a review of La Mulana
a videogame developed by GR3 Project
and published by GR3 Project
for Microsoft Windows and nintendo wiiware
english version available at romhack
text by Bennett
Let’s talk about difficulty in games.
In the early days, games were usually written, drawn, coded and directed by one lone nerd. The nerd usually had around six weeks to produce a game which would suck down a billion coins in video arcades worldwide. The nerd’s goal was onefold: the game had to suck down as many coins as possible.
The obstacle in the path of the nerd’s goal was also onefold. Because of time and manpower constraints, the game would have around twenty minutes worth of unique content, meaning that players could quickly become bored, and take their precious coins elsewhere. Thus there was a problem: videogames could not reach commercial success until the obstacle could be overcome and the goal could be met.
In 1980, Eugene Jarvis solved the problem at Williams when he was programming ‘Defender‘: he made the game amazingly hard, and it went on to suck down more coins than any other game other than Pacman. (Full disclosure: these facts have been dramatized.)
The eighties saw a large number of very difficult games introduced into arcades and even into homes. Of course, on a home console, Jarvis’ elegant solution for attracting coins to the slot was irrelevant; every sale of a cartridge, disk or a tape was – and is – final. But since many of the most popular games were written for the arcades and ported for the home, the difficulty remained.
In the 90s, though, the arcades gradually died, and there was no longer any commercial reason for games to be hard. And gradually, the difficulty went away. The old Prince of Persia gave you no option to save your game, and one hour to finish the entire game. The new Prince of Persia gives you a rewind button. Every PC game lets you save at will, inching through the game by trial and error like a climber on a two-inch safety rope, because they get much lower review scores if they do not. Games today offer step-by-step tutorials, balloon help, and almost never require you to read the manual. It’s not a matter of controversy: modern games are easy.
Every year a survey tells us that the median age of gamers has increased. Last year, the average US gamer was 33. This means that majority of today’s gamers were weaned on games which were exceedingly difficult. But they cannot buy games to test their skills and their patience. They are like Spartan warriors or Vikings who have been forcibly migrated to modern Sweden.
It is no longer a viable commercial proposition to write a game for these hardened champions. The only way that these games can be made is if they are made for free, and distributed for free.
Which brings us to La Mulana, a Japanese freeware indie game in the mold of Castlevania and Metroid. The developers want you to feel as though they have released a sequel to Maze of Galious for your dusty, electrically-unsafe MSX console. From the collectible MSX game cartridges in the game’s dungeons, to the portable MSX laptop which is used to decipher inscriptions and read maps, this game is a 100-hour love letter to the ‘Xbox of 1983’. It runs happily on a Pentium 66, and it’s reasonable to describe it as ‘retro stylee’.
Yet somehow, La Mulana manages to avoid the clunky presentation and gameplay which has aged the real 1980s games so dramatically. Operating without real 8-bit constraints, the developers have made an 8-bit game with modern ambition. It makes me want to throw away my next-gen devices, but at the same time it is richer and more satisfying than any game I could find for an emulator. La Mulana is deeper and more complicated than any other game with 16-colour graphics, though it is never inaccessible or obtuse. It is exceedingly difficult without ever feeling arbitrary.
Did I just say difficult? La Mulana, unlike almost every other recent game of merit, is more than difficult. It is the kind of difficult which is no longer present outside of Japanese arcades.
Let me paint a picture. Your character is Professor Lemeza Kosugi, but let’s call him ‘Indiana Jones’ for short. Dr. Jones has come to a room which is pitch black. Somewhere in the room, there is a torch which can be lit with his newly-acquired flare gun, but he only has seven flares, and the torch will only stay lit for around five seconds. This is nowhere near long enough to traverse the platforms and spike traps which line the room. But he cannot simply step through the room flailing his whip like a coward. For if he accidentally whips a sacred monument in the darkness, an angry god will strike him with lightning. Dr. Jones will have to memorise the room!
In La Mulana, you cannot save your game until you get enough money to buy a save card. Even then, you can’t save without returning to the beginning of the game. You’ll certainly get stuck. You may have to call your friends to ask them how to solve a particular puzzle, or overcome a particular boss. You’ll need to read the (html) manual from cover to cover. You’ll want to write the game to a floppy disk so you can wrench it out of the drive and throw it across the room and stomp on it.
It is such a refreshment. For the last few years, most games I’ve played have given me a feeling of inevitability – as though I will certainly reach the end, even if I play like a brain-dead cabbage with Lou Gehrig’s disease. It can feel like reading a repetitive book. By contrast, La Mulana makes it feel like you are changing the outcome through your actions. You can fail, even to the point where you might give up. Since it is possible to fail, it becomes possible to succeed.
Satoru Iwata recently described the appeal of Zelda thus:
“Whenever I solve a difficult puzzle in Zelda, it always makes me think “I might be pretty smart!”
When I cleared the first boss in La Mulana, I knew I was smart. This feeling totally eclipsed my feelings of guilt for having forsaken my work, my dinner, and my personal hygiene for the preceding 48 hours.
Yes, there are other hard games out there. There are other games where it is possible to fail. But not many of them are platformers, and not many of them have La Mulana’s quality. La Mulana is not ‘good for an indie game’ or ‘good for a freeware title’. It’s the best game I’ve played in a year. You get the feeling that the history of video games went awry about 20 years ago, and that La Mulana somehow came to us through a wormhole from a beautiful parallel universe.