PCAlso available on Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One
As we’re in the silly season of gaming with AAA titles being knocked out of studios like hastily wrapped gifts on Santa’s conveyor belt, it’s easy to overlook the little guys. No, we don’t mean the elves. We’re talking about developers like Good Mood Creators who have worked tirelessly on their first project - Mekazoo - since its inception at college. After our hands-on at EGX (you can read our interview here), we were hopeful that the team could follow through and deliver the kind of platform game we’d been waiting for since Sonic’s last truly great outing (Sonic 2, in case you were wondering). The good news is: they have.
Mekazoo isn’t a complicated game, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t challenging. Starting out as a Mekanimal armadillo, you break out of a cocoon in what appears to be a high-tech factory, and make a bid to escape. It should be noted that there are no on-screen prompts, no help tips, no guidance at all. There doesn’t need to be: the controls immediately feel natural, and the game curls its way around the controller in your hands in such a way that you could have been born with it there and still know what to do. It is the epitome of pick-up-and-play gaming. The armadillo is the closest analogue to Sonic as you can curl up into a ball and whizz around loops and tracks, collecting orbs and smashing through enemies and breakable platforms. Holding down the spin button charges you up; releasing it unleashes a blast of momentum to throw you around the obstacles.
So far, so simple. But Mekazoo is aimed at the completionist, the speed runner and the explorer. If you want to get the coveted trophies at the end of each level, you’re going to have to practice. Each level has a flow and a rhythm. If you want to get through one in a minute and a half, you’ll need to know where each ramp is and hit it with the right amount of momentum before unleashing a boost to get to the next section smoothly. Orbs are scattered everywhere, and you’ll miss them if you’re not perfectly on point. Taking out all enemies may grant you another trophy, but this requires further dexterity. And doing the whole thing without dying is a feat in itself - your shield will protect you for a single hit, but if you take any more damage before it’s fully charged you’ll die and lose some of your precious orbs. Not many, but enough to ruin your attack on those trophies.
This is only the beginning: there are four other Mekanimals to unlock and control as well, which come after you take on and defeat their equivalent end-of-level boss. Each of them handles completely differently - the frog uses its tongue to latch onto objects and swing to distant platforms; the wallaby hops over chasms, the panda can smash through obstacles and the pelican can fly to remote areas. All of them are also able to take out enemies while using their powers, which provides ample opportunities for collecting those valuable orbs.
The hook in Mekazoo is knowing when to switch animals to complete the course in the fastest possible time. After you collect your first Mekanimal you are able to switch between them with a button press, and only after running through each course a number of times will you understand at which point each of the two animals in your menagerie are best suited for navigating each run. It’s an adrenaline high driven by pure momentum which is wildly satisfying when you get it right, and thanks to the incredible polish of the gameplay, only slightly frustrating when you don’t.
It also looks gorgeous. Each zone is crisp and colourful, and the neon glow of your Mekanimals makes tracking their progress around the courses simple. This is important, since this isn’t a 2D platformer in the traditional sense - it’s set in a 3D world, so you’ll often be wondering where the next platform may be, only to find it located at a ninety degree angle. You’ll be thrown into cannons which shoot you in all directions, and often at the camera. In fact, if there’s one criticism of the course layouts, it’s that there are a few too many cannons dotted around which take control away from the player. It’s wonderful to watch your frog get hurled across the environment, but after a couple of hours of this you’ll feel the craving to play yourself. The worlds are so well rendered and interesting that removing the agency makes you feel a little twitchy.
Navigation is therefore an exercise in muscle memory, much like the platform days of yore, but with a far more exciting visual element thrown in to keep you on your toes. You’ll be avoiding spikes, getting sucked down tubes, dodging deadly blades, and destroying insects, all the while switching between very different creatures. Thankfully Good Mood Creators kept the number of animals you control at any one time to two, so you won’t ever feel overwhelmed about which creature you should be using at any point - the landscape will make it pretty obvious, but the challenge lies in timing the switch perfectly.
Kudos should also be given to M.J. Quigley, who has crafted a superb synth-heavy soundtrack that slots in perfectly with the tech vibe of the game, and somehow manages to feel both modern and retro at once, like Sonic had been remixed with Daft Punk. There are so many toe-tapping tunes here that the entire soundtrack can stand perfectly on its own (and will probably be on our playlist for a while).
There is also a couch co-op which puts the switching ability solely in the hands of your buddy, thus ensuring a potentially enjoyable evening is punctuated with screams of rage, epithets and eventually a smashed controller. But when it works, and you’re entirely in sync with the level and each other, it feels sublime. Be prepared for practice, and don’t expect it to trump the likes of co-op Super Mario in the living room.
If there’s one criticism, it’s that locating the entry points to the stages themselves is tricky. The more trophies you collect, the more levels you can unlock, but aside from an initial hub which takes you into a series of main levels, the tubes that blast you to the sub-levels under it need to be found and jumped/rolled/flown to each time you want to retry them. This can become tiresome if you just want to dip in and try your hand at collecting specific trophies on individual levels; a level selector would have been a far more user-friendly addition.
As a 21st-century take on 90s platformers, Mekazoo is a winner. It doesn’t set out to tell a story, or dazzle you with power-ups. It trusts in its core mechanics, a handful of cute protagonists and some lovely visuals, and the end result feels like the gaming equivalent of a decent jazz band: it looks good, sounds great, and when all the components pull together you feel like you’re in the presence of something magical.