Norwich Gaming Festival: Hunting for Treasure in Norwich’s Indie Sphere

Last year saw UEA’s entry into the Norwich Gaming Festival; an annual, six-day event devoted not only to educating and entertaining modern audiences about the life and history of video games, but giving local developers a chance to showcase their work in a constructive environment. This year’s indie showcase seemed concerned more with gaming’s history than its future, observing several tributes to older – sometimes buried – genres. As such, I decided to spend the event’s closing Saturday digging, curious to see what hidden gems Norwich devs were working on. Following a roaring Saturday of sword-slashing, giraffe-mounting and rainbow-dashing, here are three intriguing indie titles I previewed at this year’s Fest.

MaoMao Castle: Kill Rainbows With Your Face as a Pixelly Cat-Dragon

Admittedly I’d set myself the task of seeking out the weirdest demos there, and while mobile release MaoMao Castle isn’t the oddest title I’ve ever played, the eccentricity it does present nestles well enough with the Nyancats, Lolcats and (disquietingly) ceiling cats smattering our digital habitats to ensure a super-ironic, millennial appeal. But most of the attraction lies in the concept of using one’s finger to send an almighty cat dragon named ‘MaoMao’ ploughing through a shedload of rainbows.

And appeal it did. Stepping up to the screen, I was presented with a LEAP Motion Controller (a sensor that allows you to control your PC through various hand gestures), intended (for display purposes) to mimic the finger-dragging tech of mobile touchscreens. Mechanically, it’s not spectacularly different from endless runners like Temple Run. Controlling the eponymous dragoncat via a mobile touchscreen, you rocket through a series of increasingly-obstacled worlds in order to reach your castle. Oh yes, not only are you a Cat Dragon; you’re a Cat Dragon with a fortress. You probably have a title and everything.

It’s rather arcade-like, in that replay value revolves around beating high-scores; something that fed beautifully into its NGF exhibition. It’s almost a shame MaoMao Castle will release exclusively for Android and iOS, because (alongside its amusingly meme-ish design) the addictive quality underpinning its straightforward design wouldn’t go down badly in arcade settings.

Ascent: The 32-Bit Revival Continues to Load

Born slap-bang in the middle of the nineties, much of my gaming childhood lay in the smattering of colourful platforming titles that flaunted the trendy 3D-capabilities of the N64, Sega Saturn and the original PlayStation One towards the end of the millennium. With a weighty history pounding the X-button essential to propel Mario, Spyro, Lara and Crash between polygonal hunks of floor, I found myself simultaneously heartened – and rather apprehensive – at the sight of Ascent.

Sprung from Norwich-based trio Spark Games, Ascent is one of the newest indie titles to try its hand at reawakening the 32-bit platformer. Like Spyro the Dragon and Croc, the game balances open world-exploration with goofy toon visuals, while opting for a simplistic storyline that requires little explanation. You control a bucktoothed blue squirrel named ‘Bluu’, who teams up with robotic chum ‘Blip’ to scale a rather big tree. Naturally, the quest is obstructed by the dastardly Aphids: a mechanical flock of drones from whom the Ratchet and Clank –esque pair must escape.

Though being developed in the Unreal Engine 4 lends Ascent a smoother, cleaner look than many of its lower-poly predecessors, its replication of their control scheme and animation style is perhaps more troubling against current-gen capabilities. Bluu is noticeably stiff, and turning can feel rigid and grid-like. While the loyalty to platforming classics strikes admirable to someone so heavily invested in that period, the polarised reception of Yooka Laylee highlights the issues that loyalty can cause for contemporary gamers. During the PS1 era, 3D gaming was still experimental, and one might more easily forgive Ascent’s wooden design had it released back in the 90’s. Against the nip-tuck controls and swift character-movement managed by current-gen consoles, however, Ascent’s old-school vibes feel more antiquated than tributary, and sometimes unnecessarily frustrating. Some moments teeter into the obstructive, in which the camera pulls in close enough to the protagonist. While Bluu’s tennis-ball eyes are lovely to behold in close-up, I’d prefer to experience them while still being able to explore. The demo is also quite light on the platforming side, which – given it bills itself as a revival of 90’s platforming – I presume is due to the game’s unfinished status.

That said, Ascent did somewhat steal the show when it demo’d last weekend, and saw eager queuers from both pre and post-millennial audiences. Say what you like about the rigidity of Crash Bandicoot 1; a hefty portion of its fanbase were children, and I remember being more willing to put up with its inefficiencies if I got to explore its zany world further.

Perhaps today’s retro throwbacks might offer a similar compromise for younger audiences today, especially a game as obviously affectionate for classic platformers as Ascent. As it stands, it is evident Ascent has heart; it’s just in need of tightening to avoid being read off as dated.

 The Adventure Pals: Backpack Giraffes and Super Best Friends

The Adventure Pals casts players as a sword flailing ten-year-old, whose colourful imagination is second only to his proclivity for giraffe-riding. Made in collaboration with Australian developer Corrupted Games, the game will release on PC Steam and PlayStation 4.

If you’re having flashbacks of Adventure Time right about now, that’s not an unreasonable comparison. Between its cute Gruffalo-enemies blocking your path and giant, googly-eyed trees, The Adventure Pals is dripping with childlike silliness, and its weird storyline only serves to emphasise it. There’s even a boss made up entirely of bacon and eggs. The Breakfast Buccaneer. Charmed.

Before the adventure commences, your father is kidnapped by the dastardly ‘Mr. B’, who aims to transform pensioners everywhere into – wait for it – hot dogs. Evidently, the thought of having a frankfurter for a father strikes more disquieting than delicious, because you promptly assemble your pet rock and flying giraffe to embark on the rescue mission of a lifetime. Unfortunately, B’s set rather a hefty ransom on your father’s freedom, so your mother hands you the task of venturing beyond the family lighthouse in search of rubies to roll in the dough.

I can’t say my personal list of travel gear includes either magical stones or airborne giraffes, but in The Adventure Pals, they’re pretty much the adventurer’s sine qua non. Alongside a well-forged cardboard sword, that is. Though you explore the game’s main map aback your drooling, longnecked bestie, the giraffe is one of the bedrock mechanics of the game. You can helicopter between platforms using its windmilling tongue, or use its long neck to grapple-hook your way toward enemies. The trusty ‘Mr. Stone’ proves similarly handy, functioning as an alternate attack allowing you to suckerpunch baddies – Rayman style – at close range.

Though hovering mechanics are by no means a revolutionary mechanic, the fact I could float across ravines using my giraffe’s helicopter-tongue really validated the (there’s no other word for it) randomness the game presented aesthetically. Equally, while enemies were disappointingly weak (even bosses can be toppled in few quick slashes from your cardboard sword), all offered enough character, dialogue and (perhaps above all) humour to keep me grinning like a fool throughout the demo. And as I laid down my controller to give the next adventurer their turn, the bemused smiles of onlookers suggested that I wasn’t the only one amused. Despite an uncertain release date, The Adventure Pals’ demo proves immensely promising as a fun, RPG-platformer, and if developed in further levels, its easy-peasy combat stages are sure to lend the satisfaction needed to give Massive Monster’s world the longevity it deserves.


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September 2021
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