I like to throw the term “nostalgia is a seductive liar” a lot, but despite that I can utter it with ease, I will admit that I myself get intrigued by retro inspired titles. Whenever a game is made out of pixels, I often dive headfirst in to see what it might provide and whether it is as brilliant as Gato Roboto, competent similar to Cybarian or completely abysmal like Super Star Path. Even if I have had my share of hits and misses, it is always exciting for me to see how far someone is willing to go in order to make their project simulate a hardware’s limitations as closely as possible.
The developers of Squidlit, consisting of the couple Alex Waverley Barrett and Samantha Christine Davenpor, did so by restricting the amount of sprites on the screen to only 40, having sounds being made on a real Game Boy, making the screen be in 160 X 144 pixels, and containing only four shades of grellow. As one who is overly nostalgic for handheld devices and is already fascinated by the idea of a platformer starring a squid, I bought this the moment it hit the Switch. Definitely not a purchase done with an analytical mindset, but was it nonetheless worth it?
Wonder if Cthulhu is part of their lore
For being a platformer that lasts barely half an hour, you might not have believed there would be much of a story to this game, but Squidlit has a surprisingly solid worldbuilding and plenty of dialogues to it. You play as the cute squid named Plip who is told by the Squizard that you have to go and investigate a “spoopy” castle, since their last scout has yet to return from it. While the overall plot is simple and straight to the point, this title is filled with characters all over the place who either contribute to you getting further on your adventure or are there just to crack jokes.
Humour is the biggest focus of this story and it can be best described as cute. The jokes are always good for a chuckle and clearly showcases that this is a lighthearted setting, be it the mayor saying he is so because he has a big house or how a farmer just happens to have a hovercraft. This makes every character charming and memorable, despite that their personalities does not go much further than their occupations.
The incorporation of actual lore is also quite impressive, with there even being an explanation to why there are health items scattered around in this world. The reason is simple: a chef shot a bunch of cupcakes with a catapult. It is adorable and mesmerising how many details were provided within this game, but due to its short length, everything ends before you know it. This is an incredible shame, as there is not enough dialogues or areas to visit to really get invested in this world, making it only a nice introduction. A great taste for sure, but far from fulfilling.
Story Score: 6/10
Running out of ink
Being a linear side-scrolling platformer, Squidlit keeps it safe by being an easy title where the main character has a limited moveset and a generous health bar. This is completely fine, as enjoyment should come from creativity and not necessarily from how difficult a game is. So what can Plip do? Well, she can move left and right, jump, and has a minor hover move where she spits ink beneath her. She can also snuggle and smile by pressing down, but that is only for the players amusement and nothing else.
The ink move functions as Plip’s only attack and works fine as there are always enough room for her to use it. Unfortunately, the enemies are barely what you could call obstacles. Some charge at you, others shoot projectiles, and a couple wanders around aimlessly, but none are a threat as they either die easily or can be nonchalantly avoided. This issue is made more apparent thanks to two occasions where you will have to kill a number of enemies in order to proceed, making combat mandatory. It is not challenging or adds anything to the platforming besides tedium.
Although, this could have been fine if the level design strengthened the actual platforming. Sadly, the stages’ layouts are rudimentary at best. Simple geometry for getting further, nothing testing your jumping skills, and the lack of any interesting pathways or secrets, make this the bare minimum of what you could call level design. I think the only time I was engaged, was when I had to use ink on an enemy to make it stay on a button in order to open a door, but that was only used a couple of times before the final boss. Due to having no true evolution to this journey and just variety for the sake of having them, this game became a tragic and dull experience.
I can say the same for the boss fights, as they do not have much flavour to them either. Two just have you do simple patterns to defeat them and another was set as a shmup where you fought off a giant monster with easy projectiles to dodge. The only boss I enjoyed, was a magical book that conjured up weapons and in order to stop him from doing so, you had to jump into the book and shoot ink on the right spell it was trying to cast. This is a clever and creative boss fight that despite being easy, felt involving due to requiring Plip’s powers to be taken down.
In fact, this is where Squidlit fails tremendously: it does not use its concepts for anything unique or imaginative. Instead, it takes the bare minimum to become a monotone platformer. If it used the ink method for the entire game as a core and evolving concept, we might have had something here. Alas, this adventure is simply a bland one. To give an idea of how poorly planned this title was, it is barely 30 minutes and has a save feature. Why, I do not know.
Gameplay Score: 2/10
Game Boy could do slightly more, right?
As stated in the intro, Squidlit does all it can to mimic a real Game Boy and it does so impressively. Everything the developers claimed it did is accounted for, and even the bars on the sides representing the original hardware, are more than just cosmetics. You can see the speaker move to simulate it playing music and the contrast wheel is actually possible to tinker with, creating a beautiful form of authenticity. The creatures of this game’s world are also adorable, even if the snails and spiders are rather uninspired.
Although, this is where the biggest problem of Squidlit comes into play: it has a forgettable style. Plip and the other squids are adorable, and the bosses are neat in design, but that is it. No one sticks out unless they have a hat, which is a questionable form of creativity. Even the locations you travel through are not much to speak of, as they do not consist of much else than simple houses, repetitive trees, and a generic castle. I do like it when the areas try to become more distinct such as adding a coffee shop inside the castle, but those are rather the exception than the rule. It is not a bad world, just an underwhelming one.
Luckily, the audio fares much better. The sound effects work well to establish the different actions, including pitches for jumps and crunched up audio to simulate explosions. It is all effective and nostalgic in all the right places. The music is mellow and decent overall, but the melodies loop too quickly and the rhythms have not enough variety to make them engaging. The tracks are functional, but not strong or memorable due to their short length and recurring notes.
Presentation Score: 5/10
For two euros, you do get something reminiscent of a Game Boy game, but while it has charm with its worldbuilding, characters, and authenticity to the handheld’s limitations, the core gameplay leaves a lot to be desired. If I can say anything else positive here, I am severely excited for its sequel as the team’s first project shows a lot of promises. I can only recommend Squidlit if charm can get you far. For anyone else, think of this as a curiosity in a bargain bin; would you pick up a random Game Boy title with no prior research? If no, then this is definitely not a big loss.