was a very simple looking game as it relied heavily on the use of squares and rectangles who served as our characters. This simple design was original enough to make me question the game and what it could do. But as it turned out, the game was clever and the design paved a road for a much deeper premise that told a great story. It showed how simple design could give way to something much greater, and this simple design is what drives Lovely Planet.
Like Thomas Was Alone, this game hones a very simple design. Although it may not be 2D or rely heavily on its characters to tell the story, it is simple for a different reason: this game has a very distinct look that reminds me of the Nintendo 64 era, or at least the system on its worst day. Yes, the game is colorful, but the design is very basic and bland, although, somewhat cute in a way. This simplistic graphical design is what really can draw a presence of confusion. It is colorful, the game looks like the worlds were made in a week, and it has a name like Lovely Planet, but yet it is this simplicity that hides the true, devious nature of the game and shows the greatness of simplicity.
Lovely Planet is not a stroll in the park, it is not a visit to a peaceful planet, it is not a foray into beautiful meadows full of grazing cows. Lovely Planet is something a lot more sinister - it's a shooter. Of course the truth of this game is that it extends beyond the standard boundaries of the genre and uses its design to hide its devilish nature. This game is honestly one of the hardest games you could ever play. The devious shooter game requires quick reflexes and an even quicker mind to navigate its sinister web. This game looks simple and you could say the same.
Your goal is to make it through all of the one hundred levels that lay before you. In each level, your goal is to reach the flag pole which can often be achieved in anywhere between fifteen to forty seconds. But remember, I said this game was one of the hardest games you would play and for good reason. In order to complete the level, you have to avoid shots from a wide variety of enemies who are out to stop you at any cost, and to complete the level, every enemy must be defeated. This sounds easy but can be quite challenging to accomplish. Matters are not helped when this game runs on a system akin to Super Meat Boy, where you get hit even once, you lose and have to start the level all over again, and this very idea is frustrating. It is very annoying when you are right near the goal and about to complete the level, when you're suddenly killed by an enemy you didn’t notice, or a specific hazard that forces you to restart.
However, it is in this frustration where Lovely Planet shines most: the game forces you to learn and adapt to what it throws in front of you. For all the times I wanted to just throw down my controller and walk away, I would be urged to take one more go. I would notice at some point where I could quickly deal with an enemy and then prevent a hazard from killing me. It's surprisingly satisfying when, after spending an hour doing a level you suddenly have a moment of clarity, when you finally master the pattern of the level and shoot through it moving quickly and carefully as you rush to ensure you deal with each problem.
Lovely Planet forces you to develop some skill to jump and shoot your way through all incoming obstacles and you really need it as the level that follows always ups the ante. You are forced to use the knowledge of your previous encounters to help through future levels, particularly as new levels add new problems but also will at random throw in old ideas Quite simply, it is always impossible to find a spot where things just run at a steady pace due to the games frequent changes.
But this is a great thing, the game never allows you to get comfortable. It will run on one idea for a few levels then without notice will suddenly throw in a new enemy or problem. As an example in the early levels, you only have two enemies, one of these is a basic cube creature which spits bullets at you randomly, the other is a carrot shaped creature that you can take out in seconds. As the game continues, suddenly these cube creatures get a straw hat and have bullets that will chase after you, and the game also adds apples that go flying, and if you don’t shoot them in time, they will hit the ground and force you to restart the level. This is just the start of it and all of these combined make for some truly devious challenges in the later sections of the game. The constant changes are truly refreshing and really force you to think fast about each obstacle and solve the corresponding puzzle while continuing to juggle your shooting and jumping across each stage.
I will note one serious issue that I think affected me with this game the further I got: as the levels reached what I consider to be "impossible difficulties," the fun that I was having seemed to fade. The later levels seemed more obsessive or compulsive to me. I wanted to rise to the occasion and beat the levels to achieve a level of satisfaction. At this point is where I stopped having fun. Surely, in this instance it was not a deal breaker. The level of challenge still urged me, but when I wasn’t having fun, it only really suited my compulsive side. It really feels more to me like a factor that might affect others and the level of fun can be important. For those not thriving on the challenge, the lack of fun at later points might turn them away.
Of course this really is a game about rising to the challenge, and really if you don’t appreciate something being difficult, Lovely Planet is not for you. There is a lot going on in this game, and in truth you need to master your co-ordination. This is actually a point where I had trouble (due to having a severe lack of said co-ordination) and the quick pace could often be my undoing and will likely affect many others. Still, Lovely Planet is a surprisingly good game. The challenge is enjoyable, and it constantly can keep you busy. The game may look simple, but it is a devious challenge that won’t appeal to everyone.