Little girl, big polygons. Little developer, big ambitions.
It seems we’re in a new heyday for nostalgic content that has more of an affinity for the fifth generation of consoles as opposed to the GeniSNES and NES era. Similar to the new Boomer-Shooter boom, we’re seeing a resurgence of 3D platformers with more collect-a-thon focuses, using bright colors, child-like peppiness, and an uncontrollable lust for jumping animals as its key selling points.
As a grown adult man who collects amiibos, I find my adoration for the 3D platformer genre to be just a touch embarrassing. I’m supposed to care more about the financial stability of the economy than the fact that SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS IS GETTING A SEQUEL TO BATTLE FOR BIKINI BOTTOM, BABY! This embarrassment likely has more to do with theming. Maybe if there was a game about a communications specialist jumping over modestly-priced SUVs and piles of tax paperwork to collect money to feed his 2.5 children I would be less embarrassed about it.
Until that incredibly dull day arrives, we are going to review Frogun, a game about a girl whose gun is a frog. Now, when you’ve got a frog for a gun, you don’t have bullets, you have a tongue. That tongue has the potential to be sticky. A sticky tongue gun likely means it’s also an impromptu grappling hook.
The essence of frogun is built around this grappling hook weapon, however, unlike Sekiro, Spider-man, or Doom: Eternal, you aren’t whipping around the map at high speeds dispatching goons or hell-freaks. You aren’t a badass superpowered fighter, you’re a little girl trekking through trap-ridden animal-dwelling ancient ruins to find her archaeologist parents. Not only are you a child but a child of nerds. Instead of the high-octane energy one could expect from a grappling-hook game, we’ve got a much slower experience based on reading the environment, careful exploration, and traversal. Enemies move slowly and give the player time to search for options. As the game progresses, this time decreases, and more of those options come with the payment of pain. When the game is at its best, you’re surrounded by enemies and traps, looking for the next escape, locating the secret entrances to challenge areas, quick-solving short platforming challenges, and whizzing around the map using your frogun.
While so many retro-inspired games simply try to emulate what worked in the past and hope our nostalgia brings us to climax instead of coming up with any original ideas (see Yooka-Laylee as an example), Frogun seems to be much more original in its gameplay. The titular frogun is the reason for it, certainly. With a single button, you can capture an enemy, fire that enemy at another, hurdle yourself into another and kill them with the force of your body, pull a switch, break open a big pot full of coins, and send yourself soaring over a death pit to land safely on the other side. This is the best aspect of the game and what separates it from your average Rare wannabe.
While the gameplay is important and needs more analysis—and some criticism we’ll get into later—the true star of the show and main selling point is the visuals. So, let’s get superficial, forget how they are on the inside, and focus on how attractive they are.
Frogun’s bright colors, expressive character designs, and dedication to low-poly pixelated graphics remind me of Nintendo 64 and Playstation 1 games but don’t feel at all like a carbon copy of any specific style. I can’t say I remember any games from that era using this same grid-based level design or having characters’ faces as images on a flat surface of the head. It may have been easier than giving each character a fully 3D polygonal face, but it does create a unique look that I do enjoy.
The characters and enemies in Frogun all have a jubilant life to them and are a joy to look at. They feature expressive movements while boldly contrasting with the rest of the environment, helping them stand out even more. I would say that the environments aren’t quite on par with the character models, but this could do more with the limitations the developer was working under.
It’s at this time I should mention that Frogun was made by a single developer operating under a small budget. Molegato is the pseudonym for a single person, Raúl Martínez Garrido. The Kickstarter raised about the same as a year’s salary for an individual who would probably like to be paid more. I imagine the majority of this funding was just enough to keep our head developer alive long enough to finish the game. This is to say, there were certain budgetary and time limitations Garrido had to endure to create a finished product. I don’t believe this game is a compromised vision, but Garrido was smart enough to know what could be accomplished in the time frame with his budget.
When I think of solo-developed games I think of games like Undertale, Thomas was alone, and Papers, Please. Each of them stuck with a simple 2D visual style that was merely good enough not to sour the appeal of the rest of the game. Few solo-developed games are as visually ambitious as Frogun, and by achieving attractive aesthetics with 3D in mind over 2D a la Stardew Valley, Garrido should feel prideful of these accomplishments.
Unfortunately, the grid-based design, limited budget, and decision to set each level in ruins offer level designs that are repetitive and a tad bland at the beginning of the game. However, each level does get more interesting as time goes on. The fact that the levels float in a mostly-featureless skybox is not a big deal when the ruins are darker and scarier in later segments. Bland rock walls and floors are easily spiced up by the inclusion of snow and lava in the last half. Frogun packs its most visually-appealing interesting levels at the end of the game which makes for a great experience where the player becomes more engaged and impressed as they progress.
