By John Walker on February 7th, 2012 at 1:02 pm.
Developed by one-man team RichMakeGame – aka Rich Edwards – Pineapple Smash Crew is an indie take on top-down action shooters that was the winner of our Indie Games Arcade award, and has recently arrived on Steam. I’ve played it through to the end, which makes me Space Captain Walker and able to tell you Wot I Think.
When trying to understand what it is that makes a particular genre engaging, it’s revealing to play a game that lacks some of those elements. Like the hum of an air conditioning unit, you only notice them once they’ve gone away. Which means I’m a bit disappointed to say that the inoffensive Pineapple Smash Crew is such a game, with the former hums of better examples of its genre echoing in your ears.
But this is no disaster. Far from it. This is a game that just needs more work. The foundations are there – procedurally generated missions and levels in which you rush around your crew of four men from your top-down vantage, shooting at absolutely everything whether inanimate or shooting back at you. There are a wide variety of enemy types, each of which attack in particular styles, and each multi-area mission has a particular task that can be completed in your own time. Along with the main weapon for your gang (for which the ammo recharges super-quickly) are a large number of bomb types that let you use different tactics for taking out enemies, and there are bonus drops here and there that give you invincibility, slow-time, etc. So all of that is in place – what does it do with it?
Precisely nothing else. That’s it. I just summed up the entirety of the game, and despite an afternoon playing it, the only variation I saw as the levels got harder was more enemies on screen at once. Not a single thing wrong with those levels, other than the occasional odd piece of design due to the random generation. But I’ve sure as heck played them.
So what’s missing? Variation, certainly. As much as the levels may change colours and decor with different difficult levels, they’re all pretty much identical to play. A collection of large rooms are connected by passages on any number of the four walls, with specific rooms containing mission targets. The rest are… there. The mission might be to kill all the enemies in that area, find all the glowing green shapes, or shove some slidey discs onto certain tiles. Do that and no matter how much of the level you haven’t explored, it ends. Which is odd.
I think that was the first jolt I had. Being a completionist, my instinct is to clear out absolutely everything from an area before completing it. This is why I never do any of the races in Burnout: Paradise but just smash every yellow barrier with the starting car, and never get past the third floor in Dungeons Of Dredmor. So discovering that chambers shown on the map were literally impossible to reach was odd. If you have to go through a mission-completing area, the game locks down that room until you’ve completed it. Final area to complete? Can’t get there. Which made me realise the game doesn’t want me to go to all the rooms, and I quickly realised it makes far more sense to ignore most of the level and just focus on the mission rooms. That’s sad, for me to find myself so mercenary about a game. But more-so, it’s emblematic of a larger problem – the game feels incomplete. Because even when I persist and explore as much as I can, there’s no gain for it. Sure, you gather more XP that will unlock new bomb types slightly sooner, but that’s it. And it’s not enough.
Those bombs are a lovely feature. From a standard grenade, thrown with a right click, then detonated with a second, to lasers that fire through walls, remote flamethrowers, vortexes that suck in all bullets, machine guns, and healing pads, the more you unlock, the more variety you find dropped by enemies. You can hold four at a time, one for each of your squad, and you scroll through them with the mousewheel. It’s definitely the game’s finest feature, and it would be a great starting place for something much more involved. Currently if you’re holding a bomb you don’t want (they’re picked up by walking just near them, and very hard to avoid), the only way to get rid of it is to use it, which is a pain. However, using them can still be a huge pleasure, and a well thrown rocket launcher, then fired by aiming the cursor, is a splendid thing – it lets you take out a group without going around the corner, and it’s very satisifying. It would still make a lot more sense if you could select a bomb type for each soldier, and then pick up generic drops that become whatever’s selected. None is in rare supply such that there’s any skill in finding the right one, and being limited and committed to just four in a level would be much more interesting than the free-for-all here.
And yes, those squadmates. That’s another peculiar thing. The longer they survive, the higher a level they become. But I’ve honestly not been able to detect much change in how things play as a result of that. Lose one and you’re down a man for the rest of the mission, when a new one is hired back at level 1. Lose three and you’re struggling through the level alone. But lose all four and you’re just given another four and you instantly carry on where you were. There’s a “credits” cost, but you gather so many of these as you play that I didn’t even notice the number went down, and it took me a while to spot if there was even a cost. Certainly not one that affected me before I finished it.
It takes away the notion of peril, or suggestion of challenge. In what’s already a pretty easy game, you realise there’s no threat here, and thus little reason to care if you fail. You can’t save, so there’s no notion of going back and trying again with your previous team, so if you want to carry on you’re stuck with the newbs anyway. And since they can cope just as well in the tougher levels as a vet, it’s not important if you lose the lot. It’s deeply peculiar that all four dying isn’t a mission over, restarting you with a new level 1 squad to try again from the start of that challenge. It would mean there was a sense of achievement for having reached the end. The first time I was down to one man, the game suddenly became more interesting. Survival forced me to work far harder to duck behind walls, ration my use of bombs, and innovate to defeat the spinny boss thing that features in most missions. I did it, and it was great. The next time I was in a similar situation, my last two got killed at the same time, and four more appeared, and the illusion was shattered. Oh, I could have just fought that boss with four guys and it would have been no different?
To get to an end you need to gather information, which involves entering each mission’s room with a terminal and clicking on it. Each comes with a really wittily written passage, genuine laughs, and when you’ve gathered 100% of the info, the final level is available. What this does is highlight that the guys behind this are witty, and it’s something I’d love to have seen playing a larger part. Some notion of a story being told between missions, perhaps, or more writing to find in levels, reasons to go into the many, many blank rooms other than to just dash to the next door. Some sort of motivation to explore would have made such an enormous difference, whether it was for more story, more meaningful collection of XP or weapon components, or even just a percentage of completion at the end of a level would have been good.
I was easily able to finish the game despite having a crew of level 2s for the final mission, and knew there’d be no problem if I lost them all, as more would arrive throughout. And, sadly, it played no differently than any of the previous fifteen or so. And there was no explanation for what it had been about, no game ending beyond a screen showing how many soldiers had died. It ended how it had been throughout – functional, harmless, and missing something.
The combat is mostly lovely (later on some enemies carry so many shields that killing them can be a slog), especially with the splendid bombs. I was very surprised that the main weapon never upgrades at any point, again removing a feeling of progress, but you always feel powerful enough. The art design is really cute, and while I couldn’t cope with the old-school music for more than a few minutes, the sound is simple and fun. But this still always feels like the early version of a game, before all the features are added in. I’d argue this is the basis for a really decent game, once the rest is added. Just for now, it’s not there.