One of the selling points of the independent video game development scene is that it allows developers to stretch their wings and fly, as it were. Without having a publisher bearing down on them, indie devs have a chance to make something truly unique that pushes the definition of what a game can be. Well, that’s the idea anyway; what tends to actually happen is that one dev will do that, then several hundred will follow along shortly thereafter and create me-too games that play, look and sound a lot like the indie darling of the week. It’s no surprise that the indie scene has produced quite a few Metroidvania action-adventures (Cave Story), puzzle platformers (Braid and, later, Fez) and first-person lookers (Dear Esther). This isn’t necessarily a fault of the model, but it’s something that needs to be recognized when looking critically at what that model produces.
A prime example of this tendency can be seen in one of the indie fads of yesteryear. Shortly after the release of Super Meat Boy there was a sudden surge in “masocore platformer,” so called because that sounds better than “frustration platformer” in much the same way “MOBA” sounds better than “DOTA clone.” The idea behind the masocore platformer is that you’re given one life to get through a number of increasingly difficult situations where failure means starting again from the beginning. For a few immensely aggravating years around the turn of the decade, these games taught us that no matter how insurmountable a problem might seem or how insignificant the reward for conquering it might be, someone’s going to be willing to bash their head against a wall for hours to accomplish the impossible.
There were dozens of these little nuggets of pain that floated in the wake of Super Meat Boy’s genre-defining success, but over time things died down a bit for masocore…until now. Grab your iPad 1, mourn the loss of “Lost,” and watch out for vuvuzelas – we’re going back to 2010. Welcome to Fenix Rage.
Fenix Rage is pretty much the quintessential masocore platformer. You’ve got a little mascot character and your job is to make your way through a level full of hazards as quickly as possible. Accuracy is key, since life bars and mercy are relics of the days before 2010; one hit sends you back to the start. Each level has a par time you can work to beat if you’re feeling speedy. Along the way you might want to grab each level’s floating cookie, which is generally placed in such a fashion as to ensure you’re going to die another dozen times trying to collect it and make it out of the level alive.
You’ll notice that if you replace “cookie” with “bandage” in the above paragraph then I just precisely described Super Meat Boy. Fenix Rage’s twist to the masocore recipe is a change to how your character controls. You’re able to dash horizontally and jump in midair as many times as you’d like, which in a normal game would provide for a lot more freedom but in a masocore game actually just gives the developers new avenues in which to screw you. Case in point: you can jump in midair all day long, but going off the screen in any of the four directions kills you. Of course it does.
Later stages mix up the levels a little bit more, adding in ice blocks to melt, beams to dodge, portals to hop through and new four-letter words to scream in agony while smashing your face into your desk. The ice-melting thing is actually pretty cool – you’re able to light yourself on fire with the mighty power of friction and use that to get through the cold stuff. For the most part, though, if you were alive and playing video games during the first couple years of this decade, you’ve probably played Fenix Rage.
In terms of aesthetics, I actually preferred Fenix Rage’s cartoony art style to the more 8-bit/modern mashup Super Meat Boy went for. The music’s pretty solid too, which is good because you’re going to be hearing a lot of it as you smash your face into a brick wall of digital pain trying to get past that one level. In terms of convenience and quality-of-life improvements to the formula, uh…well, you respawn a lot faster when you die in Fenix Rage, I think. Which is nice. Because, y’know, you’re going to be dying a lot.
Coming back around to the introduction, I can’t give Fenix Rage many points for originality. I also can’t give it many points for, uh, being much fun, because it’s a masocore game and those aren’t really designed to be “fun” so much as “easily Let’s Played on Youtube.” But I can give it points for being aesthetically pleasing and for staying true to its subgenre. If you liked Super Meat Boy and its millions of clones and, somehow, didn’t get enough of them when they were “in,” Fenix Rage is going to light your fire. If you’re glad they went the way of Steven Slater, you can probably pass on this one. And if you don’t remember who that is, don’t feel too bad – for most of us, 2010 was four years ago.