La Mulana

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

4 stars

Bottom line: La Mulana is “like all the best things in life, not for kids.”

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.

La Mulana

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.

–Bennett

Comments

27 Responses to La Mulana

  1. I removed a link to Penny Arcade because hell if any website is going to link to Penny Arcade on my watch but this is a pretty great review, bennet. No hard feelings, I hope.

  2. I was born in 1972, but I never really got this obsession with hard games.

  3. James: Nah, no hard feelings. Slight raised eyebrow. For those people who might be wondering, I compared the experience of playing a modern game to Tycho’s fictitious novelization of Command and Conquer. (I hope it’s ok to at least mention Penny-arcade in the comments)

    Anthony W: I should come clean and admit that the last game I played prior to La Mulana was ‘Pokemon Pearl’. I love Pokemon, actually, but you can really sleepwalk through it. You can play it with one hand while you eat your dinner and watch The Bill.

  4. Why the need to ‘shorten’ Professor Lemeza Kosugi to Indiana Jones or Dr. Jones?

    The analogy was only used for one paragraph. The makers of La Mulana aren’t scared to make a hard game, why does the article have to be dumbed down?

  5. I’m one of the biased fans in the choir, but “hell yeah”
    great review, feels short but does get all the important points nicely. a good look at difficulty in modern games. in this game’s case, even trying to figure out hints from friends or online guides is like a puzzle in itself. “okay I can’t do this part right now, so where AM I supposed to go?!”

    and something about the solid presentation sytle of La-Mulana makes even Cave Story feel like “just an amateur indie game” done in Gamemaker, by comparison. it even looks good in monochrome screenshots, heh.

  6. I LOVED Cave Story. I’ll have to check this out soon. Great explanation of why (most) games have become so easy, BTW. Never thought about it that way.

  7. Here’s a thing:

    “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.

    “…

    “It is no longer a viable commercial proposition to write a game for these hardened champions.”

    If it’s not a viable commercial proposition, then either these noble videowarriors of yesteryear are not, in fact, a majority, or they are not, in fact, as hardened as you make them out to be.

  8. Cubalibre: Well, even if a majority of gamers were weaned on hard games, it doesn’t mean that a majority still want hard games. Maybe they’re like Viking warriors who have assimilated into modern Swedish lifestyle and become soft and weak.
    But also, people do not automatically run out and buy the games that best suit them. They buy the games that have good reviews. So there is a disconnect between what the majority buys and what the majority would actually enjoy.

    knassygroll: I was trying to let you know that the character basically is Indiana Jones. I wasn’t dumbing anything down. But maybe I should have dumbed it down more?

  9. “So there is a disconnect between what the majority buys and what the majority would actually enjoy.”

    Ah, the ‘let them eat cake’ approach to video game design. I’ve long suspected the industry of operating counter to standard economic practices. Actually, all the hardened gamers died in the mid 90’s arcade fire. The meek inherited the earth.

  10. bennett: I believe most of those statistics on the average age of a gamer include solitaire in the calculation, making them for actual video game consoles, vastly inaccurate. The real average is still more than likely around 21. I’ve also seriously questioned how they get an accurate measurement.

    James: you are obnoxiously biased.

  11. Yeah. I’m pretty sure that by far the largest consumers of videogames today are kids that grew up not with Centipede but with Mario – kids that grew up with the advent of home systems. Those people are barely breaking 30, and given that you’d be hard-pressed to say that fully half of gamers are older than 33. Unless there’s some enlightened enclave of 80-year-olds out there who love the 360 and act as outliers for the average.

  12. I really enjoyed this entry as one of the only coherent explanations I’ve read for how/why games have become so easy over the years. I’m curious about La Mulana, but at the same time, if it’s really as difficult as it is (amusingly) portrayed by AB.net, than it seems overboard to me.

  13. You get the odd game, like God Hand or Viewtiful Joe, that actually manages to be difficult and yet maintain the things that can be good about modern games (more fluid controls, more varied design, and so on).

  14. Since it’s been brought up, what is the problem with Penny Arcade?

  15. actionbutton is too noble to be associated with such snobby internet denizens.

    (and too post my godhand review, apparently!)

  16. Actually if you go by lets say, an early internet community, so you have ex-hardcore gamers who’ve grown up and are now 33, and you see what they want…if only we could do that…

    Check out Slashdot sometime, their games coverage. By and large, they do not want the hardcore. They want something short but jampacked that they can fit in bite-sized chunks.