Also let me take a minute to talk up one of my favorite features, the retro filter! Pixels this thick and chunky aren’t made to stand there in all of their jagged orthogonal glory gawking at you, they are made to blend in with one another to simulate more refined imagery. I found that not only was the game more visually appealing with the retro filter on, but I got more into the spirit of the experience. Without the filter, I was playing a modern game with retro stylings, but with the filter, I was playing an old-school game. The retro filter made it much easier to forgive more frustrating elements.
While it was mostly a joyful experience, there were a handful of issues that got in the way of it being a great game. If a few of these things were changed, it could have been something special.
This game requires precision platforming while having controls that do not help with that process. Renata’s jumping and movement mechanics are stiff and simplistic, making jumping onto platforms awkward and aiming your frogun mid-jump tedious. The camera and aiming controls seem much more suited for obstacle, enemy, and space traversal segments on a flat surface without the worry of falling off the stage. The game’s generally slower pace works well with these limitations but there are times when precision and accuracy with quick reaction were necessary and it interrupted the flow state I was enjoying. Of all the worlds I enjoyed the snow levels the most because those have the perfect balance of increased challenge without entering the realm of tedium and frustration. Often times I’d be on one of the bouncing blue balls trying to aim my shot, then fire it a bit too early, smack into the flooring, and fall off the stage.
While these occasional annoyances were completely forgivable and a fair part of the game’s challenge, the racing segments were a different story. Every themed area has one level where you must race a boy with a snake (firstly, what an asshole, right?). Immediately, our Captain-Toadish Slow Explorative Time-limitless Dodge, Jump, and Grapple fun time becomes a one-mistake-and-you-die stressful precision-platforming sprint-off. The clunky jumping, awkward aiming, and wonky camera were no longer charming but instead infuriating. Annoyances I never took notice of started to rear their ugly head like how you can’t turn your body without taking a step in that direction, causing aim-fixes to inch you off of ledges into insta-death water. After failing five times during the first race, I almost gave up and played something else. These parts weren’t very difficult when taken at face value but they forced me to play a different kind of game using controls for one I was already enjoying. Imagine if you had to win a game of Gwent in an FPS by shooting at the cards and if you made one mistake you had to start from the very beginning, skip a cut scene, and play the whole level over again. These segments demolished my favorite parts. The visual design was ruined by needing to speed through everything. Straight long paths ruined the fun of level exploration. The collect-a-thon fun was ruined by the fact that I was so terribly annoyed by the race that when I finally won I just wanted to get out of there and move on. I’ll never know if dying while exploring the map after the race is over makes you restart the level because I never gave the game the chance. Most of my issues with this game can be written off as mere budgetary limitations but this, no. This is just a misunderstanding of what makes Frogun fun.
I also had an issue with some of the sound design, mainly the general feedback category and specifically, the sound coins make when you pick them up. I’m not sure if the noise chosen was inspired by the retro aesthetic, but picking up a coin in this game was incredibly unsatisfying. I would say that even if you are aping retro stylings, there’s no reason to negatively impact sound. The noise the coin makes is a short tinny double-ding that is far more grating than satisfying. There is no catharsis that comes with collecting a bunch of coins in a row. Also the sound a vase makes when it cracks sounds more like a whip of wind than a shatter. I’m not sure if these sounds were chosen by the fact that the era of games had low-quality sound or if there was a lack of understanding about how to make a sound satisfying. Either way, this was a major detractor to my overall enjoyment of the game. I played a good chunk of the game with the sound off and didn’t find it to dampen my experience at all besides missing out on the well-done music. In fact, I believe the sound design quality exposed how small the team and budget were and overall made it feel like a cheaper product. I do hope that from the success of Frogun, Molegato can afford a quality sound designer to help them with future projects.
Despite the visual elements of older games being easier to emulate today, we shouldn’t forget that the work under the hood in terms of mechanics, sound, and game design was handled by large teams comprised of the best in the business. I believe frogun struggles from biting off a bit more than it could chew. Instead of focusing on the mechanics and aesthetics that sold the game to me, Molegato wanted to make their own fully-realized 3D platforming experience. I applaud them for what they accomplished, I just believe their mindset is better suited for a larger team and budget instead of a solo-developed effort. Most solo developers attempt smaller games with simpler focused mechanics and Frogun shows there’s a reason for that. However, I do love so much about Frogun that I’d hope Garrido doesn’t scale back his next projects and instead finds the help, resources, and funding he needs to fully realize his jubilant visions. I know I’ll be donating to any future project!