2D Platformers are one of the oldest and most iconic genres in all of video games. From Mario and Sonic to modern classics like Shovel Knight and Freedom Planet, it’s a genre that has had continuous success for over 30 years. There's a beauty in the simplicity of a game centered on the mechanics of running and jumping. But after so many decades, you might find yourself wondering if it's starting to get stale. Is there room for innovation when it comes to such a cemented formula? Well, Wunderling is certainly going to try, but does it succeed?
Wunderling was created by Retroid Interactive, a Swedish developer who previously made PictoParty. Wunderling opens up with a brave and noble hero, Carrot Man, running and jumping through a pretty typical World One grass zone. After making his way to the end of the stage, stomping on a few harmless enemies in the process, we’re introduced the witch, Kohlrabi. And it's in this scene that we're introduced to the true protagonist of Wunderling. In order to stop Carrot Man from rescuing Princess Pea, Kohlrabi revives one of her goons called a Wunderling - and the player's character - and grants it the one power that grunt enemies could only dream of:
the power to jump! Unfortunately, while your Wunderling can jump,you still can't stop it from walking, and the only way you can even turn him around is if it bumps into a wall.
So, Wunderling may look like a classic retro platformer on the surface, but the auto-runner mechanics make precise timing and knowing exactly when to jump and how high to jump the biggest obstacles. The levels are short and precise, with most of them taking anywhere from 30 seconds to at most a few minutes. Things start out pretty simple, but you’ll soon be activating switches, getting shot out of cannons, and picking up a few new tricks of your own. At the beginning you can only jump, but soon you'll get a boosting power to jump farther, and a wall jump to bounce back and forth while gaining height. It's mostly going to be jump-based, and you can actually play this game with only one hand.
Every level has a certain amount of flower buds that will bloom once you collect them, but these aren’t like Mario’s coins. You’ll actually need to pick up these items if you want to stay alive, as the magic fueling your character only lasts for a limited time. But that’s okay, because dying is to be expected. Whether it’s from spiky obstacles, bottomless pits, or yes, being killed by angry gremlin things because you took their underpants, you’ll probably die a lot in Wunderling. However, there are no lives, and jumping back into a level is a quick and easy process. Wunderling can be a very difficult game in places, but it knows exactly when and how to be forgiving. Longer levels even have checkpoints after difficult puzzles. Unfortunately, while you can pause and restart the level you’re on, there’s no way to choose to restart from your last checkpoint. This is one of my only complaints, but like I said, most of these levels are pretty short.
EDIT: Wunderling actually does allow you to restart from your last checkpoint. Players can hold the Y button to self-destruct. The devs have promised a future update to the game will make this information explained to the players.
Each world has fifteen levels and three hidden stages that can be unlocked by finding alternate routes in the main ones. In every single one of these levels you’ll be able to find a hidden treasure chest that can unlock new clothing or accessory options for your Wunderling. There are hats, gloves, shoes, shirts, different colors and with something that be unlocked in every single stage there are literally billions of combinations! So go ahead and make the minion you want to make. I made my Wunderling red and gave him lobster claws and an awesome mustache. But if you want to find these chests, you’re going to need to keep an eye out. Does it seem like there might be something hidden behind you? Look for something to help you turn around. Is there a platform that doesn’t seem to lead anywhere? Get up there and see if you can go through the wall. Clearing a stage isn’t always that hard, but finding the treasure chest may have you scratching your head. This really increases Wunderling's replay value since you may end up going through a level multiple times trying out new ways to explore. There’s even a nice completion bonus for collecting all of the flowers in all eighteen stages of each zone. I won’t spoil exactly what that is, but it definitely fleshes out the world we’re going through.
Speaking of world-building, one thing that really helps Wunderling stand out is its story. It’s a subversion on the hero saves the princess trope that focuses more on the villain trying to stop them, but we’ve seen this dynamic flip in a couple of other titles like Dokuro or Nefarious. Wunderling’s highlight is that all of the dialogue was written by Alex Faciane, a comedian and YouTuber best known for his work on The Dex and Super Beard Bros. The game’s humorous story lovingly spoofs video game mechanics and stories in a way that feels fresh and modern. I definitely found myself laughing at a few of the jokes, especially the interactions between Kohlrabi and Dash the Cow. The gameplay of Wunderling is phenomenal on its own, but the dialogue and story are just icing on the cupcake. It’s a welcome addition that proves that story has the power to make a great game go one step further to leave a lasting impression.
Personally, I wish Wunderling had even more story. As you unlock new worlds, you’ll sometimes get a cutscene, and these are an absolute blast. You know how normally at the end of a world in a normal platformer you’ll have a boss fight? In Wunderling, thanks to Kohlrabi’s magic, you are the boss fight! The idea of stopping Carrot Man by taking away his in-game lives is a satisfying experience and helps give you an idea of how much game is on offer here. Unfortunately, not every world gets one of these cutscenes, which is a slight disappointment.
Overall, Wunderling is a fantastic indie adventure. The pixel art is gorgeous, there are loads of collectibles to unlock, a hilariously well written story, and ultimately it’s just fun! Jumping and boosting non-stop through a stage and getting every flower in a single run feels great. Then, you play through it again to try and find that treasure chest or a hidden cassette tape and it’s a very different kind of rewarding. Retroid Interactive has created something special with Wunderling, but I’ve only got one question…Just what is this thing? A lemon? Corn? A potato, maybe? Maybe you’ll find the answer for yourself when you play through the game.