Reviewed on PlayStation 4
Games now joining cinema and television in the arms race for more pixels and more critically-acclaimed drama, ‘fun’ looks to be under new management. More a proxy for those complex, high-stakes experiences, enjoyment’s re-appropriation to bombastic set pieces and crippling consequence means less room for those smaller jaunts just looking to make us smile. A last ditch attempt to preserve the lingering magic of the 90s, Snake Pass is an embodiment of old and beacon of hope for a genre pushed mostly to one side.
Risk versus reward is the Snake Pass philosophy and Noodle (titular snake) and hilariously disgruntled-looking Hummingbird buddy Doodle are the duet to these teachings. Developer Sumo Digital (LittleBigPlanet 3) has done a great job distilling snake ‘feel’ and understanding Noodle’s mobility through a tactile control scheme is the foundation of the game’s brilliance. R2 to accelerate, X to raise your head and left thumbstick to slither, once you wrap your brain around it, the game has an effortless flow. A few good slithers and you’ve graduated to King cobra without even accepting the throne! Snake Pass does a great job at imbuing Noodle’s abilities and limitations and when it all clicks, cutting that perfect ‘S’ through grass or water, sliding up a bamboo tower like a scaley Silly Straw, or reaching new heights after a series of near-mishaps feels nothing short of magic.
Levels are colourful sandboxes, serving as both practice grounds and the real thing. Snag all three Gatekeeper Keys and enjoy your victory, or steel yourself, Copperhead, and try for that hypnotic bit of cliff-side loot. Failure is falling: to the ground if you’re lucky, off the level and into oblivion if you’re not. Death has little consequence and after a few seconds, you’re back at your last checkpoint, sans those collectables from your last run but still in high spirits and slightly more aware of what not to do.
Come to terms with your length and weight (good practice for real life), and minds start to race with serpentine possibilities. Snake Pass’ fifteen levels are literal jungle gyms; landscapes littered with bamboo, rocks, and grass – all useful for honing your abilities and learning to snake better. A couple of hours and you’re adding a few stylish twirls as you careen the world (your very own Tony Hawk’s Pro Snaker), snapping up that last Key, Wisp or Coin and enjoying Noodle’s incredulous “woah”s.
Visuals pop like a Pixar film and though the camera can get a bit confused (mostly in underwater sections) and the game doesn’t looks as sharp as others, these issues aren’t nearly enough to diminish the joy that comes with doing snake stuff at a snake pace. Composer David Wise (Donkey Kong Country) brings a great score and exploring is set to Rare-esque bits of bop, helping flavour proceedings earnest and emotional. Tunes are limited and you may find songs looping more than a few times but an ode to minimalist design doesn’t have the Snake Pass EP feel unfair nor out of place.
Teachings of patience and joy, the game does eat its own tail in the inclusion of unneeded threats. A celebration of going at your own pace and working towards a goal, Noodle’s plummet onto hot coals or a nasty spike pit just aren’t in keeping with niceties. Deaths aren’t graphic but certainly at odds with the game’s zen-like nature. Any penalty that isn’t falling feels jarring and the harsh consequence of mistaking a spike pit for a trampoline can feel unfair given the sometimes sparse placement of checkpoints.
But how wonderful it is to see a snake ride a water-slide and a few small flaws do little to diminish this glee. A game that couldn’t have more charm if the hummingbird wore a top hat and the serpent, a boa tie, Snake Pass is unrestrained joy and a day spa for modern gaming. Rich in personality and the Nintendo doctrine of fun firmly under its arm err… belly, it’s the grin we all need. Stakes set ankle-high, Snake Pass is a hopeful herald for happier times.