Super Crush KO Review — Save the Cat (With Style)!
Colorful brawler Super Crush KO has a lovely art style, a great sense of humor, and tense sidescrolling brawling that should charm anyone.
Certain genres can be missed out by entire generations; having grown up in an era defined by first-person shooters and action-adventure games, the beat-em-up has always been a blind spot for me. While brawler games may still be around these days, many of them have come across as nostalgic throwbacks to me. Not to disparage those games, but Super Crush KO, on the other hand, feels fresh, original, and modern.
When I first saw Vertex Pop’s game at PAX East, I was instantly drawn to the bright and vibrant visual style. Super Crush KO is fairly simple to play, but I found intense personal satisfaction from playing around with the basic mechanics. At the same time, I also experienced immense frustration whenever things went wrong, even from one single hit from an enemy. It isn’t a long game at all, but the art is inviting and the gameplay inspires one to get better.
The thrilling premise of Super Crush KO has the player as Karen, a young woman whose cat Chubbs is kidnapped by an alien named Ann. To get her cat back, she’ll have to fight through an entire robot and AI invasion. Karen is one with her priorities straight. Each chapter of the story starts with an animated comic of sorts, with boss battles preluded with scenes of silly dialogue between Karen and her catnapper. Not that the story is complex or amounts to anything profound—it’s all set up to punch some robots.
But it’s really pretty to look at—like Graceful Explosion Machine, the previous game from Vertex Pop, Super Crush KO uses a light color palette while utilizing soft and smooth geometry and shapes for characters, enemies, and the environment. The starry sky is a mix of pink, purple, and baby blue, and the skyline is colored to compliment it perfectly, creating an image of this dreamlike city that never leaves the “golden hour.” The color palette shifts with each chapter, adding subtle visual variety. And the visuals are joined by a bouncy electronic musical score, contributing to the ethereal feel of this city.
In terms of structure, there are four main chapters in Super Crush KO, all consisting of four levels and a boss battle. The player will brawl their way through colorful city streets, hitting checkpoints every once in a while. They’ll pick up on basic and special moves on their way, having to string them together for combos. There’s a letter rating for the player’s performance to go with the score (Style Points), D being the lowest and S being the highest; while not necessary, it is encouraged to get a Perfect Combo at the end of each major encounter in every level. Basically, keep punching and never get hit.
Besides a basic punch, which can also be used as an uppercut to launch enemies upward, Karen also has a blaster with recharging ammo. Alongside that are a number of special moves, which deplete an Energy Meter can be used directionally—use to the side for a Twister Drill, up for an Uppercut Slice, down for a Ground Shake, and midair to do an Air Pop, very much like homing attacks from the 3D Sonic games. To top it all off, there’s a “Super Beam KO” that takes some time to charge up.
All moves are useful in combat by themselves, but it’s how to string them together that forms the center of the gameplay. It’s all very reminiscent of Graceful Explosion Machine, which also armed players with a variety of tools and weapons while wanting players to cycle through these moves and change up their playstyle depending on the situation at hand. And like Graceful Explosion Machine, Super Crush KO doesn’t want to give you a moment to stop and breathe.
This isn’t a slight at all, and I appreciated how engaged this game wanted me to be. In any instance in a level, there were many moving parts on the same screen and assorted enemy types to worry about, yet I can’t say that I was ever overwhelmed by what was happening. Every situation that Super Crush KO threw at me was entirely manageable—the question was how I was going to approach it, and more importantly to me, how stylishly I was going to pull it off.
If you get hit by just one attack, there goes your combo—that’s an instant drop from an S ranking to a D. It may not amount to anything for progression in the larger game, but this threat of interrupting my combo was the main source of tension through my entire playthrough. Upon getting hit during an otherwise great combo, I would constantly spout out select four-letter words in frustration, even restarting the entire level if it was early enough.
Arguably more important than the attacks is a Dodge move—Karen will do a little dash forward and become invincible to any enemy strike. Most enemy attacks, unless indicated by “rage” lightning bolts above their heads, can be negated by Dodging into them; these are telegraphed by the color red. Sometimes I would grow frustrated with my failed dodging, either because of the cooldown time or the invincibility lasting shorter than I expected. It was occasionally difficult to determine whose fault it was for combo breaks—my own or the game.
I’m willing to bet that it’s the former, but some niggles remained. Health refills were rare and added to the tension, but both regaining and losing health resulted in a short slow down and pause, which I found distracting and hampering to the gameplay’s momentum. And while I appreciated that tutorials ended after the first chapter, there were times where subtle gameplay mechanics were still unclear; I was able to figure out some environmental elements like spikes and portals through context, but I felt like I was jumping into the deep end of the pool with some enemy encounters and figuring out whether my attacks or theirs had priority. Without visual indicators or context clues, I’d find out the hard way, and out came the four-letter swear out of my mouth.
While Super Crush KO is as simple as older beat-em-ups, it has more modern sensibilities behind it. The game looks modern and feels modern, and like Graceful Explosion Machine with shoot-em-ups, Vertex Pop has taken a classic genre and created a game of that genre that doesn’t feel like it belongs in that classic era. Those classic beat-em-up games make me want to plow through the levels as quickly as possible with brute force. Super Crush KO made me want to do better.
“Dense and tense” is how I would characterize this game. Not dense because of the amount of content in the game (there really isn’t too much), but by how much is happening on screen for the player to keep track of. It is tense not in story stakes or in-game punishment, but because of that internal desire to plan around these chaotic situations to avoid getting hit even just once. It is a smooth experience overall, with some nuanced gameplay wrinkles that resulted in some exasperation.
Even so, I know that I’d fight the whole goddamn world to save Chubbs.