The third dimension wasn’t very kind to the platformer. It was heavily ridiculed within its own medium, then quietly died shortly after the turn of the millennium. However, there were enough classic titles that linger in the minds of old people like me. It’s no surprise that we’ve seen a surge of callback titles in the indie circuit like A Hat in Time and Demon Turf.
Frogun knows what it’s about. With its lo-fi PS1-styled visuals and cute mascot character, it wouldn’t look out of place on the console’s collection of platformers. Of course, there’s more than just looking the part, and fortunately, Frogun acts the part, as well. Or is that entirely a good thing?
We’ve got a collect-a-thon here. Get ready to pick up a lot of rotating things in the environment. Your goal is really just to make it to the end of the level, but it stat-pressures you into collecting all the items, completing stages beneath a certain time threshold and without dying, and while you’re at it, finding all the bonus items. At least the gems buy you hats.
The story follows Renata, who, having been left alone at camp for a few days, ventures into some ruins to find her archeologist parents. Like when a child gets left in a hot car and has to venture into K-Mart. She’s equipped with her frog-like gun, that not only talks (for some reason) but also has a tongue that sticks to walls. It’s kind of like Chameleon Twist, only not as brave and, consequently, not as awkward.
Platformer with a capital P
Frogun is a platformer with a capital P. Most of its challenge comes from the traversal of gaps, with instant death if you miss. As you progress, gaps get harder, and it’s almost certain that you’re going to find death at the bottom of pits more often than you will at the hands of enemies. Finding secrets is mostly about being aware of your environment. In a way, it feels closer to Crash Bandicoot than it does Croc: Legend of the Gobbos. Renata is just not as limber as the bandicoot or a bear with a bird. In fact, she walks at a pace that makes you instinctively press harder on the control stick, as though that will make her speed up. It doesn’t, and my thumb is tired.
Crossing gaps by having your frog pistol lick walls is pretty straightforward. New techniques are thrown in occasionally to keep things from getting completely stale, but everything is kept simple enough that you can learn with only the briefest of tutorials. Frogun is less about constantly learning new skills and rather just getting proficient at the ones you have.
It’s not exactly a vast repertoire of skills, and I found the biggest challenge in Frogun came from trying to judge depth. I don’t mean that as a compliment. There’s very little clarity on when you should stick your tongue out. Do you drop a little first, or do you immediately send the next one out? There’s little time for you to decide in mid-air, so if you don’t time it right, you might hit the edge of the platform or whatever hazard is nearby. Forgiving, it isn’t.
Off to the races
Its lack of leniency clashes with the bubblegum visuals. Not that I want Frogun to be easy, but I also would have preferred fewer frustrations. Aiming is such a cumbersome task, that they added a special mode that locks you in place and gives you a laser pointer to find your target. Of course, this isn’t especially helpful when you have to make quick jumps. There’s an auto-aim, allegedly, but I found it about as useful as double-sided scissors. Smarter targeting is another way Frogun could have avoided needless frustration.
What really grilled me were those damned race levels. Some guy shows up with his snake out and challenges you to run to the end of the level. Nice twist, but touching him hurts you. He’s as slow as a hair clog but always stands in the way. Chances are, if you get ahead of him, you’re gold because he has the navigational skills of an escaped floating dock. Being behind him is like fleeing a wildfire and getting stuck in gridlock.
It’s not even that Frogun is particularly difficult. While there were sections I got stuck on for what probably was minutes but felt like an excruciating eternity, I mostly breezed through many of the levels (ignoring but often achieving some of the additional objectives). I just found that it would occasionally boil my biscuit.
In a way, this is pretty true to 3D’s awkward period. I’m not sure if Frogun is attempting to emulate the warts-and-all experience of early 3D platformers, but if it’s accidental, it’s convincing. You can even cycle through some pretty rad CRT filters. The soundtrack sounds the part, as well. In fact, if you had me listen to the soundtrack out of context, I’d probably guess it was composed during that era. So, kudos for really selling the experience.
What mostly breaks the experience for me is that Frogun doesn’t feature the variety of most platformers of the time. The ancient ruins aesthetic doesn’t do it any favors, even when it swaps the colors out for winter or lava. It just all feels the same. A few new enemies wandering around the environments don’t really excite. There aren’t many memorable puzzles or even narrative twists to make the game feel any more dynamic. Frogun could be summed up in a single image.
Back to the living room floor
With that said, Frogun isn’t poorly designed. While I ran into some unfortunate bugs, the actual level design is reasonable, even if you can’t easily tell them apart. There’s a lot to be said about its success in delivering on its thesis. It maybe is exactly what it wants to be. I can certainly see it clicking with some people, and those people will find a lot of enjoyment here.
On the other hand, outside its well-executed aesthetics, I found Frogun to be quite mundane. I kept going back to Chameleon Twist, another tongue-based platformer, and thinking about how much more freedom that game had with its mechanics. I’d never try to sell Chameleon Twist as a terrific game — both games in the brief series had glaring issues — but it’s a little more memorable than Frogun will likely be. Whenever it’s mentioned in the future, I’ll probably be able to visualize it, but not remember much of the content. Okay, I might also remember my frustration with that race jerk, but that, once again, is not a compliment.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]