Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Cheap Thrills: The Maw (2009)

Lately I've been playing the debut game from Twisted Pixel, creators of 'Splosion Man and the upcoming Ms. 'Splosion ManThe Maw, which is considerably less difficult than 'Splosion Man, came out in early 2009 on XBox Live Arcade, and arrived a few months later for the PC.  I've been playing it on the PC, via Steam, where the game plus three extra downloadable levels made for a cheap thrill on sale a few weeks back:

The Maw concerns the adventures of a young alien named Frank and a strange one-eyed, purple, ravenous creature known as the titular Maw.  It was one of the first games to integrate with Steam's downloadable content system back in 2009, and also features Steam achievements (which are the same as the XBLA achievements.)  I've played the XBLA version as well, though not all the way through, and the only visible differences I noticed turn up on this display, where the "Quit to Desktop" option lets us know we're in PC land:

The Maw is not a great game, but it's a pleasant way to spend five or six hours -- essentially it's a 3-D platformer with puzzle elements and a cartoonish sense of humor with a lot of personality in the character animation.  It's also very forgiving, as our heroes can't die -- even alien machine guns just knock them harmlessly backwards.  The player's goal is to use the Maw's appetite for the local fauna to give the creature new capabilities, such as breathing fire, floating, or zapping other creatures, to help Frank overcome the obstacles lying between each level's starting point and its end.

I should also mention that the ravenous Maw gets quite a bit larger as the game goes on -- most levels require him to eat a certain amount before the exit will open, and he gradually grows from a puppy-sized companion to a giant (friendly) monster as the game progresses:

The graphics use fairly low-polygon models, befitting this game's digital distribution target, but they're nicely colored and textured, brightly lit but with a pleasing, rounded dimensionality to them.  The score by Winifred Phillips is particularly nice -- it changes up often enough to avoid becoming repetitive, and has a bouncy, cartoonish Danny Elfman feel that suits the action well.

If The Maw has one major flaw, it's that the level designs suffer from a certain sameness after a while -- they're mostly made up of rocks, plants, cliffs and rivers, and when we get stuck on a puzzle, we too often find ourselves retreading well-traveled ground looking for one switch or critter or pathway we might have missed.  Fortunately, the finale, and the downloadable level pictured below, take a break from third-person 3-D platforming for some more traditional arcade action.  In these levels, the player can "die" -- in that the vehicle Frank is piloting can explode -- but we don't lose any progress and are allowed to pick up close to where we made our most recent last stand.

These bullets travel very slowly and are not difficult to avoid, but the "bullet hell" pattern is still a nice nod to classic arcade shoot-'em-ups:

It took me under 6 hours to play through the game, including an hour or so while I wandered around missing the obvious, and I spread that time out over a week or so.  That's not a bad length as far as I'm concerned -- if it had gone on for much longer, it might have worn out its welcome, and it's always better for a game to quit while it's ahead.

Twisted Pixel's later games are better, in my opinion, and certainly more challenging.  But this early effort has style and humor to spare, and is worth checking out on XBLA or the PC.

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