Release date: March 2017
Developer: Sumo Digital
Format: Digital download (eShop)
Other platforms: PS4, XBox One, PC (Windows)
Price: $26 AUD
After the relatively lackluster launch lineup for the Nintendo Switch, a lot of people – myself included – were looking forward to something different to play during breaks from Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Snake Pass caught my eye as soon as I saw its first trailer, with the cute, cheerful characters and lush, vibrant environments making me nostalgic for 90s platformers like Donkey Kong 64 and Crash Bandicoot.
Comparisons with Donkey Kong seem a bit inevitable when you consider that Snake Pass‘s music was composed by David Wise who worked on most of the iconic music from the Donkey Kong series. Having played Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze a few years earlier, I was especially reminded of its chilled out soundtrack, as Snake Pass‘s music has a similar vibe.
There’s not much of a story in Snake Pass, but the game doesn’t really suffer for not having it. You control a snake called Noodle as he travels through 15 levels with the help of his hummingbird companion, Doodle. Controlling Noodle takes a lot of getting used to, as you really have to think like a snake. If you just push the thumbstick forward, you won’t get anywhere in a hurry; instead, you have to make him slither from side to side like a real snake in order to build up speed, and though you can raise Noodle’s head to climb over low obstacles, most climbing requires Noodle to wrap around various bamboo structures. Playing as a snake is definitely a novelty, and the developers have really got the gravity and physics of how a snake moves and acts right (apparently the guy who came up with the idea used to have a pet snake, which explains why the movements look and feel so natural). It may be unforgiving, but it’s certainly realistic.
Some areas also see Noodle swimming underwater or having to unlock obstacles by pushing a ball into a slot or by moving a lever or spinning a turnstile. All of these mechanics are introduced relatively early in the game and aside from taking place in increasingly treacherous environments, they don’t really evolve as you progress. Though I suppose control options are going to be limited for a character that has no arms or legs.
There is no jumping in Snake Pass, and no enemies to fight. The lack of combat makes it a fairly relaxing puzzle-platformer for the most part (at least in the early levels), though it is possible to die if you fall off the stage or land in a pit of spikes or lava. This makes the challenge ramp up significantly in later levels, as some of the collectibles required to progress are positioned in hard-to-reach areas where a single mistake can result in fatal falls.
There are three sorts of collectibles in Snake Pass. First are the three brightly coloured shapes, keys that must be collected to open the gate before you can move on to the next level. Next there are the numerous blue bubbles. Finally, there are five gold coins in each level, and these coins are by far the most challenging to collect. If you only collect the three gate keys, you can probably finish the game in about 4 hours, but if you’re aiming for 100% completion it will take double that, at least. Aside from that 100% completion, there seems to be very little reward for collecting the bubbles and coins, and – as I’ll go into below – the game frustrated me enough that I was content to just get the three gate keys and go on to the next level.
As much as I was charmed by Noodle and his colourful world, I still had a few gripes with the game. The first was with the camera; as in many Nintendo 64 3D platformers, the camera would quite often choose the least helpful angle it could, obscuring my view as I tried to slither up a tricky structure of bamboo poles. Moving the camera is easy enough with the right thumbstick, but this means taking your thumb off the A button, which is not ideal if you’re trying to climb vertically (there were times I felt like I could have used a third thumb). I died a number of times simply because I couldn’t see what I was doing, and either took my thumb off A to move the camera (resulting in Noodle letting go and falling to his death) or because I tried to navigate the obstacle effectively blind and unsurprisingly was unable to do so. The ‘helpful’ hummingbird was not always helpful, either, often either refusing to lift my tail when I pressed the button to call him, or lifting it and then dropping it without me asking him to, usually at the most inconvenient time.
Several sections require Noodle to coil and slither around intricate bamboo structures in order to reach high platforms. This means wrapping tightly around the bamboo by making relatively small motions with the control stick. Unfortunately, whether Noodle wraps around or just flings himself out in that general direction seems to be purely down to luck, so expect to have to to climb the same section repeatedly because Noodle fell off the structure for no reason. You can use the left trigger button to grip tightly, but this, too, seemed a bit hit-and-miss. Combined with a sudden difficulty spike about a third/half of the way into the game, this created an extremely frustrating experience at times (I’m not the sort of person to throw my controller when I lose my temper but Snake Pass certainly challenged me in that regard). It also annoyed me that checkpoints weren’t placed after more of the difficult sections, as it meant that falling or dying at a particular point often forced you to repeat two or three gruelling climbs rather than just one.
Though Snake Pass is a relatively short game, it still offers plenty of depth and challenge to those who want it, and its pick-up-and-play structure makes it particularly suited to the Nintendo Switch’s portability. The experience was marred at times by an uncooperative camera and a disobedient hummingbird, and the difficulty spike in the middle part of the game felt a little extreme, but I still had some fun with Snake Pass, even if sometimes the controls made it more frustrating than it needed to be. If you’re desperate for a new game to play, I’d recommend giving Snake Pass a go, but if you still have plenty of other games to get through first, maybe wait for it to go on sale.