I've been celebrating Easter by watching hundreds of cute ickle yellow chicks die horribly. And in the game. By which I mean Kyle Pulver's avian-abusing puzzle-platformer Offspring Fling.
Fifteen or twenty years ago, this would have been on a magazine cover. Several magazine covers, in fact. People would have forked out £40 or £50 for it. It would have been the creation of sizeable team, with a corporation's annual finances resting on its shoulders. In 2012, a game of Offspring Fling's cleverness and completeness is $7.99, made by one man and snuck onto the internet with little-to-no fanfare. This isn't news to anyone, I realise, but occasionally I glance back at how things have changed over the last few years and shake my head in happy disbelief.
Offspring Fling, then, is a puzzle platformer of the sort that used to abound in the early 90s, of the sort where you're there to rescue the helpless alongside dodging danger yourself. You're in the feather frame of a mother-bird, collecting her scattered chicks from around cartoon levels occupied by platforms and assorted vicious wildlife then fleeing to the exit.
The trick to overcoming your obstacles is to chuck your spawn around like they're unwanted vegetables. Oh sure, they need protecting from acid pools and angry wasps, but a little head trauma won't hurt, right? It's suprisingly non-sadistic in practice, with the chicks behaving like hardy, happy yellow bowling balls rather than fragile beings flesh and feather. Just imagine if this starred a human mother and her babies, though. Dunno about you, but I'd play Baby Bowling.
Of course, throwing birds around the place is a familiar experience these days, but Offspring Fling is all about ingenious and escalating logic puzzles rather than Angry Birds' endless variations on the same problem. From a simple start of bowling a chick across a ravine it gradually escalates to levels wherein you're carefully setting one chick down on a trigger button, which opens a gate elsewhere, through which you have to lob a second chick and to which you need to then sprint and catch it in mid-air before it falls into acid, all the while dodging spitting plants or homing wasps.
Getting it wrong and letting a chick die is just the worst feeling. There's no blood or screaming or over admonition or even dark music. All that happens is the mother puts her wings to her face in horror. It cuts right through me every time. 'Oh God, what have I done? What have I done?' A game doesn't need a narrative when it can make its mandate to completely clear - 'save the children.'
Screwing things up is regular, but only occasionally is a puzzle obtuse - most of the time you can ascertain what approximately needs to go where with a glance, but setting up the mechanism to work as it is supposed to is another matter, and increasingly one of frantically dashing around the place. Even so, it's always ultimately about getting your babies and yourself to the exit unharmed, which makes the fact Offspring Fling never becomes boring or rote all the more impressive. There's a carefulness to the level design that ensures variety will never departing from its own internal logic. Again, we'd have willingly paid £40-odd for a 2D jumping game that was this expertly-crafted back in the Superior Nintendoid days.
This is not a flexible game. There is only ever a single solution. That's why it works so well - that aha! moment, when you accumulated knowledge about the different elements the game has introduced over its dozens of levels informs you exactly what you need to do.
Occasionally I hit a bump in the road, where a new tactic hadn't been signposted (usually, there's a telltale clue in the level name), which meant I had to skip ahead to a future level. That's a good, frustration-free way around the fixed key-in-lock puzzle structure, although at some point you'll need to revisit skipped stages if you want to unlock all the later ones. Hopefully you'll come back armed with new techniques you've learned in the intervening levels, though. Only one level in twenty feels obtuse, as Offspring Fling has a clear intention to offer enthusiastic progress rather than brutal challenge.
It's got very much an iOS game feel, in that once beating every level is eminently possible but if you want the magic gold star that tells the world you're a super-amazing person and we should all bring you tributes you're in for a serious, not putting a foot wrong challenge. There's an option to save out replays if you want to wave your willy at the internet, or you can tackle a level again while the ghost of your previous best time plays out alongside you, a la Trackmania or Super Meat Boy.
I should also mention the soundtrack, which for me evoked a funfair or circus in the days before it became the sinister, twisted insane place that horror fiction insists all funfair and circuses must become. Just a touch of encroaching madness, but still chained to cheeriness by a sense of melody. It fits the absurdist, baby-lobbing air of the game perfectly.
It's often quite the sin to conclude a game verdict by talking about its price, but that's something else Offspring Fling gets dead-on-centre correct. It's not a gimmicky concept stretched until breaking point over a handful of levels, but a fully fleshed-out offering that milks admirable variety from the core idea of throwing chicks around a room. Perhaps it could be argued to be a little too retro, but what really makes Offspring Fling sing to me is that it's genuinely evoking and then slightly building on that era of puzzle-platforming, rather than being an arch reimaginging or a shameless nostalgia trip.
It's a winner, then, even if it badly a proper high res version (its tiny window looks a bit shonky when blown up to fullscreen) and a patch to support gamepads. At least, unlike the Binding of Isaac's snarky snark, it actually bundles in a copy of Joy2Key already setup for a 360 pad. Good work, Kyle Pulver.
Offspring Fling is out now for PC and Mac. You can try an in-browser demo or buy it from here.