Do you remember the time when video games were just video games? You know, something you used to play for fun? Not humorless triple-A movie wannabes or narrative experiences that want to tell “an important story.” Just video games. You don’t? Well then, you could try out Summer Catchers, a quirky take on an infinite runner. Its simple premise and positive attitude could just as well come from thirty years back, from the golden age of videogaming. Warning: if you really want your games grim and gloomy, you don’t need to read any further.
Little Chu is fed up waking up every morning in a snowdrift. She wants nothing more than to see a summer but where one can see it? Asking about it from a local timber wolf (a literal one), he builds Chu a wooden car and advises that summer is where the ocean is. Determined to get out of her snowy home forest and see the summer, Chu hops onto the car to drive towards the sea, not letting any little mishap hinder her course. And there’s a lot in Chu’s way to halt her journey; falling trees, totems, gophers, spikey pits, ponds and whatnot. However, Chu’s wooden car comes equipped with plethora of tools to overcome any obstacles in her way and what’s more, her adamantly positive attitude might be her strongest weapon.
Summer Catchers is an infinite runner where Chu’s car rolls evenly onward as the screen scrolls from left to right. You won’t be doing any actual driving, you need only to activate tools to overcome the obstacles with. Each of the game’s eight levels has their own set of hazards but Chu’s tools work diversely against many hindrances. Every new area has a starting screen where you return to after a crash. It houses a shop to buy tools and the level’s helpful and (mostly) friendly characters who task Chu with quests to complete. More tools are unlocked to the shop selection as you make progress in the game. The money to buy items is never in short supply because mushrooms acting as currency are laid out all the way through levels and picked up automatically when Chu drives over them.
While driving, tools you have bought show randomly up in three tool slots. When you use a tool, another one will be made available to the same slot. As tools appear in a random order, there are often situations where you don’t have the right equipment to overcome the next obstacle. Hazards, too, are randomized so you can’t memorize them. Chu’s car can take three hits after she crashes. Safely, though, as she will fly through the air and make a soft landing, throwing a funny or ironic comment about the mishap she fell into, and pushing her little car back to the garage. The gameplay loop may sound frustrating but perhaps surprisingly, it’s not. A random factor adds an element of surprise to the game and I thought it was only fun whenever I fumbled. Besides, each stint is so short that crashing won’t feel too bad.
More than that, everything you collected or achieved for quests is accounted for and cumulates at each outing, so nothing is ever lost even if you crash and bump constantly. This really is unexpected in times when games are designed to punish for failures. Once again, the positive attitude of Summer Catchers shines through like beams of the sun Chu is determined to see. To reach that goal, she needs to do a set of quests in each area before she can escape it to the next. They involve tasks like waking up sleepy owls, collect berries, plant trees and such. If a quest needs certain item, it will be automatically added to the inventory. They, too, will appear randomly in the tool slots so you might need to drive past a quest object if the tool needed for it doesn’t show up.
While doing quests, mishaps won’t matter that much as each stint is short and amounts to the overall completion anyway. It’s another story in boss runs that end each level, though. To escape a monster chasing after you and reach the exit to the next level, the random factor can really spoil the fun as you need a continuous and clean performance. In the (literally) long run, retrying time after time is frustrating as it’s not up to you whether you make it to the exit but entirely on tools that the game randomly picks up. All you can do is stuff plenty of tools to Chu’s backpack and hope for the best in getting proper equipment to overcome all hazards in the way. Nevertheless, a successful escape will feel super-satisfactory and takes Chu one step closer to her goal. There are also some mini-games scattered around levels. They aren’t obligatory to take part in and most of them are only accessed by doing something unexpected, like crashing in a certain part of the level.
Summer Catchers’ advantage among retro-pixelated indie games is its exceptionally positive attitude. You want to persistently go out and try again and again to help little Chu to reach the summer of her dreams. And the game looks absolutely lovely! Pixel art has become a kind of passé as it’s been exploited so much but Summer Catchers couldn’t have been made in any other way. Its lively and chunky pixels are massively expressive, rendering beautiful views and vistas – sometimes dreamlike, often surreal and at times even nightmarish - for Chu to drive though. She will meet a colorful cast of characters along the journey and can also keep in touch with them later via amusing letters. Chu’s small, cheery sprite and her little grunts, yelps and whoops are so cute that nothing else is needed to round up her spirited character. The music is great, too, creating a pleasing soundscape to inspire and reassure. During boss runs, the score gets ominous and really drives you towards the finishing line.
If there’s some debate over heavy reliance on RNG, the Ukrainian developers have worked on Summer Catchers for four years so it’s most likely that they know what they have been doing. So, the gameplay design is not random in its randomness. Still, the developers have listened to the feedback and as of writing this review, they have promised a major patch that will rework the gameplay’s random factor. Meanwhile, Chu’s attitude is an inspiration for all of us. Try again and again until you succeed, never giving up on your dream. Summer Catchers is a perfect pastime for the days when the summer is past us. During grim autumn and winter evenings, the game’s jolly escapism will no doubt be at its best.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.