Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams

Somewhere around the mid-90s, I lost track of why I was collecting so many things. In Sonic games, it at least made a little sense: these rings were life for this hedgehog! But with so many bad mascot-oriented and licensed games loaded with pointless trinkets, eventually the task just felt hollow. I had to collect more and more in order to even feel anything again. They began to blur together—the barely-involved gameplay not registering in my brain or setting itself apart from the last game in a similar vein that I played.

Jump forward 20 years, and we have Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, a game filled with these sorts of pointless collectibles that has its roots in these mascot-oriented collect-a-thon Mario also-rans. In fact, it has its roots a little deeper. Let’s skip back to the 80s, when Super Mario Bros. was ripping up sales charts on its way to becoming one of the best selling games ever. Obviously, everyone wanted a piece of the brother’s golden mustache, but Nintendo wasn’t letting that happen. So when Time Warp Productions came to Nintendo with a remake of the game for systems like the Commodore 64 and the Amiga, Nintendo said no. This didn’t stop the intrepid folks at Time Warp, who renamed the game The Great Giana Sisters, reskinned it, and put it out. Lawsuits followed, and the game was removed from shelves, serving as a cautionary tale for all looking to go against Nintendo at the height of their powers.

Then all of a sudden, Giana Sisters DS popped up a few years ago and the franchise returned.

So here we are now with a new entry into the franchise, a full 26 years after the original came out. Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams feels odd in a sense, like those 26 years never happened. Like gameplay never evolved, but graphics did; as if platformers never fell out of being the dominant game genre. As such it’s a series of challenging levels, bright, colorful, mushroom-filled environments, and collectibles. Collectibles all over. But even more interesting is that this game is much more fun to play than it has any right to be.

The main gameplay concept of parallel worlds that can be swapped back and forth at any time is certainly not new, but Twisted Dreams gets points for style. Each world you switch between has a unique look to it that swaps dynamically as you go, so Cute Giana’s dark, nightmare world bounces into Punk Giana’s bright, fantasy world with the push of a button. The music also swaps out, and the game awesomely goes between violins and plucked strings to hard, crunching guitar. This music is also pretty incredible, and if I were to do some kind of game music feature here, this game would be featured, but I just wish there was a little bit more of it. Some of the levels have the same music as others, which is unfortunate, because what there is there is great to listen to.

Changing worlds also changes which sister you are, and each has their own abilities. Cute Giana twirls, which slows her descent, where Punk Giana dashes in a fiery burst. Hitting the button for the ability swaps sisters, but in the middle of using one of the abilities you can also swap between sisters. This is handy for getting all the collectibles, but objects also change how they act in different dimensions: spikes and briars retract, doors open, and even enemies can switch which direction they’re moving in. Some of the enemies even switch completely, so a little octopus thing in one world becomes a spring board in another, allowing for more free exploration of the worlds.

The levels are ridiculously gigantic, too, full of branches and hidden collectibles. The game is challenging enough on its own, but if you really want to test your mettle, you’ll want to seek these out. Unfortunately, though, there’s little REASON to find the collectibles. While you do earn stars for how well you do in a level, it’s not hard to get all the stars that you need even just doing a straight play through. Even worse, the big collectibles are the consolation prize of the video game world: concept art. There are more difficult modes to unlock, but they’re the same levels, and I’d have been much happier if they had built some kind of challenge levels to unlock in place of seeing concept art of how the blocks break.

With the simple tools that you have at your disposal, though, the developers have crafted some incredibly intricate and challenging levels based around these rules. It’s a very engaging experience, actually, and you can easily get caught up in a great flow as you swap worlds, bounce on enemies, and dodge all kinds of crazy obstacles. Some of the levels are so difficult that it’s taken me minutes to even hit the first check point, but the controls are good enough that I don’t feel like it’s something cheap. I’m actually very impressed: after how floaty and bad a lot of Giana Sisters DS seemed to be, the developers have done a better job of making this game feel a lot better. It almost feels like we’re watching them learn how to develop better games with each new iteration, and I’m hoping they continue down this path of making really difficult old-school platformers like this, until eventually this series becomes synonymous with stupidly difficult gameplay and level design.

While they’ve done a lot to improve on the series’ past iterations, there are also a lot of rough edges in this game. There are certain platforms that only exist in on dimension, for example, but the shimmering outline they have can often be too opaque for you to realize they’re not actually there. I’ve also had my character get stuck somewhere that I couldn’t get out of until she randomly died.  Even little things, like the character’s hair animations and the bounce that accompanies the dimensional shifts, are a little too abrupt or odd looking, and could use some smoothing. Enemy hit boxes also seem a little small, and there were a few areas where my sound effects completely cut out—while that gave me a chance to just chill with the awesome music, it’s also a little rough.

Additionally, while the controls are usually pretty tight, they’re mostly good when you’re moving very quickly and bouncing through the level. If there’s a spot where you have to slow down and take out a specific enemy, the control suddenly starts to feel floaty and imprecise. I can forgive a lot of these accidental deaths, since there’s little penalty, but it’s still annoying to have to restart from a checkpoint because of an environmental quirk.

And while I think the world itself looks good, I kind of hate the design of the characters. Punk and Cute Giana are these weird moppets with floaty hair and giant heads designed around the easiest clichés. It’s especially bad on the box art, though, with Cute Giana’s wide-open dead-eyed gaze, her mouth spread in an unending shriek of some sort, popping into my head at times. It haunts my dreams. I haven’t slept in days.

Art and glitches aside, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is a surprisingly enjoyable platformer, and the developers have done a lot to breathe life and personality into a series that was never really allowed to live in the first place. Some of the rough edges are to be expected from a Kickstarter funded game, but it still got in the way of my experience in places. That said, as I finished each level, I always had a feeling in the back of my mind, saying “You know what? I think I’d like more of that.” And if that’s not a good feeling to have about a game, I don’t know what is.