I can’t say I’ve even thought about hacky sacks in any capacity over the last decade. They were a massive fad in the ’90s that took the world by storm. There was an inherent joy in maneuvering a sack of beans through the air that clicked immediately for a lot of people.
Now, would I want a video game of that? Not particularly, but at least if one existed it should strive to be deeper than the crap seen in California Games back on the NES. Thankfully developer Spaceboy Games has done just that; they’ve created a fun little game about kicking a sack of beans through the air.
Developer: Spaceboy Games
Publisher: Humble Bundle
Released: March 28, 2017
Trying to overcomplicate HackyZack by setting some kind of story up would be pointless. Even the developers didn’t pull that on the official Steam page. “You are Zack. Juggle balls with unique properties through platforming puzzles to a goal at the end of each stage,” reads the description. Done; signed; it’s in the movie!
Like I said above, HackyZack follows a simple puzzle platformer formula. The game begins with a simple concept, explains itself through visual cues and direct interaction and then ups the ante or changes the gimmick in each “world.” What you end up with is a simple game that tests your reflexes and puzzle-solving skills along with providing some cool visuals and music.
The main mode of the game has you kicking around different sacks to a goal and then proceeding to the next level. You can find collectible stickers in each level that unlock a secondary option, Target mode. Target mode shares the same gameplay concept, but switches out a single goal for multiple targets that need to be broken.
The controls are super simple and easy to grasp. You move around with the arrow keys or d-pad, and you have a double jump, a wall jump, and your basic kick. By holding the d-pad or arrow keys in specific directions, you can control how Zack is going to kick the sack in the air (exemplified by a grid around the sack). Some levels will have a regular old sack while others will give you a floaty beach ball, some Matrix-esque slow-motion sack, or hyper bouncy sacks.
Through the process of natural experimentation, you figure out what the properties of each sack are, what the level is asking of you, and how you should go about it. A few levels do allow for different solutions, so you can sometimes get around by breaking the rules set in front of you. That makes for some good replayability, even if the developer’s solution is usually the simplest to execute.
Of course, since this is a platformer, you aren’t just kicking sacks around with no obstacles. You’ll need to guide the sacks through time-sensitive walls, moving platforms, and even death blocks. If Zack isn’t careful, he can die by missing a jump or running into an obstacle, but the punishment isn’t too severe. Since each level is micro-sized, you’ll lose approximately 30 seconds of progress depending on what the challenge is asking of you.
Along with that extra game mode, collecting stickers also unlocks different costumes for Zack. They don’t modify the gameplay in any manner, so it acts purely as a cosmetic difference. I particularly like the frog suit that has Zack ribbit as he jumps about.
Honestly, that is all HackyZack has. There are no hints of some grand evil schemes or any explanation for why Zack is playing a game of death sack; you just get put into a level and are told to complete it. It is refreshing to see a game state its intention and deliver on that premise with no compromising.
The presentation is really killer, evoking the charm of Yoshi’s Island in its visuals. The level select screen is shown like a storybook and everything has a crayon style to it. Zack sports a goofy face and makes funny sounds when he jumps. It’s hard not to smile when playing the game.
The soundtrack is also very relaxing, probably as a counter to the sometimes difficult puzzles. Even when I was getting a little frustrated at the timing required for some of the later levels, just taking a second to soak in the ambiance helps with calming your nerves.
So if everything is simple and it works without a hitch, why aren’t I more positive? Mostly for one reason: the game lacks ambition. I suppose that is more a personal thing, but I would have liked to see more levels with different concepts or even a level editor. Heck, a multiplayer sack-off would have been great, especially with how crazy some of the levels are.
There is also the fact that I’ve played a lot of indie platformers that iterate on what Braid did, so the very idea of a mechanic-focused platformer isn’t novel anymore. Just this year I played through HoPiKo, another indie platformer that follows in the same vein as Jonathan Blow’s masterpiece. That doesn’t mean HackyZack is bad or shouldn’t be played, just that I didn’t gel with it as much as previous efforts in this genre.
The thing with these types of games, though, is that they really engage the player at a mechanical level. I think it’s impossible to walk away from one of them and think your time was wasted. It doesn’t patronize you with endless tutorials or wrestle control away from you at key moments; everything that happens in the game is because of your input.
So even if I’m not in love with HackyZack, I still really like it. It only lasts a few hours, but it’s a few hours of genuine fun that makes you feel good. There is no need to complicate that further.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]