Oozi: Earth Adventure Ep. 1 (insert ‘Oozi 9mm’ gag if desired)

I wasn’t very optimistic when I decided, late one night, to try out Oozi: Earth Adventure Ep 1. I thought I’d gone off platformers with time. Whether it was because maturity had taken me beyond the simple pleasures of hopping from ledge to ledge, or because the more complex and gritty games of today make platformers seem redundant, or because people don’t make them like they used to (so to speak), I couldn’t tell. All I knew was it had been a long time since I’d last particularly enjoyed one.

Recently, though, a little thought had been nagging at me. It was a pink, inflatable thought that squeaked when prodded. No, not that (shame on you, reader!). This thought was Kirby. You see, some fifteen years or more after I first played it, I still enjoy Kirby’s Adventure. So one cold, windswept North Welsh night, as the clock ticked away the seconds to 8.17pm, I realised its battery was dead and checked another clock. As this second clock digitally pulsed away the seconds to 4.00am, I decided to try and find a good indie platformer on the Xbox.

Don’t say Super Meat Boy. That is exactly what I was not looking for. My theory was that Kirby’s Adventure retained its appeal because it was simply fun. It didn’t require pinpoint precision or split second timing, and it didn’t penalise me with every ounce of its might every time I was a millimetre off target. I hate Super Meat Boy, and the others that have accompanied it in the oily wave of so-called ‘punishment platformers’. You know what’s the key thing about punishment? It’s not fun. There had to be a fun platformer on the indie marketplace. There had to be.

My response to a glance at Oozi‘s info page was a wholehearted ‘oh go on then, it looks kind of pretty at least’. It was pretty much just the absence of affected 8-bit visuals or Atari 2600 pretensions that nudged me into downloading the trial. When the trial ended eight minutes later, I immediately hit ‘unlock full game’. I had already got 80 MSP of enjoyment out of it; I would certainly get more. At that point, I couldn’t have told you why I so recklessly splurged 50p. It’s rare for me to buy a game as soon as the trial ends. Usually, even if I enjoyed it, I play the trial another couple of times to be as sure as I can that the game is up my street. I can, and will, explain it now, but all I knew as I slumped sore-eyed in my chair that blackest of nights, awash with the green glow of Oozi‘s environments, was that I was having fun and wanted to carry on having it.

"A snail's pace" means something different in Oozi's world.

When I returned to the game the next day, I felt a minute tremor of trepidation. Had my enjoyment of Oozi‘s trial been late night delirium? Had it been merely relief at playing a more forgiving game in the wake of several puppy-kickingly brutal punishment platformers?

No, surprisingly enough.

I give Oozi zero out of ten for originality. It does nothing that hasn’t been done a thousand times before. Its levels are forested areas and well-lit, vaguely cave-like populated by cheery-looking snakes and spiders. Nothing to get excited about. The main character (presumably the eponymous Oozi, though that could instead be the world he’s stranded on for all I know) is distinctive but not memorable – a squat, vaguely humanoid creature with a big grin.

It doesn’t matter.

It does nothing new, but it does all the old things very well. In contrast to almost every Xbox indie platformer, it doesn’t look barely a step above a Game & Watch. I don’t like this word in reviews, but I can’t think of a more apt one, so: the environments are…lush. Warm, soft greens and enemies that are brightly coloured without being garish. There’s no murkiness either – every object is crisply distinct from the others. Perhaps most strikingly, the animation is excellent. There are small nuances in the movements of character sprites that add a warmth and life to the feel of the game. The gaming world has changed, but fifteen years ago this would have been professional-standard stuff.

Try not to get hit by angry nuts while sliding on the vine. .....sorry.

This extends to the backgrounds too. The leaves of the ferns that Oozi wanders blithely by during the forest stages wave minutely, and the ranks of trees that spread into the distance flaunt parallax scrolling that early-90s gaming journalists would have wet themselves over.

And perhaps that’s the key here. Where most Xbox indie platformers aim for an NES/Atari age that conveniently doesn’t require much effort on the presentation front, Oozi: Earth Adventure feels like a Mega Drive game. It’s a throwback to a time gone by, but not in a lazy way. It doesn’t even give the impression that this was intentional. Whether or not this is true, what Oozi‘s developer seems to have done is simply set out to make a fun 2D platform game. Nothing punishing, nothing complex, nothing that breaks the mould – just a game about jumping and collecting, that is gentle, pleasant and enjoyable to play.

The presentation is the most striking aspect, but all the glossy visuals in the world wouldn’t matter if the playing the game was a chore. Fortunately, Oozi himself handles very smoothly. Where almost all indie platformers suffer from jumping that has you either floating like a leaf on the wind or lurching like a crack junkie trying to climb up a downward escalator, Oozi stikes a balance. Similarly, the grinning little alien neither stops dead in an instant nor skids onward for half an hour after you release the stick. Whatever it is that other indie developers are missing, Oozi‘s developers have it. For once, jumping is actually a functional way to traverse the levels rather than an impediment that must be overcome.

I'm no geologist, but something isn't right about this cave. We'll find out for ourselves in episode two.

On the broader gameplay front, the level designs, like the rest of the game, won’t win any prizes for original thought, but should win some sort of accolade for doing something uninspired very well. The levels are quite linear, but there is room to explore isolated corners for extra stars (Oozi‘s collectible ring/coin substitute). The ‘normal’ difficulty setting shouldn’t give anyone with platforming experience too much trouble, but it isn’t a total cakewalk either. In the venerable tradition of 16-bit platforming, it’s on the easy side, but not laughably easy. I died a few times per level. Besides, there’s a ‘hardcore’ setting for anyone who feels insulted by ‘normal’, and there are challenge modes to keep you occupied once you’ve finished.

Having said that, you might well need those extras. The main story mode is very short. Not the shortest I’ve played in an XBLIG game (at this stage, that probably goes to The Adventures of Captain Becky) , but short nonetheless. You see, Oozi is episodic, and this is evidently episode one. Not a problem really, but whether the full game will be worth shelling out for each individual installment remains to be seen.

It’s also worth noting that the final (well, only) boss battle is unsettlingly silent. Music plays, Oozi grunts and squawks as usual, but the boss itself makes not the tiniest sound. Not a major issue, but worth remarking upon, since it’s a strange experience that I’ve never seen elsewhere.

All in all, though, whilst Oozi: Earth Adventure is in many ways unremarkable, its all-round competence lifts it a couple of rungs. Though its general design doesn’t particularly set it apart and its gameplay tries nothing outside the established platforming formula, the way it’s all executed makes playing Oozi a pleasant, welcoming experience. It could do with being longer and sorting out a sound effect or two for the boss, but I’d still recommend it for a gently fun platforming experience. You probably won’t revist it, but for 50p that’s not so bad.

Unlike Super Meat Boy, Platformance and many others, Oozi doesn’t hate you. It likes you and wants you to have fun. Playing Oozi is a scenic adventure with a friend. And it is fun, at least for its brief duration. What else do we need?