Max and the Magic Marker: Gold Edition
What are videogames like? Some are a bit like films, some are more like books, others are like board games, while many are a heterogeneous mix of various such “likenesses”. Most of all, however, games are like each other. How often do we resort to simple comparison when describing gameplay mechanics? Yet with some titles there is an almost postmodern self awareness of such mechanical similarity, not so much to the extent of parody or pastiche, but a clear – slightly cheeky – pinching of ideas. We’ve used the term “Frankenstein’s monster” before when describing a puzzle game and it seems curiously apt to invoke such terminology once again when considering Press Play’s cutesy puzzle platformer.
So what is this brightly coloured, jaunty title like? It’s a bit like Scribblenauts mixed with Crayon Physics Deluxe, with some of LittleBigPlanet’s physics-based platforming thrown in for good measure. There’s even an area that evokes Scrap Brain zone from the original Sonic the Hedgehog, as the cogs and gears of a forgotten platforming age are reborn anew. The game follows the usual structure found in such titles; reach the end of each brightly-coloured stage while avoiding enemies and collecting optional collectables that litter the area. The key distinguishing feature here is the titular magic marker; an orange pen that floats over the screen, manipulable by either using the right analogue stick or the more accurate – and more entertaining – Move controller.
Drawing shapes (yes, even rude ones) into the game world makes them pop into existence and take on physical properties, allowing you to traverse the stage and solve puzzles. Like Scribblenauts there’s a clear intent on Press Play’s part to induce some creativity in the gameplay: draw a bridge and Max can walk over it; draw a platform, place it on some gears, and slides along them; or draw a boulder and drop it on a seesaw and Max will be propelled into the air. The magic pen’s use even extends to the combat, as the enemies that litter the levels can only be defeated by dropping drawn shapes on their heads. This is all made somewhat easier by the ability to freeze the game at any time – allowing you to draw more intricate shapes or draw platforms under Max whilst in midair. The whole system is a commendable attempt at diversifying both the puzzle and platformer genres, and its potential becomes particularly clear in the final few levels of the game as you’re tasked with creating your own complex button-pressing contraptions to open doors and turn off deadly lasers. At their best these bits even have vague hints of the mix of dexterity and wits commanded by games like – dare we say – Portal.
Yet it is exactly Max’s enthusiastic habit of adopting established (sometimes hackneyed) ideas that deprives it of its own identity; Max simply never comes close to fully exploiting its own core mechanic. The fact that there is only one type of ink for the magic pen means that repetition soon sets in despite its short length of only a few hours. The first two thirds of the game provide little challenge beyond the mishap that the magic marker often causes, as the physics behave in unexpected – and unwelcome – ways, sometimes resulting in death. Completing stages thus rarely feels like a solid achievement as you’re bothered by a nagging feeling that you botched – rather than crafted – your way through. This isn’t helped by the fact that ink for the magic marker (which must be collected throughout each stage) is often strictly limited. Rather than promoting more creative ways of finishing stages, this restriction means that your elaborate solution to a puzzle will often fail in favour of simple trial-and-error.
Bug Repellent Not Included
One of the first things you might notice when playing Max and the Magic Marker are the bizarre framerate drops and random stalling. While it’s by no means an ugly game, it’s somewhat puzzling that such a modest title would cause the PS3 to struggle. Most worrying of all, however, was the fact that our save took the nasty decision to overwrite itself for no reason – twice. While this may have been an unlikely coincidence, it’s worth noting that you should probably back up your save frequently.
The rudimentary platforming doesn’t soften the blow either, as Max’s unwanted insistence on grabbing ledges and the floaty jumping mechanics are exacerbated by a general lack of polish and inconsistency in his interaction with the world. Seeing Max judder and stick to the environment – or simply refuse to adhere to surfaces – are just a few of the technical hitches we encountered (see “Bug Repellent Not Included”). Ironically Max is at its best when the platforming is kept very simple, largely because it can be hard to tell how you will interact with the world, particularly in regard to water. In keeping with the inky subject matter, Max dies when he falls in a lake or walks under rain clouds, but fountain-spewing water hydrants pose no problem – indeed, they have to be jumped on to reach high platforms. Similarly, your drawn creations cannot touch pools of water without being dissipated, yet they are somehow resistant to rain even though Max himself isn’t. It’s important to establish consistent physical interactions in a puzzle game but Max plays fast and loose with its own rules.
Yet, as always with this kind of game, the intended audience must be taken into account. The lack of overall challenge and relative simplicity of the core experience are undoubtedly concessions to younger gamers. Kids will enjoy the vibrant graphics, jaunty music and creative, light hearted nature of the game. Older gamers, however, will struggle to look past the lack of challenge and sophistication as the game fails to construct a focused, polished experience. Ultimately, Max and the Magic Marker may be like many other puzzle and platforming games, but it’s rarely as accomplished.