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If you’re going to pick a game to be your reference point, then you could choose something a lot worse than Super Mario World. We’re not sure there’s ever been a better expression of pure platforming as that SNES classic. Amabilly knows it can’t beat it, but hangs back and copies some of its moves.
We will admit that we are a sucker for this kind of game. Give us a colourful world, tighten the controls as far as they will go, and then deliver short, inventive levels loaded with collectibles and we roll over on our back and show our belly. Amabilly does all of this, and very suddenly it was two hours later and we had finished all its levels.
Amabilly kicks off with a very un-Super Mario moment. You see, Amabilly is in a coma. Her mum and dad hover at her bedside, waiting for her to wake up. In the hope that it might help, they have brought her favourite electric guitar into the ward. It’s not quite ‘plumber wakes up in a mushroom kingdom’, unless Mario had some subtext that we didn’t pick up on.
It’s here where the game begins. Amabilly has been surviving in her unconscious dreamworld, but now – thanks mum and dad – she has the power of rock-and-roll. Her guitar can fire out little blue bolts, and suddenly she has the ability to deal with the malevolence that lives in her mind. A platformer is born.
Music is used very subtly in Amabilly, but in its own little way, it’s sublime. Each level has a musical signature. If it’s a twee, bouncy number then there are no enemies in the level. You can bound off into the unknown knowing that you’ll only have to deal with spikes, thwomps and bolt-firing contraptions. If it’s more on the side of heavy-metal, then you’re going to be facing enemies. Just to hammer the reference home, most of the enemies are ‘rocks’, because, well, rock. It’s such a small detail, but we fell completely in love with it.
Amabilly is lovely to look at, too. It’s on the cutesy side, which might make Celeste fans bristle, but everything is bright, clear and appealing. Match that up with the unbelievably catchy music (my wife is whistling it in the kitchen as I’m writing the review), and you have a compact, unassuming little beauty.
The controls are exactly what you might hope. There’s no latency, no dodgy collision, nothing. We felt in complete control as we leapt through the levels, and that is something we don’t take for granted. We played this in a double-bill with another indie platformer, Swapshot, and it really rammed home how easy it is to get controls wrong, and how impressively flawless this is. Amabilly can jump and fire in slow blasts, with upgrades allowing her to fire faster, double-jump and swim around in a submarine. There’s not one issue to be shared between them.
The game is split into four worlds, and each world has twenty or so levels organised into keycard-locked gates and doors for you to jump through (we were reminded of how The Addams Family, another classic SNES platformer, was structured). Those levels are whippet-fast: you’ll be blitzing through them in a couple of minutes, and that’s if you’re trying to collect all of the gems and musical notes in the level.
That speed is mostly a positive. The levels tend to have a single new idea each, often the introduction of a new enemy or obstacle. Sometimes the level ingredients are organised in a manner that will get you thinking differently, like underwater sequences that are more like mazes. What this means is that you get a short, sharp execution of that idea, like it’s a test-room for Mario level designers. We were certainly never bored.
The counterpoint is that difficulty is never an issue. The levels are so short, and you soon unlock additional hearts, which means that it’s very hard to actually fail. For a younger player that’s a boon, but for an adult who wants to truly test their reflexes, it can be a little, well, safe. It’s down to your personal tastes: can you get enjoyment from a platformer that sits in second gear and very rarely moves into third? We know that we can, but we know a lot of players who can’t.
Amabilly is also a bit rubbish at creating bosses. There are only four, and they make up a small proportion of the actual levels in Amabilly, but we genuinely believe that the game would be better without them. They are almost uniformly big bouncing balls, ensconced in the same boxy arenas, and they all share the same problem. Being big, bouncy balls, they can’t really reach the bottom-left and bottom-right corners, which is exactly where you’re going to end up sitting. We felt like little cheeseballs, exploiting the bosses in the campiest way possible.
But ‘not difficult’ and ‘exploitable’ isn’t frustrating, and that’s where Amabilly shines. Because this is just about the smoothest, easiest-to-play little platformer that money can buy. It might not offer anything that resembles challenge, but it’s got a steady stream of ideas, a determination not to waste your time, and some of the most satisfying controls that £3.99 can buy.
Got a hankering to return to your old Super Mario World cartridge? Give Amabilly a shot and it might just satisfy that urge.