[Pretentious Refuse is a weekly segment advocating excellent indie games that may be overlooked and/or otherwise dismissed as “low budget garbage” by “real” gamers.]
This year, 2010, was a fantastic year for indie games, namely those that displayed a retro, 8-bit appearance and were highlighted by progressively difficult gameplay. Notable examples include VVVVVV and Super Meat Boy, both of which I consider to be some of the best videogames released this year, even amidst the ridiculous surplus of equally superb AAA games that have consistently been released throughout the year.
VVVVVV was balls hard, but I finished it in one sitting, skipping numerous meals, and spending upwards of two hours trying (and gloriously succeeding) to beat the infamous Veni, Vidi, Vici puzzle. Super Meat Boy is turning into the same kind of addiction, and I truly mean addiction – I start it up on Steam, and then seemingly turn it off five minutes later, only to realize it’s gotten dark out and it’s actually been four, five hours since I started playing (and subsequently cursing like a sailor).
Both of those games definitely have soul-consuming properties, but they’re no Super Crate Box. If Super Meat Boy is like marijuana, where it’s an awesome thing to do every day, but you can pretty much quit anytime, Super Crate Box is like meth, where once you’ve taken a hit, you’re gonna want to take multiple subsequent hits, and then before you know it you end up doing it because you have to, not because you want to. Even if you quit, you never truly quit, as it’s always going to be on your mind.
It doesn’t help that, like meth, Super Crate Box is dirt cheap. And by “dirt cheap”, I mean “free.”
Developed by Dutch indie studio Vlambeer, Super Crate Box is an old-school game with tight, precise new-school mechanics. The gameplay is akin to those “single-screen stages” games of yore, like the original Mario Brothers, Ice Climbers, and Bubble Bobble, except instead of killing dudes, the objective is to collect crates dropped around one of three stages. There’s no level progression, no story, no boss – the name of the game here is high scores, and nothing else. Your score’s determined by the number of crates you pick up before you die (in one hit, no less), and once you do die, you start over and try again. Sounds kinda lame so far, eh?
Well, the magic lies in the details, and in the crates you collect. Even though the game isn’t about killing bad guys, there’s still plenty of baddies to mutilate. At the top of the screen a random, steady flow of three kinds of baddies will drop down and walk about to impede your crate-collecting progress. They don’t do much except walk around and get in your way, but you hit them once, you’re dead. It doesn’t help that at the bottom of the screen, there’s a fire pit, and once a monster walks into the pit, he respawns up top in a faster, angrier version of himself. It’s like the Sidesteppers from Mario Bros. all over again. Before you know it, you’ll eventually have an entire screen shakingly full of angry monsters that’ll make crate-nabbing impossible.
But that’s only if you remain a pacifist and don’t use your weapons. While you start off with a slow, weak pistol, in every crate lies a different weapon, with more weapons that can be unlocked the more crates you collect. This is where the brilliance starts to shine, as every single weapon has advantages and disadvantages, and on top of that, every time you collect a crate you’re forced to part with your current weapon. So even if I find myself in a groove, killing all the enemies in the screen with my grossly overpowered revolver, I know that to make progress I’ll have to go get the other crate, which might hold a crappy weapon like the disc gun, or a slow, unwieldy weapon like the bazooka. It’s this tightrope act of balancing killing enemies and collecting crates that make the game so addicting, and gives it that “just one more try” factor that keeps it fresh upon each playthrough and inevitable death.
Even after unlocking all the weapons and all the levels, you’d think it would get old, but Super Crate Box dangles such a tempting carrot in front of you that you can’t help but keep on playing. Along with those unlockables, you can also unlock characters, which you randomly spawn as when you die, and collecting 40 crates in each level unlocks a special difficulty mode that I admittedly have not unlocked yet. The rewards are completely inconsequential and don’t do much in the grand scheme of things, but the game constantly reminds you upon your death that, “hey, you can unlock another character at 35 crates,” or, “check it, you have this many more crates until your high score.” It’s almost like the game is daring me to keep on playing and giving off the “k, you did good, NOW DO BETTER” disapproving Asian parent vibe that makes you want to kick its ass and shove your gamepad down its throat.
Normally I don’t get caught up in games that are essentially penis-size contests, but Super Crate Box has the tight, precise mechanics and solid gameplay mixed in with an incurably charming retro aesthetic that keeps me hooked on it now and for the indefinite future. The more I play it, the more I realize its brilliance, and the more I would desperately love additional content, or perhaps a sequel. It’s a game I would easily purchase for ten or fifteen bucks, if that meant online leaderboards or some other way to compete with friends. If you told me at the beginning of the year that one of my favorite games of the year would be a freeware game about chasing down wooden boxes, I’d say you were crazy, would take your mom out to a nice seafood dinner, and never call her again. Yet at this rate, in a month Super Crate Box might even be right up top, and I have absolutely no problem with that.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to beat my high score of 29 crates so I can get to that next difficulty level.
Super Crate Box is available for free for the Mac or the PC on their website here.