A few days before my Extra Life stream was to start, I scanned through the “free-to-play” tag on Steam to see if there was anything worth downloading and trying live on the day of the event. Turns out, no…not much. A bunch of off-putting MMORPGs, a couple of MOBAs, and some frightening swamp monster called Fistful of Frags, but there was one title that certainly stood out from the pack, both on its name and looks.
Enter You Have to Win the Game, a deceptively tough platformer with a retro 1980s PC aesthetic from J. Kyle Pittman, who I believe either works or worked at Gearbox Studios. Can’t quite confirm that at the moment. It now seems like he and his brother founded Minor Key Games last year to create its sequel Super Win the Game, so kudos to them. I will definitely be checking that out once I go back through YHTWTG one more time.
There’s no solid story here, but that’s fine–think back to the good ol’ days of when action platformers needed no story. I mean, yeah…maybe there was one in DuckTales or Mystery Quest, but I can’t recall a single detail; all I know is there was jumping and exploring and jump-exploring to do. Granted, those games had enemies to deal with and ways to dish out damage, but YHTWTG is much more isolated, with you controlling a little sprite person as you explore a map and gain abilities, such as wall climbing and double jumping, that will eventually help you explore even more. Actually, wait. There are enemies, but your only course of action is to avoid them, not get in their face(s). There’s a continuing thread throughout the game’s progression about learning a magic word, but more on that in a moment.
Just like in VVVVVV, each screen feels like its own contained space, especially given that each screen gets its own quirky name at the bottom, like KISS Principle or Hardcore Prawn. This helps drive the desire to see what is up next. Some of these screens are simply there for you to walk through, some contain a save checkpoint or bag of money (which you collect to raise your 100% completion percentage), but many of them center around a deadly pitfall or crazy set of jumps or orb-tossing untouchable boss encounter. This is where this cutesy, retro platformer becomes something else–a challenge. But very rewarding, especially when it comes to rooms requiring precision-based timing to make it through in one piece.
Visually, the game is what you see above, using four-color CGA graphics and a lot of black space, but curved around a fake monitor screen, with monotonic PC speaker sounds to boot. That faux screen curve is a really cool effect that, after a minute or two of playing, you don’t even realize is there. At least I didn’t. Not much changes in terms of graphics overall as you progress, but it is fun entering a new area and seeing the layout change or where new traps are added or spotting a new way to go. The orb-tossing boss enemies–there are a few in total–are much larger sprites, detailed just enough to be threatening. If you can, search for the secret cat room.
At the end of YHTVTG, you are given the chance to enter in a password, which is whatever the magic word ultimately is. Unfortunately, I had only loosely paid attention to the scribbling on the walls, so I was unable to make a good guess and thus “lost” the game. I plan to go back and try again, as well as get the rest of those money bags, though there are a few sections I’m not looking forward to repeating, like that one where you have to jump down to a portal, cling to a wall, and then double-jump over a line of spikes. Yeah, I spent a good while on that part during Extra Life. Granted, I should be able to speedrun the first few parts now that I’m on the up-and-up, and I think there’s even an Achievement for completing the game (any %) in under ten minutes. Good luck there.
And good luck to anyone inspired by this post to win the game. I mean, you have to. You Have to Win the Game.