  17. Karmakin:

    That works, if you assume that the average slashdot user is an ex-hardcore gamer. But although gamers exist in the slashdot crowd, it is also comprised of a very large number of

    – HAM radio nerds
    – mac nerds (who have obviously never played a game)
    – math nerds
    – chess nerds
    – astronomy nerds
    – cryptography nerds

    Many of Slashdot’s core demographics would never do something as lowbrow and right-brained as playing a game.

    In any case, as I suggested above, there’s no continuity between what a person wants and what a person would like.

    Haven’t you ever craved a McDonalds hamburger, and then when you get one and bite into it you think ‘This is disgusting. I knew it would be disgusting. Why did I want this?’

  18. Thanks for bringing this ame to my attention. I’ve pretty much given up on gaming (being the age mentionjed of the average gamer in the review, my hardcore days are over due to time constraints), but this little gem is the most fun I’ve had in months.

  19. I tried this game because of your review and found it ugly and unpleasant. I’ll probably try it again, and I probably won’t finish it. Very near to the beginning of this game that you say doesn’t feel arbitrary, Indy gets the chance to go underwater. If he takes it, he dies after about two seconds. Apparently quite often in this game that y’all seem to think is visually well-presented, Indy is blocked by subtle extensions of the dark blue walls that look almost the same as the walls he can easily walk past. Apparently all the time in this game that you suggest is interesting and varied, Indy must kill bird after respawning bird after respawning bird. Yawn. I like intricate puzzles, but must they be gritted up with simplistic action and long excursions out of the game itself (and into the manual or an IM conversation with a friend or whatever)? I play games to play games; if I’m gonna talk to people I’ll talk about something other than a fricking linear puzzle. Not too long ago, I had a lot of the feelings you seem to have for La Mulana, only I was playing Shadow of the Beast III on my SNES emulator. Now THERE is a gorgeous, difficult game–and one that isn’t so long as to require a save system (which is a pretty goofy feature for a game that makes it easy for you get stuck). This game, according to what I’ve seen and what you’ve said, is Shadow of the Beast III, only five times less elegant.

  20. Incidentally, anybody wanting a somewhat recent, old-fashioned puzzle game that DOESN’T require a lot of extraneous busywork ought to try Chromatron. And weep, because it is hard. And keep playing it, because on top of being hard, it is challenging. In that La Mulana darkroom, you have to memorize a field. In Chromatron, you have to understand a field.

    Also, Penny Arcade, despite its shortcomings, is much better than this site. Y’all’s work has 70% of the pretentiousness of Pitchfork, and 1% of the breadth. Not to insult you too much, you’re good writers and you’re trying and all, but god, the games medium just isn’t complex enough yet to be saddled with a Pitchfork.

  21. First, thanks for playing a game based on my recommendation. Second, you’re right about the darkroom field in La-Mulana. But third, you are clearly missing a huge amount of the subtlety and history that makes independent games interesting right now.

    I’ve played Chromatron, and it was a very slight improvement on the very hackneyed laser chess theme. If Chromatron impressed you, it’s clear that you don’t know much about games as an artform.

    You claim that the games medium isn’t complex enough… But you’re missing a huge amount of the complexity is there. Furthermore, if complexity is a prerequisite for critical analysis, then that would imply that we can never have an interesting discussion about early silent films, which are nothing if not simple.

    An artform needs intelligent, understanding discussion not because it’s particularly complex, but because there is an absence of such discussion. If Pitchfork disappeared, there would still be a lot of critical analysis of music. But there is hardly any such discussion of games – not because they are non-complex, but because they are new.

  22. > I’ve played Chromatron, and it was a very slight improvement on the very hackneyed laser chess theme. If Chromatron impressed you, it’s clear that you don’t know much about games as an artform.

    OH WELL EXCEPT FOR MY AWESOME CREDENTIALS HERE

    Ehh one bitchy presumptuous post deserves another (those being mine, and then yours, I’m trying to be conciliatory yet still cynical here OH GOD NOW I SOUND LIKE PITCHFORK). ANYWAY who is talking about art? You went on about puzzles and severe difficulty in your review, and your enjoyment of the aforementioned in this game. Chromatron is a series of puzzles that are severely difficult, minus everything I found unpleasant about the first few minutes of La Mulana, and I enjoyed it a lot. What’s the mismatch? I gather it’s got to do with La Mulana’s context, which apparently can be summed up in the statement that games used to be hard but then got easier but now are sometimes hard again. Uh? Art?

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