Until the age of fifteen I lived with my parents in the Socialist Republic of Arstotzka; a country which ceased to exist following the collapse of the Soviet Union. I mention this as relevant because, when the great 2D platformer crash happened in the 1990s, Arstotzka bore the brunt moreso than any other European country.
Almost alone among the Soviet states, Arstotzka played host to a considerable number of software houses: USSR Gold, Gulag Graphics and Lenininfogrammes were just a few of the prolific developers who remain unknown outside of Eastern Europe, yet were producing million-selling titles such as Have Adventure With Uncle Sviatislav! for a pixel-hungry Soviet citizenry. So much of the country’s industry was centred around video game production that, when the crash came, the economy collapsed almost overnight.
Arstotzka’s superstar programmer, Jeff Minterov
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the crash happened, but many identify the genre’s fin de siecle as Donkey Kong Country, a decadent title the visual opulence of which hid the vacuity inherent in the gameplay, much as JK Huysman’s novelistic paean to decadence and emptiness A Rebours sounded the death knell for French social naturalism. Funnily enough, magazines of the day such as ‘N-Power’ failed to draw that particular parallell. Either way Donkey Kong Country represented the genre’s zenith and nadir all at once.
There was a massive run on even mediocre titles such as Bubsy The Bobcat and soon the average worker could expect to pay as much as a week’s wages for a second-hand copy of the execrable Oscar for the CD32. There were stories about people paying for goods with wheelbarrows full of Electronics Boutique vouchers, and others queuing for four days just to play Zool for a bit.
There were still some quality titles to be had. Arstotzka’s national mascot Gridenko the Goat appeared in a handful of stellar titles in the late 90s such as Gridenko: You Are The People’s Goat and Super Stargoat 4: We Will Bury You, but the damage seemed irreparable. Fast-forward to modern day and although Arstotzka is now nothing more than Russia’s largest mercury-processing plant, the 2D platform market is a crowded one. Barely a week goes by without some bedroom indie developer finding themselves as the darlings of the gaming media, just because they made an over-stylised jump ‘em up about a magic badger trying to get over his parents’ divorce.
Into this brave new pixelart world steps Hue and the big question is whether there’s room for yet another lo-fi 2D upstart. To the game’s credit, there are a few hooks to drag in even the most apathetic player (me, for example) from the outset. The silhouette-style graphics are nice enough and there’s a reasonably engaging storyline about your mum managing to turn herself invisible, all because the silly moo has been mucking about with the fabric of reality (women, right?)
What I really liked from the outset is the presentation of scale. Many a modern platformer has moments where the visible playing area scales out to give the impression that your little guy/angsty badger is alone in a cavernous realm, but Hue isn’t afraid to pull the focus in from time to time with the protagonist looming large on the screen. It puts me in mind of the old Popeye and Batman games on the ZX Spectrum which featured huge sprites. It’s not a biggy, just a pleasant visual change of pace.
So here’s Hue, trapped in a world devoid of all colour (cue a joke about him working for Inland Revenue) with nothing to help him other than his spectacular quiff. But lo, a mysterious stranger leads him to a mighty ziggurat (I think that’s what it is) which yields the first of many colours for Hue’s mighty…wait for it…COLOUR WHEEL. This ain’t no wack-ass Spirograph drek neither, Hue’s colour wheel transforms him into a mixture of Neil Buchanan and Bob Ross on bad acid and black tar heroin (are you sure about this? – ed).
This is your brain on too much Kula Shaker
See, using the mighty Buchanan-o wheel you’re able to change the colour of the background. This in turn causes objects of the same colour to effectively vanish. ‘Vanished’ objects can be walked through and other objects can be pushed or pulled through them. It’s such a smart and obvious mechanic that it’s a puzzle that it’s taken until the space-year 2016 for such a game to be realised.
As new colours are revealed, new areas can be accessed and the puzzles get trickier and weirder. I could probably go on at length about the various puzzles that Hue encounters, or how the same puzzles are repeated with a different spin each time but under the hood of this game there’s something far more noteworthy going on and that’s this thing: Mischief.
This maze sort of functions like a slide-puzzle designed by bastards
I’m not talking so much about the puzzles which wrong-foot you, the player will learn soon enough that the most obvious solution is either wrong or an outright trap. I’m talking about self-sabotage being written into the design of this game. Yes, sometimes you’re allowed the luxury of pondering over a puzzle but there’s some twitch-reflex stuff here too such as jumping across a series of different-coloured crumbling blocks. Controlling Hue with the left analog stick while changing colours with the right is so unintuitive that if you don’t ‘vanish’ the block that you’re actually standing on at least once out of sheer confusion, then you’re either an idiot-savant or a liar.
It’s not just an awkward control system that’s likely to trigger an aneurysm in the unwary but some of the colours are extremely similar to one another, adding a further spanner in the works of the decision-making process. This is no accident either, the set-up does what all of the best puzzle games do: Force you to think as logically as possible under increasing levels of duress. The result isn’t exactly a hardcore platformer but you will no doubt find yourself dying multiple times while attempting the same mind-buggering task. It’s only my own zen-like calm which has prevented me from chucking the controller out of the window before erecting a burning effigy of Hue in my garden and dedicating it to Lord Satan.
Skull’s out for summer, skull’s out forever!
The game’s minimalist design generally works in its favour too. There are some unfussy themes to each area (forest, dungeon, etc) with some slight interaction if you happen to bump into a hanging chain, or cause a dust-cloud to arise when thumping down heavy objects. It’s also a game where it would be difficult to suggest improvements due to the design being so spartan. That goes for the controls too. Aside from the colour-wheel mechanic, Hue jumps, pushes and pulls and that’s about it although I’m not sure what else you might want him to do.
It probably goes without saying at this point that I liked this game. It’s a clever idea married to minimalist functionality, like putting a chess champion’s brain inside a toaster. In fact, the developer can have that one for their promotional material if they like: “Playing Hue is like installing a chess-champion’s brain in a toaster. While working in the HR department of Inland Revenue. In space.”
It’s strange now to look back at Arstotka’s golden age of platforming when titles like Labour Camp 64 ruled the roost, but a glut of games isn’t a bad thing as long as quality is consistently good. With that being said, Hue earns a place with the best of ‘em.
Hue was reviewed with a download code of the PS4 edition, provided by Premier (PR).