Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

100 Minutes With . . . Wonderputt

When Flash animation started appearing on Cartoon Network and cluttering up Saturday Morning CBBC schedules I felt rather used. Flash was our thing, for Internet shorts about sexy squirrel ladies and eggs waffling on about pie.

The Internet’s animation community must have felt the same way; they upped their game, cocking a snook at their televisual peers to deliver elegantly abstract reactive universes in games like Windosill and the Grow! series.

As delightful as those games were, they played more like Fisher Price activity centres than, well, games. This is a real game; it’s a real golf game with all the discovery and wonder of the very best Flash toys that went before it.

Wonderputt is an adventure golf sim. If, like me, you were more interested in the windmills and other moving features on a miniature golf course than putting then this is the game for you.

At the start of the game the course looks more like a surrealist Crystal Maze than it does a golf course: there’s Stonehenge, an industrial zone, a desert zone and a recursive waterway like a water park lazy river as designed by M.C. Escher.

Then, bam! Meteorites pit the desert zone with craters and the game begins.

It starts simply enough: chip the ball from crater to crater until you get it into the hole. The controls are simple: hold the mouse away from the ball and click to tap it in the opposite direction. The further away you hold the cursor, the harder you hit and the further the ball goes. The way the ball rolls around the craters’ curves demonstrates the game’s physics nicely, but sink it and things start getting weird.

There’s a grassy pavilion in the right hand corner of the map; the marquee erected in it ups sticks and turns into a flying saucer. Cows emerge from sheds to the side to eat the grass and as they do the saucer abducts them one by one, leaving the field masticated into an angular design that functions as your new golf course.

When you sink the ball a cloud rains on the field, making grass grow and prompting the cows to come out again to eat it, but the next time you sink the ball the cloud brings snow that turns the field into a ski slope, and you have to slalom the ball up and down hill until you reach a conveyor belt that gives you access to the hole.

Wonderputt does for golf what Flipnic did for pinball. The snow melts and freezes to ice and you then navigate ripples frozen into the pond’s surface. In my favourite part of the game, the ball’s shot from a submarine inside a torpedo that, mid-flight, opens in the manner of an old Airfix construction kit. You play silly golf in model assembly instructions. It’s wonderful.

I’m one of those horrible old curmudgeons who complains that gaming’s lost its sense of wonder. Wonderputt - and rarely has a game been so appropriately titled - restores it and then some. Never resting on its laurels each new course has its own gimmicks, from playing leapfrog across lily pads to a moving factory sequence that plays out like a modern day Screwball Scramble. As a kid, part of the fun of miniature golf was putting into a hazard on the course and never knowing which of its holes the ball would emerge from on the other side. In Wonderputt the whole course deforms into new configurations: standing stones become pinball buffers, skulls emerge from the bowels of office blocks. It displays the depth of imagination you might associate with games like Super Mario Galaxy only it’s all available for free and playable on a netbook.

That the golf game set against this backdrop is a damned good one is a bonus. The fewer strokes you need to pot a ball, the more points you get for it. Replaying the game after completion lets you to collect pick-ups scattered strategically about each course for extra points. Lose your ball off the end of the course or in a water trap and it’s placed roughly where you last left it, and it’s only in a couple of spots where the course’s perspective proves problematic and the ball gets caught up on hidden boundaries.

Wonderputt is the kind of game that would sell well on an iDevice and would have podcast presenters talking about their addiction to it for a week or two; frankly, that’s not good enough. I want a full blown Wonderputt sequel with lots of different arenas, all with the wit, warmth and wonder of this joyous piece of gaming. Animators complained that those early Flash animations were cheap and disposable; this descendant is anything but. It’s a game that deserves lasting recognition for turning hitting a ball with a stick into a thing of immense beauty.

For a long time I’ve berated myself for not writing about the games I’ve played and enjoyed. With the whole Internet at my fingertips I’ve became lazy, content to play the flavour of the week before moving on and forgetting about it. It took Wonderputt to move my shiftless arse into gear and get writing. Play this game and remember it always.

Play Wonderputt

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