Your Weekly Kusoge
At this point in the industry's history, games that pay homage to old school design aren't so much a trend as they are a feature that's here to stay. The style has affected all spheres equally, whether it's indie games like Shovel Knight or Hotline Miami, or games from larger studios like Dark Souls or Final Fantasy: The Four Heroes of Light. Despite how prolific they've become, though, it's hard to argue that any of them perfectly embody the type of games they long after.
In fact, they can't. All they can ever do is render their own vision of the past through a modern, very subjective lens. Now this need not be a bad thing; in fact, it often serves as a source of strength. At its best, you end up with something like Shovel Knight.
At its worst, you end up with a game like Maria the Witch. Now the game may not look all that offensive at first - if anything, it looks like a simple yet competent homage to Studio Ghibli films - but anybody who's played the game to completion can tell you just how well the game combines the worst of both worlds. From old school games, it borrows the overly punitive design; from modern games, the exploitative strategies of the worst free-to-play games. Beneath Maria's whimsical and child-friendly veneer lies a cynical, empty video game.
Perhaps that's why the game makes such a strong effort effort to accentuate that veneer. According to the (almost assuredlyfake) reviews it cites, the game's most defining feature is the Ghibli-esque art style it employs. There is some truth in that statement. Sure, Maria may not capture the nuance that Ghibli's films are often known for, but at the very least, it knows how to capture their fanciful charm. The backdrops' soft colors and painted texture give the game a sort of fairytale charm, like you've just opened up an old storybook from your childhood. The exuberant smile plastered on Maria's face certainly backs that up, and at least at first glance, the gameplay would appear to do the same.
Maria's premise is a simple one: steer the girl through fantasy settings, deliver any mail you find, and guide her to the end of the stage without getting hit. What sets the game apart is its two-button control scheme: one button sends Maria to the left, the other to the right. You can make her ascend or even spin in circles depending on how long you hold the button. In practice, this control scheme feels like an awkward mix between QWOP and Flappy Bird, but in theory, it's easy to see what the mechanic was supposed to evoke: the boundless, carefree freedom of flying through the air without a worry in the world. This would have fit in well with the ethos Maria was already trying to promote.
If that was the intent, though, then the surrounding design does a terrible job of executing on it. Despite all the imagination the setting promises, the actual game can't imagine anything better than jumping through hoops. For example, the claustrophobic level design precludes any sort of meaningful exploration, or at least exploration you undertake for its own sake. You can either shoot straight through to the end or you can poke around to collect letters and coins. There is no in between. Why would you want to perform these tasks? The game never answers that question, because it assumes that collection is a goal worth pursuing in its own right. In the absence of anything that might contextualize these activities as fun, though, Maria quickly deteriorates into hollow drudgery. Just keep pushing through those levels, no matter how many times you fail. You'll eventually get your reward (assuming the constant rehearsal isn't its own reward).
Maria the Witch is hardly unique in this regard. In fact, it's not that difficult to find games promoting this exact same work ethic, promising their players that good things come to those who put in the effort. Within the past decade or so, the promise has been corrupted by companies looking to exploit players through the free to play model. (That's not to say it's an inherently corrupt mode; just that it has a history of abuse.) Although Maria confusingly lacks any form of in-app purchases, the game's structure borrows enough of the worst free-to-play hallmarks that it's easy to include this game alongside them. There are the obvious parallels, like the two separate forms of in-game currency: stars, which are used to unlock later levels, and coins, which are used to unlock checkpoints and also later levels. Making those similarities all the more explicit is the fact that the game doesn't provide you enough coins to unlock later levels. (Fortunately, you don't need the coins for that purpose; you can either use them or the stars.) And then there's the lottery feature which lets you enter the level with one randomly selected power-up. Half of those power-ups are basic features which the game presents as challenge modifiers.
However, Maria's shady nature manifests more clearly in the subtler aspects of its design. The game has all sorts of tricks to keep your attention locked on the screen while making you think you're in control of how you engage the game. It uses short iteration cycles so you're more likely to play it for one more round. It keeps complexity to a minimum because doing so makes playing the game for a little bit a viable option. It piles goal atop goal so that even after you beat a level, you'll always have something else to do. It gives you shortcuts and then punishes you for using them, allowing it to appear completely fair while making the game more challenging (and thus keeping you more strongly locked into the action). With the exception of that last point, all of these points may be considered ideals that any game should strive for in any other context. In this context, though, it feels disrespectful. It's like the game is preying on the player's desire for success by manipulating them with all these ploys they may never know about. Maria the Witch isn't the kind of game you play because you enjoy it. It's the kind of game you play because you feel a compulsion to do so.
All of this is only compounded by the downright spiteful difficulty within these levels. In fact, it's hard to imagine any purpose that difficulty might serve other than elongating your time with the game. It certainly doesn't make the game more enjoyable. Many of the levels expect the sort of mathematical precision that only a robot would be able to deliver. They ask you to navigate tight bends and narrow openings the game's mechanics aren't built to handle. On top of that, they ask for quick reactions and periods of slow waiting - two more things Maria wasn't built to accommodate. Failure is inevitable. Each death you suffer moves the game one step away from whatever joy might have been left in it and one step toward tedium. By the end of the game, Maria drops all pretenses and the levels become little more than memory challenges nobody could complete on their first try. Lego blocks zoom toward you in the time it takes to blink. Others swing down on you with the swiftness of a guillotine.
Whatever the case may be, Maria the Witch amounts to a collection of incoherences. Despite billing itself as an imaginative journey, it's obvious the game was born as the result of cold calculation. And for as much as it alludes to a fantastical world of boundless, childlike freedom, the game so strictly controls how you play and is so harsh in its punishment that these promises remain unfulfilled. This isn't to say that the game's ideals aren't worth chasing after. In fact, it would be uplifting to see a game that truly embodies them. Unfortunately, Maria the Witch is not such a game.