June 19th, 2012 | By Rowan Davies
I was at a loose end prior to The Adventures of Shuggy – Smudged Cat Games’ most recent platform adventure – finding its way onto my desktop. It was one of those times, made more frequent these days by the everlasting bargain indie boom, in which I couldn’t see the wood for the trees. That is: a heady mix of unplayed games and indecision plagued me for over an hour as I scrolled back and forth through hundreds of Steam titles in search of something that would hook into that certain sense of joy I was craving. And then Shuggy landed.
The game’s PC release comes some twelve months after its initial arrival on Xbox LIVE Arcade, a venture which the developer has admitted wasn’t the raging success they were hoping for. Problems with promotion led to it landing on the console in muted style, giving way to bigger titles and ultimately being swallowed up by the sprawling mass that is the LIVE Marketplace. So now it’s hitting Steam, along with Smudged Cat’s own website as a DRM-free download. The upshot: gamers ought to be coming up with far better excuses as to how they’ve allowed this game to pass them by. ‘The dog ate my Xbox’ just won’t cut it anymore.
The Adventures of Shuggy is initially deceptive. From screenshots it could be mistaken for any number of cartoony, platform-hopping indie time-wasters. Aesthetically, it fits the classic mould (avoid the monsters, collect the treasure, WIN!) but what sets it apart from its peers is just how many neat and gigglesome tricks it pulls within those standard parameters. As soon as you enter into the game you’ll be shown a short comic strip that outlines exactly what’s going on. Shuggy is a vampire (for reasons that aren’t adequately explained) and he’s inherited a haunted Scottish mansion (for reasons that also aren’t adequately explained). Within the building are over a hundred rooms for you to wipe completely clean of beasties and gems (for reasons that also, also…oh, hell). Plotting clearly isn’t Shuggy’s strong point but, obviously, it isn’t required to be.
Where The Adventures of Shuggy shines is in its taste for variety. Each level contains a unique puzzle, and each puzzle requires that you use one of many special abilities. Conceivably this could become confusing, but the beauty of the game is in its simplicity. The controls consist of your standard movement commands – up/down/left/right/jump – and a single button that triggers your special ability. This changes from level to level. On one map you could be given the power to pick up objects, or you might be able to float, or teleport, or time travel, or rope-swing, or flip the world around yourself or…a multitude of other things. The genius exists in keeping it to that one button press; in only allowing you one fancy move in any one space. And it doesn’t get confusing at all – or, at least, you’ll never be floundering for what key or button to press.
One of my favourite levels in the game – out of so many that I can clearly recall – allows three copies of Shuggy to exist at the same time in three separate rooms. Each copy is facing imminent death from killer blobs that whizz around on set paths inside each area. Activating your special ability allows you to switch swiftly from Shuggy to Shuggy and so you must, continually moving them from harm’s way and guiding them frantically to floor switches that allow the other Shuggys to access their gems. It’s mindboggling stuff, but fantastically entertaining in the way that each failure brings with it more determination, more rude words and more laughter.
Incredibly, despite its wealth of puzzling play styles, the game never feels over-developed, or as if Smudged Cat were piling on the gimmicks in order to bulk up content. Each special power provided to Shuggy has its place in the world and each level is like jumping into a mash-up of some truly classic titles. Worms and Mario certainly spring to mind, but it manages this nostalgia without ever becoming predictable or lazily derivative. It uses ideas we’ve seen before, yes, but it loosens the reins on them, spoiling you rotten with brand new toys and pointing out a generous number of playgrounds in which to enjoy them.
In addition to the singleplayer portion of the game (with its five environs and well-conceived selection of boss fights) there’s a co-op campaign featuring thirty-six levels for both you and a partner to play through. It’s not an uncommon addition these days, but it’s always nice to see something specifically tailored for two players rather than being bolted on by way of the main campaign, or vice versa. The whole game won’t take you an age to get through, but there’s more than enough content here to ensure that you won’t feel out of pocket.
Concerning the PC conversion, there are a couple of differences in this new release, notably that you can play both one and two-player on a single keyboard (although I would always recommend using an Xbox gamepad) and, with the copy I played, there were some issues with widescreen maximization in that the game didn’t alter the aspect ratio to suit my screen. This will undoubtedly annoy some more than others, but playing windowed is not something I consider particularly problematic with a game like this.
Any indie gamer will tell you that we’re not living in a world short on puzzle-oriented platformers, but I will contest that few get the balance between challenge and fun so right. My greatest worry with Shuggy is that the game might get overlooked, much as it has been on Xbox. What I stated in my opening paragraph is true – that it lifted my gaming malaise and put me back in the mood to have at my game collection, but it should be fairly clear by now that I don’t intend to label Shuggy as a ‘filler’ title. Here is a game that inspires, that entertains and compels the player in little bite-size pieces. It never cheats or baffles with its multiple approaches to puzzle design, it never overstays its welcome, it just works.