Looking Back, Moving Forward

2023 is the year I finally focus on my ever-increasing backlog with furious intent. The era of keeping up with new releases is over; this is my time to conquer that bottomless void of unfinished games that I impulsively purchased thanks to various bundles and sales and bundles of sales. I have a horrible habit of stretching my time between too many things at once and it’s something I’ve been working on and getting better at. I can do this. My self-control is strong, my will unbreakable.

So anyway, I recently finished Pizza Tower and Hi-Fi Rush, and I couldn’t help but appreciate how both of these games look to gaming’s past while building on those foundations to create something fresh and exciting. They’re both incredible and I can’t recommend them enough, and I’d like to talk about why these two fundamentally different experiences scratched a similar itch for me.

Right off the bat, it’s clear that Pizza Tower (developed by Tour De Pizza) is heavily inspired by the Wario Land series, with Wario Land 4 being a particular influence on its core design. You play as a dumpy weirdo, the levels are puzzly and filled with secrets, and there are exhilarating escape sequences at the end of each stage. Where it differs, however, is its pacing. Wario can move and groove on the best of days, but it’s nothing compared to how blisteringly fast Peppino moves through the titular Pizza Tower. Once you build enough momentum it becomes a test of your reflexes as you jump and smash through every enemy and blockade that’s in your way. I cannot stress enough how fantastic this game feels to control even in moments of max speed.

If that wasn’t enough, Peppino can also grab, throw, uppercut, and piledrive enemies to oblivion and it all works in harmony with the movement to create an unbelievable sense of flow that activates every neuron in my brain. It’s simply intoxicating, and I’ve found myself jumping back into random stages from time to time to work on S-ranking everything (there’s also a P-rank, but the requirements for that are on a level that I don’t think I can hang with).

That’s not to say it’s all speed though. There’s plenty of opportunity to slow down and explore these sprawling levels, and it’s something you should absolutely do in your first playthrough since there are all sorts of secrets to uncover. You also need money to access the boss gates, and rescuing pizza toppings is the only way to earn that cash. Thankfully it’s pretty easy to find these toppings, and I only hit a minor wall right at the final boss gate where I needed to go back and get a little extra money.

And man, those boss fights are something else. They’re a proper test of your reflexes, as well as a hefty dose of pattern memorization, and I can see these encounters being an issue for some people. There’s a general lack of accessibility options that I would’ve loved to see, but aside from that I personally found the challenge to be exhilarating. Even in my failed attempts at overcoming a difficult fight, I learned something and used that to push forward. It all culminates in this final moment of catharsis that I won’t spoil, but it made me cackle with sheer glee at the execution.

All of this is elevated by how wild this game looks. Pizza Tower pulls from Wario Land mechanically, but its aesthetic is more akin to 90s cartoon maximalism and 16-bit platformers like Boogerman and Earthworm Jim (sans the asshole creator). I love all the different, horrid little creatures you encounter in this game, and the sprite work is downright immaculate. Peppino’s animations in particular are so expressive and detailed, especially when he’s going off the goop and losing his mind in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. There’s so much shit going on at once, but it’s absolutely cracked in the best possible way. It’s my game of the year at the time of writing this (yeah I know it’s only February but somebody has to set the bar!), and I could see it growing on me even more with time. It succeeds in being firmly rooted in what came before it, but it carves its own path to become something unlike anything I’ve ever played.

And that’s something I can also say of Hi-Fi Rush, which shadow-dropped just a day before Pizza Tower. This is why I can’t focus on my backlog!

Hi-Fi Rush is an action game developed by Tango Gameworks with a heavy emphasis on rhythmic elements that looks and feels like a sixth gen console game that came from another dimension where Clover Studios was still in business. It’s impossibly gorgeous with some of the best use of cel-shading I’ve seen since Killer7 and Wind Waker, and it’s packed with detail all the way down to the environment grooving and vibing to the beat of the music. It’s beaming with character, and I haven’t even talked about the actual characters yet!

Which, yeah, I adore this cast. I’m a sucker for unlikely friendships and found family tropes, and Hi-Fi Rush excels in that regard. Chai, the protagonist, is a lovable idiot, and over the course of the game he forges bonds with a wonderful cast of characters. Peppermint is a badass and a perfect foil to Chai’s bullheadedness, Macaron is a big sweetheart, CNMN is hilariously blunt, and I have never simped for a character harder than I have for Korsica. It’s heartwarming watching them working together, initially hesitant but slowly growing closer as they fight to overthrow a big bad megacorporation.

What I love even more is that your companions are also used in gameplay as well. With the press of a button you can summon one of the homies into battle, whether it’s for a one-off attack or at the end of a combo string. The combat in this game is just incredible. It feels reminiscent of a Devil May Cry or a Metal Gear Rising, but what sets it apart from its contemporaries is its emphasis on staying with the beat. I mentioned earlier that Hi-Fi Rush has a rhythm element to it, and landing your combos, dodges, and parries with the beat of the background music is tantamount to keeping your ranks high. Your hits still connect even if you’re off though, and there are a multitude of visual tells that help guide you toward improving. Eventually it started to feel effortless; so effortless in fact that I feel like it helped me improve in other action games! Maybe I should try Sekiro one more time…

One of the things that really sticks out to me in Hi-Fi Rush is how earnest its intentions are. It’s full of quips and jokes, and the writing could’ve easily become overbearing or annoying, but the love and enthusiasm that the devs put into this work runs through every facet without a single ounce of bitterness to be found anywhere. The characters and setting here are simply too endearing and charismatic for anything to be considered insincere. I mean, damn, the music choices are insane! I love the original soundtrack quite a bit, but the licensed music they chose for specific segments works so well. I particularly loved seeing The Joy Formidable show up for one of my favorite stages in the entire game, and I nearly lost it over seeing a Number Girl song appear. Experiences like this don’t come around very often, but when they do it feels like they leave a permanent mark in my brain for the better.

So yeah, I really loved Hi-Fi Rush and Pizza Tower. Playing both of these games back-to-back reminded me why I love this medium so much, and although they are wildly different from each other, their ability to draw from the past while bringing something new and interesting to the table really stuck out to me (they also both use ranking systems which is a funny coincidence). You could call them derivative of their influences, sure, but it’s impossible for me to read either of these works as cynical. Nostalgia can be poisonous, there’s no doubt about that. It’s a feeling that can be weaponized to exploit fond memories of that thing you loved when you were younger. But there’s a difference between nostalgia and reverence for the past, and I firmly believe these two games to be the end result of the latter.

I mean come on, you didn’t think I’d post an article without some kind of Castlevania reference, did you?


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