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A mindbending hands-on with Poto & Cabenga

12:00 PM on 03.17.2010 // Anthony Burch

Each year, Gamma entrants are asked to make games under certain constraints. This year, all Gamma4 entries must be controlled with a single button. I plan to write up my impressions of all six Gamma4 games.

Not to be confused (or is it?) with Poto and Cabengo, Honeyslug's Gamma4 entry is a singleplayer platformer where one button controls two different characters in two different environments.

If that sounds confusing, it is. It's also highly enjoyable, and equally adorable thanks to its simple, charming art style.

Though Faraway remains my favorite of the Gamma4 games this year, Poto and Cabenga is easily the must-play game of the bunch. Of all the finalists, P&C wrings the most novelty out of the mandated one-button control scheme: Michael Todd likened the experience of playing the game to trying to rub your stomach while patting your head. I disagree. To me, playing Poto and Cabenga is like trying to rub your stomach while patting your head...with the same hand.

Hit the jump for my impressions.

I'm gonna take this step-by-step.

1. There are two characters: Poto, a rider who is swallowed by a dragon and must navigate his way through the dragon's intestinal tract, and Cabenga, his faithful horse who is pursuing the dragon. Poto takes up the top half of the screen, Cabenga the bottom half. A single player simultaneously controls both characters.

2. By holding the button, Cabenga will dash forward and Poto will fall back. By not holding the button, Poto will dash forward and Cabenga will fall back. 

3. Pressing the button also makes Cabenga jump. Letting go of the button makes Poto jump.

I may have screwed up exactly who jumps and who dashes when the button is pressed or released, but if you're totally confused -- good. I've done my job. Poto and Cabenga was, at least initially, a really goddamn difficult game to wrap my head around. Honeyslug managed to map four different actions to the same button, often requiring the player to do two drastically different things at the same time.

Imagine having to get one guy to jump while the other dashes, then immediately switch it around so that they both jump, then slow one down and speed the other up so they can both dodge enemies coming at them from different sections of the screen. If that hurts your head, or sounds impossible, then you might be surprised to find that after a few minutes of play, Poto and Cabenga becomes surprisingly clear. It is, to rip off Michael Todd again, almost exactly like rubbing your stomach and patting your head: when you initially attempt it it seems downright impossible, but after a bit of concentration and some mental reconfiguring, it becomes second nature.

Granted, Poto and Cabenga never actually gets easy -- I finished the game with only one hit point left -- but it always plays fair. Enemies move very slowly and always appear far in advance of when you actually need to react to them, giving the player the necessary amount of time to get past the initial "oh fuck oh fuck wait how do I get that one to go back okay so now he's back wait no the other one is rushing forward oh fuck how do I make them both jump just tap it really quick I guess okay wait go back" reaction that will characterize literally every enemy encounter over the first half of the game. You'll get hurt a lot, but thankfully both Poto and Cabenga have to take something like fifteen hits each before the game ends.

Once you get a hold on the basic controls, you'll feel like a genius. What was once totally incomprehensible suddenly becomes possible, and it feels great. Speaking of great: the final victory cut scene.

Poto and Cabenga isn't out yet, but Honeyslug recommends you keep an eye out on their official blog.

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