Indie Spotlight - Sunblaze
Stunning pixel art, precise gameplay, and 700+ levels - Sunblaze gives 2D platforming fans a huge dose of what they love.
Developer: Games From Earth
Publisher: Bonus Stage Publishing
Release Date: June 3, 2021
Platforms: PC, Switch
Bright colors, atmospheric music, hard-but-fair platforming action - this is the stuff that NES veterans like myself can never get enough of. Indie developers have found their rhythm in recent years developing games that scratch that itch perfectly, from Super Meat Boy to Celeste - each with their own unique style and spin on narrative, visual aesthetics, and of course, tough-as-nails gameplay.
I'm pleased to report that you can pet the kitty. Also, I'm like 99% sure her dad is George Lucas.
One thing I know for sure - when today's Indie Spotlight first came across my Twitter feed, the game was clearly being marketed on the difficulty. Countless posts showed platforming gauntlets that demanded perfection, with little to no breathing room when the cleverly orchestrated sequences of doom began doing their thing. Now give the players over 700 of those levels and you get what has to be one of the best indie platforming values of the year, Sunblaze.
Recently I was able to chat with Sami Mikkola from Bonus Stage Publishing about their newly released game from developer Games From Earth, and most importantly, see how far I could go without throwing a controller. (Fortunately for me, as I'm surrounded by hardwood flooring, I managed to control my temper!)
"These stages play out like a sinister version of Ninja Warrior, where failure means a lot more than splashing down into a pool and trying again next year."
Counter to my decades of platforming knowledge, grabbing ledges lined with spikes isn't just a handy mechanic - it is absolutely mandatory for beating levels.
Sunblaze, like most platformers, wastes no time in setting up a plot and getting you in the thick of it. Our hero Josie is a superhero in training, with a seasoned veteran father who has set up an AI simulation program to help her overcome every kind of split-second deathtrap scenario imaginable. As can be expected, things quickly don't go to plan and Josie rapidly finds herself stuck inside a simulation that seems hellbent on making sure she stays there permanently.
With Sunblaze, what you see is what you get in each level. Start at one point of the screen, get to the chip, rinse and repeat until a winner is you. Rather than create larger open areas strung together like Celeste, levels in Sunblaze are very much compartmentalized. The "One-Screen Level" has been around as far back as classic arcade titles, but even recently has gained recognition as a popular type of Super Mario Maker level. No scrolling, no blind leaps of faith, just you and whatever is within the confines of your screen. This style of gameplay is extremely useful because every move you make can be plotted out before you take that critically important first step - a step that often will cause the starting platform to collapse.
Even superheroes need proper hydration breaks. Hey, you should go drink some water too!
One thing that immediately stood out to me is that for a game of this style, the main character Josie has an unusually large sprite. Typically these types of "one-screen" games like to get the protagonist down to as small as possible to make sure there's plenty of space to get your platforming groove on. If the classic NES Mega Man sprite were Celeste, the SNES sprite from Mega Man 7 would be Josie. She takes up some real estate on the screen, but Games From Earth cleverly left out a staple platforming mechanic that normally affords more maneuverability - wall jumping!
Yes, Josie can slide down and launch herself off walls, but you are given no extra boost of momentum or height for doing so. In a traditional narrow vertical corridor that the game quickly throws at you, Josie points out that she should be able to ascend it like any other platformer, to which she is told that she plays too many video games. Indeed, a wall jump isn't so much a special move as it is a standard second jump, affording you no advantages to ascend higher or traverse long chasms. Instead, Josie must rely on a fairly weak double jump, horizontal dash maneuvers, and ledge grabbing to save the day.
Once you factor in all of the hanging pipes and ledges carved out of walls, these stages play like a sinister version of Ninja Warrior, where failure means a lot more than splashing down into a pool and trying again next year. And while the lack of a proper wall jump at first threw off my platforming mojo, I eventually got a feel for the style of game that was in front of me.
"Layer this crisp, vivid visual style with an appropriately electronic synth-heavy soundtrack, and you've got a game that is a must play for any platforming connoisseur."
Modern platformers that try to emulate the classic 2D style usually go two routes. First, you have the Shovel Knight approach, with a classic look that doesn't try to extend too far beyond the console generation it pays homage to. Then you have what I call the PSX approach. The PlayStation had a slew of platformers that featured classic pixelated 2D sprites but weren't afraid to add in things like dynamic backgrounds and particle effects that previous consoles could never attempt. From Mega Man X4 to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, this was (in my opinion) the golden era of platformers. We were getting the refined, tight platforming of the SNES era with incredible visual effects to boot? Sign me up. (That is until everybody decided that every 2D franchise ever made HAD to jump to 3D).
The eye-catching bright neon color palette extends even into the chapters that aren't tech themed.
Sunblaze embraces the latter of those scenarios, as the game blends gorgeous pixel art with incredible special effects. Josie's dash trail animation is my favorite example of this, with wispy lines being left in her wake that just looks incredibly detailed and precise. Many chapters in the game end with a "boss stage" sequence of sorts, where Josie must destroy a series of generators to advance. These sections feature one of the coolest distortion filters I've seen in a platformer and make these scenes very tense and memorable.
While I'm only halfway through the game, my death count is at a respectable 500. I'm sure that the insane "Kaizo" style levels showcased on Twitter will probably add a zero onto that number before I'm done, but as Sami pointed out to me, the game does a fantastic job of getting you back in the action nearly instantaneously after a death. I've rarely felt frustrated, and even if I did, the game's Zen Mode would allow me to ease my way through without risking the need for drywall repair.
Put simply, it is clear to me that every detail of this game is made with love and attention. How an indie studio pulled this off with over 700 levels on tap is truly a testament to the focus and precision that indie developers have been able to bring to the table time and time again. Layer this crisp, vivid visual style with an appropriately electronic synth-heavy soundtrack, and you've got a game that is a must-play for any platforming connoisseur.
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