Nostalgia is a dangerous thing.
We can’t escape from it, it’s just part of being human, but we all look back and remember that everything was better than it used to be. This seems to go double with media - music was better in the 80s, movies were better in the 70s, books were better in the 1800s. And since a lot of us matured as video games matured, it stands to reason that a lot of us were also growing up in their formative days.
And we tend to think those games were better. But old games had a lot of problems. They didn’t have good save systems, causing you to replay a bunch of parts that have already been solved multiple times before. They had a problem with letting you know what to do next, resulting in a great deal of mindless venturing until you finally luck into the right direction. There wasn’t much in the way of tutorials, so sometimes you could find items that you didn’t know did a certain thing, or new techniques for solving something you’d been stuck on.
But we forget those problems in favor of the parts we loved. And as gamers who grew up on those experiences come of age and learn how to program, they want to recapture those experiences because games aren’t made like that anymore. This results in some pretty cool stuff. Super Meat Boy and Spelunky are some the best examples I can come up with, both finding ways to update what made old games excellent while still rooting them in an undoubtedly ‘retro’ style.
Spuds Quest (sans apostrophe even in game, as though the adventure of multiple potatoes) sets out not to update a retro style for the modern day, but to be a new entry in an old franchise- in this case, the Kickstarter campaign indicates the designer was specifically thinking of the old Dizzy games. I’ve never played any of these (I’m an American after all), but if Spuds Quest is truly like those games, it might be best for that franchise to remain forgotten.
Because Spuds Quest is guilty of the problems I listed previously.
Ssave points are bothersome mostly because the nature of most of the puzzles are bothersome. Dragging things slowly around, picking up items and having to travel all the way across the map to use them - by the time you’ve done a puzzle, there’s no point in doing it again. The worst part of solving a puzzle is having to solve it again, and you can be expected to do it all the time. If you die, because there are no healing items and you have to pay to be healed outside of dungeons, it’s just a lot of pointless busywork to get back to where you were.
Surprisingly, the developer actually assumed that we’d have a problem with remembering what to do next and thankfully included characters who tell you just that. Unfortunately, outside of a dungeon the problem isn’t so much where you’re going as how to get there.
Inside a dungeon, the game is pretty straightforward. Every level has a gimmick of some sort (Switches! Rescue children!) and items yo'll find that contain the essence of an element needed to get rid of an evil wizard. In short, you’ve got a game based around using items to solve tasks, and this is where the game runs into problems.
Video games have a pretty proud history of item and adventure game puzzles that seemed to only make sense to the developer, and you only understand it in hindsight. Spuds Quest has a good bit of that. You'll find yourself wandering around, trying every item on every person and not figure out how to get anywhere, only because it turns out that you didn’t notice something in the background that needed the item. Would you have guessed based on absolutely zero context clues that you had to put an octopus to sleep to get past it? Could you have figured out that a guy saying he’s overworked means you have to give him a newspaper, which you get from a dog through a very small clue given by another character, because the newspaper will allow him to take a break? Exactly.
On top of that, for a game based around using items, you only have four inventory slots, and woe upon ye if you happen to forget where you left an item you need. I’ve seen some people just having screens that they dump all their unneeded items on just to make sure they don’t forget- and since there’s no map, you’ve got to take care of it in some way or deal with searching every building or screen until you luck upon it again.
Spuds Quest is a retro game that does well in reminding you of the frustrating and boring parts of old games. We’ve all had hours of wandering a JRPG with no idea where we’re supposed to go. We’ve all stumbled on a solution and had to put down the controller and just shake our heads. Even the graphics don’t seem like something that a SNES couldn’t have put out- they’re rather still, with heavily repeating animations where there are any. As a result, it’s kind of dull. It looks like a game I’d have picked the box up for at a Blockbuster as a kid and thought it looked a little dull in comparison to other fare and left it behind.
The game is such an encapsulation of how games used to be that it’s a little shocking, especially because it makes us have to face our nostalgia and consider that maybe we are better off with how games have become. It’s easy to lament the sheer amount of tutorials and some of the overly-slick design, but I’d argue they made games more playable, and made it possible for them to be more inventive.
In its desire to be like the things that came before, Spuds Quest winds up being exactly a sum of its parts. It looks old, feels old, and even had design decisions that, in old games, could have been chalked up to lack of resources, but just feels baffling today. As a labor of love to design that’s long gone by, Spuds Quest serves as a reminder that sometimes it’s best not to revisit your memories; you may not like what you think of them now.