Retro-styled 2D platformers have always been a popular genre for indie games, and certain titles, such as Super Meat Boy and Spelunky, pride themselves on providing a heavy amount of challenge for players looking to test themselves. Developer Michael Todd has made a more recent contribution to this niche with Electronic Super Joy, a 2013 PC title now making its Xbox One debut. Just like the aforementioned games, it takes a small list of mechanics and smartly utilizes them in dozens of short but often maddening levels that will provide a healthy challenge for anyone willing to take them on.
Players control a nameless silhouetted character, running and jumping across dozens of levels with solid black foregrounds, with more colorful backgrounds set to the beat of various techno instrumentals. An overarching story is nonexistent, but players will come across many NPCs who drop hints and encouragement via brief on-screen text and encounter more specific characters as boss fights, most notably the pope.
Like many platformers, the story isn’t the point. The focus here is clearly the level designs, which see the player running, stomping and wall jumping through each brief challenge. Hazards like enemy grunts, laser beams and various projectiles look to cut the journey short, and since the protagonist dies immediately when hit, that happens often. Thankfully, levels contain several checkpoints and unlimited lives, so players can have as many tries as they want.
A few early levels aside, Electronic Super Joy is generally brutal. Even ignoring the aforementioned hazards, many jumps require such perfect timing that you’re guaranteed to see hundreds of deaths from falling into bottomless voids before you beat the game. The ability to stomp on enemies does indeed exist, but it requires a timed button press in midair to stomp down on them rather than an option to freely jump normally on each drone. Even then, this and other recurring abilities such as a double jump are restricted to certain levels.
Many of these levels can be mastered through trial and error, but one factor that can often bring the experience down as a whole is the inclusion of enemy homing missiles. Many levels contain these triangular pests that dive and arc as they endlessly try to take out the player, but even those willing to study their movement patterns will have problems with the levels that barrage the screen with their presence. It’s often straight-up impossible to keep track of every onscreen missile when there are a half dozen flying all over the place, and even though the stomp attack can be used to destroy them, they often respawn, and players can leave themselves in a vulnerable position afterwards. The levels that rely most on missiles are among the most frustrating I’ve ever played and they seriously damper the game’s overall enjoyment.
Also, while it’s true that levels usually contain several checkpoints, they can feel too spaced out. A good comparison to make would be the Trials series, which is overall much more generous with its checkpoint placement. Here, you usually don’t have just one tough section to get through before you gratefully reach a checkpoint, but often two or three. It can be very frustrating to finally get the hang of one particularly tough part only to find another right after it, and then have to do both in one go.
If it isn’t clear, finishing the game is a genuine ordeal, and as a result, those who usually enjoy more laidback platformers like Mario will have a rough time here. Still, the success of Super Meat Boy shows that, even decades after relentlessly tough NES games were the norm, many players still enjoy when a challenge is handed to them, as the satisfaction of overcoming it is greatly amplified.
If that kind of game hooks you, then there’s a lot to enjoy here. You can be even more of a masochist and turn off checkpoints if you wish, and if you love achievements, be prepared to spend a lot of time getting the one that requires you to beat each level with no deaths. A few expansions have also been included, including a smaller campaign mode that introduces several new mechanics like slippery platforms and camera rotation.
Games like Electronic Super Joy are those kind of titles that reward perseverance for those willing to commit to them, but will scare away casual players. The inclusion of factors like those pesky missiles leads to some unfortunately cheap-feeling segments, but the parts that actually rely on platforming skill and timing are well thought out. Its look and sound are bare bones, but its challenge is not. Those who are easily frustrated should steer clear, but players who know what they’re in for will get some fun out of the overall package.
This review is based on the Xbox One version, which was provided to us.
Certain elements could have made Electronic Super Joy a less frustrating experience, but those who enjoy brutally difficult sidescrollers should find a lot to like here.