It breaks away from the mold by forcing players – quite literally – to think and move like a snake, altering the way with which problems that are nearly as old as gaming itself need to be approached
Ever since a frustrated Mario traveled between castles in which his princess could not be found, the world of platforming games has featured a quite obvious bias: namely, the fact that – like a cool roller coaster ride that eludes the bravest children out there due to height restrictions – it sends away creatures who cannot stand on two legs. With the exception of Spyro, who certainly must have burned whoever told him he could not access his own adventure because he was walking on all fours, it is clear there is some kind of established segregative policy. Nothing else could explain how characters like Sonic (a hedgehog), Croc (a crocodile), Aero (a bat), Banjo (a bear), Conker (a squirrel), Gex (a gecko), and Crash (a bandicoot) are seen nonchalantly moving around like bipeds when their genes were clearly not programmed to perform such an action.
Given that fishy reality, Snake Pass is, in concept alone, quite exciting. Regardless of the methods used by Noodle (a snake that – shockingly – moves around exactly like one would) to get his game approved by the platforming police, one thing is for sure: by placing the unlikely hero in settings that have all staples of the genre – like gaps, moving pieces, water, tall structures that need to be climbed, fire pits, deadly spikes, and small platforms – the folks at Sumo Digital unearthed an incredibly original concept with such an inborn simplicity that it is sort of uncanny nobody had ever thought about it (or maybe someone had done so but ended up being stopped by mysterious dark forces).
To most characters of the genre, most of the obstacles put on Noodle’s path would be easily transposed: a smug Mario would likely eat a mushroom and laugh them off, while a sly Banjo would certainly make use of Kazooie to fly over them. With no arms and legs, though, Noodle’s life is a lot harder than that, for the simplest climbs and gaps need to be negotiated carefully; after all, it takes more than the press of a button that activates a jumping motion to get to the top of a totem as a snake. For that reason, Snake Pass is as much of a platformer as it is a puzzle game.
Sure, players will be exploring large natural scenarios that are as stunningly beautiful as they are colorful while being accompanied by a gorgeous soundtrack that – composed by the genius David Wise – matches and flawlessly captures that organic beauty. However, the usual action rhythm of platformers is replaced by a slow and meticulous pace, as Noodle will be constantly slithering across structures made up of wooden cylinders, forming jungle-gym-like set pieces that let him reach his goals.
Since Snake Pass is so blatantly unorthodox, it is to be expected that its controls be equally unusual, and that is undoubtedly the case. By pressing the R-button, players make Noodle go forward (and if they wish to be faster, all that it takes is performing constant sideways moves); meanwhile, the A-button is responsible for lifting the snake’s head, the control stick offers full 360-degree of that motion (which is what allows Noodle to curl around all sorts of cylindrical structures), and the L-button causes the character to tightly grip the object it is currently coiled around. The commands, therefore, are not numerous; moreover, they are able to take care of pretty much the entire motion one would expect from a snake. Still, in spite of the sensibility with which they grasp the idea of being a creature that is sheer crawling muscle, they are quite tough to learn.
The four worlds and fifteen levels that form the six-hour quest of Snake Pass, which can be greatly extended if players aim to collect all items scattered around the stages, are set up in a way that makes difficulty perfectly progressive. That means the game is able to remain challenging all the way through, starting with stages that are set up so that players can adapt to the controls and wrapping it all up with a trio of levels that are nothing short of brutal, a pleasant detail that makes Snake Pass a game whose challenge goes way beyond what its cuddly looks indicate. Yet, even though the levels are organized in a neat constantly rising difficulty curve, that hill is not perfectly aligned with the one formed by the learning curve of the controls.
What that causes is that at some point – which will appear earlier or later, depending on how experienced whoever is playing the game happens to be – Snake Pass will seem to ask more of players than what they are able to do, especially regarding the collecting of some optional items. Truth be told, if gamers keep at it, they will eventually be rewarded with getting their minds completely around the idea of how to make Noodle move through the twisted paths and climbs that Snake Pass will throw their way. Ascending that mountain, though, requires perseverance and patience, and – like all ordeals of the sort – mastering Noodle and acquiring the confidence that all of the game’s daring collectibles are within one’s reach is amazingly rewarding.
Speaking of collectibles, Snake Pass – borrowing a page from the collectathons on which its visuals and music were certainly inspired – has plenty of them. All stages require that Noodle amass three colorful keystones so that the gate to the next level is unlocked and he can proceed with restoring peace to Haven Tor, the realm in which he lives and whose tranquility has been destroyed by an unknown intruder. Additionally, each level holds twenty-five blue orbs and five golden coins. Sadly, differently from the keystones, those two collectibles have no specific purpose other than being necessary to achieve 100% completion.
Ultimately, what differentiates them, is that the golden coins tend to be either well-hidden or positioned in places that require a whole lot of skill to get to without causing Noodle to fall to his death; while the blue orbs, as more abundant items, tend to be easier to acquire (even if some of them are still quite hard to get to). Despite that lack of actual use, players who work hard to master the game will most certainly be drawn to the huge challenge that is getting them all, not only due to how Snake Pass is bursting with fantastic and never-seen-before level design, the latter of which being a quality that comes naturally for a game that is so original; but also because it is one of those titles that the more one plays it the better and more fun it gets.
As a game that holds lots of rewards for those who keep going for long enough, it is a shame Snake Pass does not make the learning process of players an experience that is devoid of frustration. In platformers, it is absolutely common to fall from the top of a tall structure that is hard to climb and have to start again; likewise, all of the greatest gems of the genre are filled with portions that need to be replayed if characters drop to their doom. Snake Pass is not different from those games; in fact, because of its unique concept and the novel controls that stem from that, it features more of those situations than the average platformer; however, much of the retreading could have been greatly minimized had the game offered more abundant and well-placed checkpoints.
The fact losing larger-than-ideal chunks of progress is common has ramifications that go beyond making the learning of the controls more frustrating, it affects the gathering of the collectibles itself, as the challenge of getting to coins and orbs that are harder to reach becomes more daunting than it already is. Snake Pass, thereby, could have gone a long way towards being far more accessible and pleasant if it had been more generous and thoughtful regarding that issue.
Given that matter, Snake Pass is a game that is easy to recommend, but as long as there is a large caveat attached to its back. By moving away from the bipedal characters that dominate the platforming landscape, the game is practically the discovery of a hidden subgenre, one that seamlessly mixes the challenges of getting across chasms, gathering items, and climbing to high places with the reasoning involved in puzzle games. It breaks away from the mold by forcing players – quite literally – to think and move like a snake, altering the way with which problems that are nearly as old as gaming itself need to be approached. Without its checkpoint-placement shortcomings, Snake Pass would be a game that could embrace all kinds of players, regardless of the paradigm-breaking it requires; with it, though, it becomes a title that asks for more patience and perseverance than it should. Those who endure, however, will be in for quite a treat.