You spin me round and round
One of the defining aspects of old-school games is the ability to teach through gameplay. Since there wasn’t a lot of storage space for text to explain individual moves, games had to organically lead players down the correct path. This took the shape of things like placing a single Goomba in Super Mario Bros. or the introductory sequence of Mega Man X.
Indie games tend to follow that design philosophy, either out of choice for retro aesthetics or due to smaller development teams (sometimes a single person). The goal is to teach solely with gameplay and eschew standardized tutorial levels that most players tend to hate. Circles definitely follows that lead, not relying on simple things like words to teach you everything you need to know to succeed.
It truly is wonderfully designed, even if the game is a bit short.
Developer: Jeroen Wimmers
Publisher: Jeroen Wimmers
Released: February 17, 2017
Circles is a minimalist puzzle game set to a soothing soundtrack. Your basic goal is to guide your small circle around an obstacle course of other circles to reach a goal point. The mechanics get shifted up in later levels, but the main objective is always to reach an end dot.
The game is controlled solely through the mouse. There is no clicking or button presses to worry about; you just drag your circle and deftly avoid the others. The sheer simplicity allows gamers of any age to quickly grasp the idea of what this game is doing as well as giving the developer a chance to screw around with player expectations.
See, some of the later levels work in reverse. You have to actually move through other circles to reach the goal, a subtle subversion on the first levels you toppled. Others also have levels play out when you move, feeling reminiscent of Super Hot, or require you to wind your mouse like you’re tuning a clock. Again, this is all conveyed without words or cutscenes or any voice-over that explicitly details these mechanics.
The beauty of that minimalist design shines through in the graphics. Your circle is always clearly defined and never lost in the chaos of some levels. Colors are striking and bold to help accentuate what needs to be done and how you should be doing it. The game also never changes things on the fly, even if the color scheme does shift between segments.
Failing at any of the challenges simply asks the player to restart a level. Not to confuse anyone, the game will just stop and then set up a dot where the sequence began. You simply move back over there and the game resumes. This avoids the problem some super tough games like Super Meat Boy suffer from where one death can lead to another immediate death due to near-instantaneous respawning.
The game is divided into four segments that each contains about 15 levels, give or take. Upon completing all of those, you unlock bonus modes that totally alter the experience. While the basic level design doesn’t change, you’ll end up dealing with a rotating display or strict move limits, which definitely amps up the challenge beyond the simplicity of the main levels.
The striking minimalism is never broken. Even in these differing modes with totally warped rules, everything is conveyed with the same deft skill as before. Levels won’t begin rotating until you move, so you can take as much time to get your bearings as needed. The move limits aren’t based on time, so you can map out a path that you’ll pursue. It works wonderfully.
That really is it with Circles. I’m sure there is something to be explored with how well this game teaches players, but is it any fun? Yeah, I enjoyed it a lot. It is short, but the extra modes add some replayability and the basic gameplay loop is fun. It does a great job of reminding me why I love indie hits like Braid and Super Meat Boy; they don’t treat their players like idiots.
Replaying a lot of newer games is usually a chore during the intro sequences because there is so much information being thrown at you that can’t easily be skipped. I know not everyone is at the same skill level, but why should veteran game players have to waste time with a set piece they could easily blow through? What happened to the days of letting mechanics instruct you on how to actually play?
Circles may not be the most feature-packed game, but it sets out with a simple mission, accomplishes it well, and even throws in extra stuff. Maybe I’d have liked to see some more levels, but I still enjoyed what I played. I wouldn’t have a hard time recommending it to anyone, either; it doesn’t matter what language you speak or what age you are, because Circles has got you covered.
Now we just need to wait for the sequel; Ovals!
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Circles reviewed by Peter Glagowski
A solid game that definitely has an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.
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