Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Played: Kula World (Playstation/PS1)

Format: Playstation     Also On: PSN (digital download)
Developer: Game Design Sweden AB
Publisher: SCEE
Progress: About 75% of the way through...getting very hard though!

They say that you should never meet your heroes unless you want to risk disappointment or the feeling of being underwhelmed by what you have yearned to be in contact with for so long. I'm not entirely sure how I could phrase a videogame version of this philosophy but in any case, Kula World was certainly one of those games that I'd wanted to play for so many years but had just never managed to do so. I didn't have a disposable income as such when we first got a Playstation in our home in the late 90's so the games I had access to were either those that my Dad had bought or those that I had coerced him into dropping £30 on (Spyro the Dragon for example). Ironically, one of my most-played discs wasn't one of those games but the 'Demo 1' CD that came in the box with the console itself. Demo 1 was a disc that contained trial versions of multiple games and throughout the Playstation's life, the disc was continually revised with whatever the latest titles were that Sony wanted its customers to buy. The version we had boasted an amazing line-up of demos: Tekken 3, Medievil, Spyro, Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped, Tombi and - as you will no doubt guess - Kula World.

We didn't get this game however and by the time I had a disposable income of my own, I had newer machines and games to play. I've never been one to forget about previous consoles or decide that old games = ugly/crap/"lol how did we ever play this rubbish?" though so in my early years of Ebay, Kula World was one of my most searched for games but the £50-£60 asking prices were terrifying. Thankfully it received a digital re-release on PSN that knocked the value of original copies down a bit and last year, I managed to get one at last (with some other games) via a private online sale.

This year, I finally excavated the game from my storage box of PS1 games and tentatively popped the disc into the console. Was I right to meet my 'hero' after all?

Yes; yes I was. Phew!

Things kick off with disarmingly easy levels...

The beauty of Kula World - as I see it - is that it is an extremely minimalist game and a simple  concept that gradually morphs into a fiendish and very unique puzzler without the player even realising it. What's great about it is that a lot of retro-minded people are quick to mark the Playstation as the machine that killed creativity and kick-started modern gaming design as we know it e.g. cutscenes, cinematic games, the rise of (sometimes jaggy, blurred) 3D graphics and so on. Games like Kula World beg to differ and prove that an uncomplicated idea could exist on a powerhouse console and also utilise the third dimension to great effect rather than simply for the sake of it.

You play not as a macho soldier or unlikely big-boobed heroine but a vulnerable beach ball. The goal is to roll your way around a floating maze and collect the necessary key(s) to unlock the exit. It sounds easy and at first, it is but there are numerous threats blocking your progress to the next level. Chief among them is the time limit and this alone doesn't actually present too much of an obstacle until you get deeper into the game with more complicated mazes that require more time to navigate or decipher. Handily however, there are hourglass pick-ups that flip the timer should you be running low on seconds BUT don't grab these with a full timer in hand or else the effect will be reversed!

Secondly, there are spikes which spell insta-death for your ball and - further into the game - mobile enemies moving around the mazes that will also end you in one hit. In fact, colliding with any dangerous object will result in death. Later hazards include icy patches that will send your ball skating in one direction, springs (necessary for progress but also potentially able to shoot you off the edge) and hot coals (don't spend too long on these or you will pop!). Thankfully, these things are all gradually introduced at a pace that allows the player to understand and get to grips with them before the mazes begin to mix them all together in devilish combinations.

Take a look and try not to scream...

But Kula World isn't finished there - oh no. How do invisible sections of maze sound? You need to pick up the sunglasses to make them temporary visible but many stages will have you simply guessing where it is and isn't safe to jump to, using pick-ups as a guide. Jumping between sections of the mazes is probably the largest hazard of them all actually. Your beach ball can leap across a single tile so jumping over enemies is fine and so is crossing a small gap but the trickier stages will feature huge gaps that will have you scratching your head and rolling around the different sides of the platforms to see where is safe to jump from. All while the clock counts down of course. Tick tock.

And this is the true genius of Kula World for me: the maze design itself. You don't simply roll around these floating labyrinths on a set side; no, you have to utilise all four sides plus the ends of structures in order to locate keys/pick-ups or find the best place to jump from one section to the next. As the game difficulty ramps up and demands more of the player's grey matter, complex solutions begin to come into play and these can involve traversing the entirity of a huge section of maze just to reach the tip so as to switch onto a different face (you can only switch faces at the end of a column). Big leaps of faith and giant drops are required and sometimes, even a 'trick' move such as jumping over the edge and bouncing off the side of an adjacent structure so that your ball will drop onto another platform.

It can certainly become disorientating and on larger stages, it is all too easy to forget where you have been and which routes you have taken. This is usually where the timer will kill you so yes, Kula World definitely has a frustrating quality to it but at the same time, the level design is pure genius and really tough sections suddenly seem so simple after multiple failures and much head-scratching. Solving these sorts of stages feels rewarding (and a huge relief!).

You gotta love these psychadelic bonus stages.

The continue system s actually really good as well. The game allows you to save progress every five levels which helps to ease the pain of failure, especially when there are a hundred stages! Continuing after falling off or being iced requires a set amount of points from your overall score so it's definitely worth collecting as many coins and pieces of fruit as possible to carry over a healthy score to subsequent stages. Additionally, collecting all five varieties of fruit gives you a shot at a bonus stage where the aim is to light up every square by touching it. There are usually a lot of coins on offer here and a load of points so reaching as many of these psychadelic-looking bonus stages as possible is well worth it and pretty much essential for your survival later on.

My personal favourite aspect of Kula World however is the minimalist design. In an age where developers were starting to use the CD-ROM format to create the most cinematic cut-scenes or most realistic environments, it was perhaps a bit brave to release a title with such sparse aesthetics. Mazes appear to be floating miles above smudgy, simple backdrops that do enough to convey the theme for that particular batch of stages and actually exude a strange sort of honest charm. The music is similarly basic and carries chilled-out vibes (even if the gameplay is getting frantic!) and an umistakable 90's sound - something else I can't get enough of.

Kula World is without a doubt a true gem of a puzzler on the Playstation. Expensive, sought-after titles that consistently pop up on "Top 10 Hidden Gems for <insert console name>" aren't always worth the money (take Squaresoft's Ehrgeiz for example) but I would argue that in this case, this is a game that is totally worth hunting down. It takes a straightforward idea for a game and uses minimalistic design to great effect - something that modern day indie titles on PSN/XBLA/Steam do so well. Luckily, you can grab this game from PSN for a few quid if you a) don't fancy a hard copy or b) want to try it out before committing to seeking out a Playstation original. However you would play Kula World, I suggest you go do it because I love this game and I think you just might too.

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