The intense platforming of HoPiKo might be a leap too far.
When contemporary videogames present themselves with a pixelated, retrograde aesthetic, they’re not just making an artistic statement. They are defining themselves as a real game: authentic and true to nostalgic, refined simplicities. Doing one thing well is an aim that Laser Dog Games seems to understand. However, realising that aim is easier said than done, as their speed run platformer, HoPiKo, will attest.
I describe HoPiKo as a platformer only because its makers do. In truth, it deviates from many of the genres hallmarks. There is no running or jumping in the traditional sense. Instead, HoPiKo is about launching from surface to surface towards an end goal, the only concerns being aiming and timing. This is a 2-dimensional environment without gravitational effects; once you are committed to a jump, it had better be on target lest you sail into oblivion.
As if to prove a point, this simple concept is playable with a single hand. The right stick determines your launch trajectory, with a hold and release mechanism which commits you to jump as soon as the stick is pressed. The right bumper behaves similarly, only with direction determined by the angle of the platform on which you are stood. This is commonly used to traverse stacked platforms or to launch from cannon-type devices.
Aside from having no gravity, HoPiKo sounds like a familiar design brief. The idea of jumping between platforms, while avoiding environmental dangers in as quick a time as possible, could have come straight from Super Meat Boy. The brevity of its challenges (sometimes 10 seconds long, other times less than 2) will reinforce the notion that this is a similar test of persistence; an appetite for overcoming failure is a prerequisite to enjoying HoPiKo.
Where HoPiKo differs is in two conspicuous and critical areas: control refinement and progress management. In a game where every jump has to be executed quickly and accurately, the hold and release nature of play grinds uncomfortably against the urgency of HoPiKo’s levels. Restarting a failed level is quick enough, but if you start holding the stick too early it simply won’t register. At best this means a slower time; at worst, a disastrous misdirected launch.
Control frustrations are compounded by HoPiKo’s structural design, where progress is stymied by enforced sequences of 5 levels before any success actually counts. If you fail at any point before completion of a given sequence’s fifth stage, you go right back to the start. Hardcore mode demands a clean run of all 50 challenges in a world (of which there are 5), which feels unfairly sadistic given the game’s control issues.
These design choices undermine what otherwise feels like an enjoyably frenetic experience. Successfully navigating a level can, when it’s finally conquered, elicit that special kind of euphoria that only videogames offer. It’s just that having earned that success, HoPiKo has no qualms in taking it away moments later. The ability to play, practice and definitively beat levels one by one was what made Super Meat Boy’s brutality palatable, and that’s sorely missing here.
In appearance, HoPiKo pretty much nails it, which makes its shortcomings all the more painful. The visual flair of the Bit.Trip series is respectfully borrowed, evoking an abstract world inside a game console where your avatar battles to defeat malicious code. It’s nonsense, but charming nonsense, particularly with its nods to the original Xbox hardware. A chip-tune soundtrack completes the Bit.Trip homage, featuring simple and catchy accompaniments that don’t annoy (though you can change them if they do).
In the end, the experience rests uncomfortably upon those issues of control and structure. When a game expects the player to die hundreds or thousands of times, the trick is to ensure they never blame the game for it. In HoPiKo, control provides the scapegoat, followed by a disproportionate punishment. With the caveat that touchscreen versions may feel fairer, nobody could be blamed – in a perverse reflection of its gameplay – for bouncing off HoPiKo within moments.
HoPiKo was provided to us by Microsoft via a download code for Xbox One.