Ultra-lean indie development teams seem to be popping up with great games everywhere these days, but their increase in frequency doesn’t make their achievements any less impressive. For developer Alex Rose Games, the studio behind Super Rude Bear, the heavy lifting in development is done by the studio’s namesake Alex Rose. And while Sony has made a concerted effort to make it easier for indies to get on their platforms, releasing on consoles is still a step up in terms of effort. As such, I was intrigued to see whether or not this brutal platformer with a twist would live up to some other indie greats that have also made their way to consoles.
The Elephant in the Room
The core concept that sets Super Rude Bear apart from other platformers is the fact that death is now a utilized mechanic. If the player falls on a set of spikes (or several hundred sets, in my case) the sad remains of Rude Bear stay lodged on the spikes and the player now controls a new clone born back at the checkpoint. This twist is, those remnants of past failed attempts stay in the level as physical objects. As such, the player, now controlling a fresh-faced new Rude Bear, can jump on his former self and avoid the spikes entirely. And it’s not just one body either. In the 5+ hours of play I spent with the game, I never hit a limit as to the number of bear carcasses I could have on screen.
On a surface level, this mechanic has the obvious usefulness of making almost any platforming challenge easier, but its utility goes deeper than that. Unlike any platformer I’ve ever played, this concept allows the player to physically shape the layout of the level – either consciously or not. I used my previous deaths to block arrows, extend jumps, and “cheat” entire sections. Perhaps most importantly, it’s not a novelty mechanic that might simply be trotted around for a laugh and then forgotten – it’s useful. In the first few levels, I only died a few times each. By the end, I was intentionally (and unintentionally) dying dozens of times to actively create solutions to some of the more tricky challenges.
This Bear’s Got Hops
With any platformer, the game lives or dies on a singular action: its jump. Thankfully, this is something that Super Rude Bear very much gets right. Movement is tight, predictable, and entirely in the player’s control. On top of the basic jump, the game utilizes wall jumps, slides, and, of course, that persistent-death mechanic to further flesh out the level design. The mark of a great jump in a platformer, especially one that echoes the likes of Super Meat Boy, is what can be done with it at higher levels of play. Again, Super Rude Bear excels at this. In the late game, some sections of platforming look legitimately impossible without stacking up 20 bodies first. But with a combinations of wall jumping and in-air movement, some remarkable achievements can be made.
I can honestly say that I did not expect to ever be wowed by a platformer, but Super Rude Bear’s mechanics allow for truly memorable moments that I haven’t seen in other games of the genre. Much of this is due to the game’s difficulty, which is considerable, but the overall level design is also excellent, with each section feeling unique in its construction as well as the skills you’ll need to overcome it.
A Flow Like You Wouldn’t Believe
Though it certainly isn’t the most visible accomplishment in Super Rude Bear, the pacing of the game is perhaps its most critical. With a game such as this, achieving a sense of flow during play is not unheard of, but Super Rude Bear does it on a scale rarely seen. This is done with two smart design decisions: quite a few checkpoints, and no load times. Those who have played Olli Olli, or games like it, know that being able to retry instantly is pivotal to the experience. Super Rude Bear is no different. By having levels broken up into many chunks, the player is encouraged to experiment with certain approaches without fearing any real repercussions for dying. And when they inevitably do die, they respawn and are back in control in less than a second’s time.
This taps into an state of the brain that few games can, where the player’s overt decision making takes a back seat, and the play is put directly into the player’s muscle memory and reflex. Normally in a super brutal platformer such as this, I would be frustrated with every death, but Super Rude Bear’s induced sense of flow makes the game almost meditative at parts. Undoubtedly it’s a difficult experience to relay in words. It needs to really be felt to be understood.
That said, the game is certainly not always like this. For good pacing to be achieved, there have to be ups and downs in tension and excitement. Super Rude Bear accomplishes this with “downs” coming at points of repetitive flow and “ups” coming from sections that aren’t as conducive to instant repetition, but require deeper concentration and execution. On top of all that, the game runs very smoothly, and performance was never a problem. A relief, considering frame rate dips can easily kill an experience like this one.
A Mismatch of Intensities
I can not stress enough how much I enjoyed Super Rude Bear’s soundtrack. At certain points in the game where the difficulty would spike, I found that the music would often be the driving force to keep the controller in my hand when the rest of me wanted to take a break. This is something that rarely happens with game music, as sound design often takes a back-seat, supplementary role in the overall experience. Not so with Super Rude Bear. The music stays largely in the vein of electronic dance music with a grunge influence that fits the punk-ish aesthetic of the game as a whole. It matches the gameplay exceptionally well and feeds into the gameplay in an impressive amount.
Unfortunately, the rest of the sound design does not live up to the soundtrack, and generally felt disappointing. As an example, a side character in the game allows the player to use something called the “Cremation Blast” to clear out any dead bears on the screen. With a name such as that, I expected something much more emphatic than the sound that was offered up. Jumps and slides have equally weak sounds attached to them that don’t come close to matching the intensity of the gameplay or the music. While this is clearly not a critical flaw, it does leave the experience overall feeling a bit emptier than it otherwise would.
Art and Characters
I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on the visual and character aspects of Super Rude Bear. Thankfully, these are also strong and go a long way to help the game succeed in the ways that it does. Of greatest importance is the art, which is fantastic. The development team chose a cell-shaded cartoony aesthetic that they utilize to a huge degree, with wildly varying settings and enemies. Even with the wide variations, the art style as a whole holds together well enough to make the game feel consistent, even in its surprises. The screen also tilts slightly in the direction the player is moving – a relatively simple effect that makes the world feel alive.
The same can’t necessarily be said of the characters themselves. Rude Bear is hip and cool looking, including in his animations, but other characters feel forgettable at times. For much of the game, Rude Bear has a fairy-like companion that spits out narration as text on the screen. This character’s visual design was pretty amorphous and did not feel distinct. The writing of his speech helped to give him much more character so that, in the end, he became a memorable fixture. The same can’t be said of most of the bosses, who were the game’s definite low-points as they felt confusing and not well introduced or explained. A few of these bosses I beat without any idea how I did so, and they’re not described as significant characters in the world, which would have made them feel more significant and possibly offered clues as to how to defeat them.
While Super Rude Bear is deserving of some criticism in its sound design as well as some of its lackluster bosses, the experience overall manages to achieve some truly impressive feats. Its ability to induce flow through tight platforming and smart level design is worthy of huge praise. On top of all that, there’s a soundtrack that won’t let you stop playing, even when your fingers start to ache. In sum, Super Rude Bear knocks it out of the park where it matters most: its moment-to-moment gameplay. The rest of the experience is just icing on the cake.