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Wot I Think - Ephemerid: A Musical Adventure

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I’m pretty sure Ephemerid [official site] isn’t a very good game. But as a papercraft rock musical about a mayfly, I’m very glad it exists. Here’s wot I think:

In 2004 games suddenly got weird. Not on PC, nor the current crop of consoles, but on the freshly launched Nintendo DS. Something deeply odd and magical happened when Nintendo released their twin-screened handheld, a sort of incantation caused by the utter silliness of the device. Two screens, one atop the other, the bottom one a touch screen, the whole thing folding in half – it was counter-intuitive in the strangest ways. And the result was, for a couple of years, a burst of joyful inventiveness. Launch games for the DS included wonderful peculiarities like Project Rob (Feel The Magic XY/XX), which featured goldfish regurgitation and calculator-based parachutes, in the name of winning a woman’s heart while being cheered on by an audience of human-rabbit hybrids. Games like Another Code took the traditional point and click, and brought in frame-breaking fourth-wall elements where the device you played on was simultaneously acknowledged as the thing on which the game was displayed, and an object within the game. The horribly underrated Pac-Pix had you draw Pac-Mans who would then spring into animated life and chomp their way around the screen. Oh, and there was Slitherlink. Perfect Slitherlink. It was as if the DS were a window (maybe two windows?) into another dimension, where games were one heck of a lot weirder. And it was wonderful.

Of course, the DS quickly became home to Sudoku Brain Training Babysitter Simulator XXVII, and all was lost. Now we can find such things on itch.io, or in the output of game jams – the PC is replete with oddities, and it’s a brilliant thing for it. But I’d argue, while celebrating it, that without the inherent ridiculousness of those two inappropriately arranged screens, it’s ever-so-slightly less magic.

Which is why I had assumed telephones would address this. Gaming on a telephone is inherently silly. Gaming without any means of interaction beyond a touchscreen is inherently silly. But so far, portable devices have heavily skewed toward trying to recreate the games we already had in the 90s. There are exceptions, of course, and I celebrate them. Which is why, in a roundabout way, I find myself so drawn to the enormously flawed and frankly ridiculous Ephemerid.

It’s so incredibly obvious Ephemerid was designed for touch screens. Released on iOS in June last year (though never for Android, oddly), it made it to Steam last week, with little difference but for your finger replaced by your mouse. And it’s a gorgeous, silly, and pretty rubbish thing.

Using papercraft and hand-made backgrounds, this story of a mayfly is presented as a rhythm action game of sorts, scored by 80s power-ballad-style electric guitar. And that alone should be enough to win a recommendation. However, it quickly becomes apparent that your involvement is almost entirely irrelevant.

Things begin with your rooting around in a pile of leaves, looking for scraps of paper spelling out the name of the game. Nice start. Then your bug takes to the air, and watches an astronomic display in which yellow and purple stars shoot across the night sky, with you tasked to catch them and fling them toward their correspondingly coloured constellation. Do so and things light up, and there are sort of fireworky things. And as it all happens, rather pleasant guitar rawks out, almost sort of in time with the stars. Splendid! Until you realise that if you walk off, it all plays through anyway.

Next you’re diving downward through the trees, bouncing off bundles of leaves in time with the tunes. Except, don’t click anything and you reach the end anyway. There’s then a rather more obligatory and deeply dull level in which you must roll a large snowball, collecting all the snowflakes from the ground, before a brief moment of musical pattern repetition. Then it’s back to entirely superfluous, but rather pretty and aurally entertaining bouncing off of flowers. And so on.

It raises interesting thoughts about rhythm action, when there’s no consequence to success or failure. I like that someone isn’t punished by being forced to replay the same sequence over and over until they’ve reached a pre-defined standard. But at the same time, when there’s no feedback whatsoever at the end of a level, it’s pretty hard to care about trying. The reward is watching a mayfly bounce instead of glide, without even a direct influence on the music. It’s also guilty of having the sequences last far too long, and of repeating them in what is already an extremely short game (maybe an hour, an hour and a half).

Compare this to, say, the utterly wondrous joy that was the DS’s Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, and it feels like a confused blob. But I still lovely that Empherid is trying. It’s overtly odd, deliberately different, and for this I champion it. It’s just a bit of a shame it’s not very good at doing it.

Ephemerid: A Musical Adventure is out now on Steam, presently for £3.83.

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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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