I absolutely adore beautiful games. Mechanics are important, don’t get me wrong; a game can be as beautiful as the sun rising over a forested mountain range in the distance while morning dew catches its rays, but if it plays like a piece of my neighbor’s cat feces in my front yard…well, the smell ruins the experience, if you know what I mean. When I was preparing my schedule for PAX Prime this year, I was approached by a peddler of wares and pitched on a handful of titles to see at the event. The one that grabbed my attention the most right off the bat was a little game called…Harold.
Given my hook about beautiful games, it should not require a master detective to deduce why Harold gripped my imagination so vividly when it was pitched to me. It’s obvious that Harold was so fascinating because of its hard-hitting story about the struggles of the living and the responsibilities of those who have passed on into the great unknown.
Oh, it is also a game designed by a man who absolute adores Chuck Jones, and a staff of animators whose resumes include Pixar, Dreamworks, Studio Ghibli, and a little place called Disney. To be perfectly honest, it was the Disney bit that hooked me. I absolutely love Disney 2D animation, and I couldn’t wait to see how it would look on a console. Short answer: good.
Long answer: Loris Malek, the man with the plan at Moon Spider Studio, spent a good 15 minutes of his 45 minute presentation of Harold (including my gameplay time) discussing his idea for blending 2D and 3D graphics, art, and animations into a game so visually appealing that you couldn’t help but be curious. He spoke of Chuck Jones with a passion that was not inappropriate, but almost reverent, and showed me (in slow motion) how classic Chuck Jones animations influenced the physics and style of Harold. Many of these details were easy to miss at full speed, such as Harold’s body stretching to non-human lengths when a speed boost was used (not unlike the Roadrunner), but all of them contributed to the aesthetic feel of the game.
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Loris also made a case for his push for both 2D and 3D animation and art in the game, claiming to have pulled the best qualities of each style and to have blended them into a visual feast. The character models are in 3D, and the background has a great depth and feel to it, while the platform itself is 2D, along with much of the game’s art. There will be many elements that fans of classic Looney Tunes will find familiar, such as the instructional drawings (the hand, the crankwheel, the mallet, and more), and a great deal more for any fan of animation to appreciate.
Now that I’ve spieled about the beauty of the title, let’s have a chat about the second part: mechanics. In Harold, you do not really control Harold. A stereotypical lanky nerd, Harold enjoys footraces (a break with stereotype). He is, unfortunately, not the best equipped for success in such an endeavor. That’s where your actual player character appears, in the form of an invisible guardian angel named Gabe. Your responsibility is to manipulate the obstacles in Harold’s path to both help him succeed and to hinder the progress and success of the other racers on the track. To put it bluntly, you are environmental control.
Harold contains 12 tracks, with each track having multiple paths to the end of the race depending on how you choose to play. Additionally, each track has a “real shortcut” that launches you forward in the race faster than you could achieve on the other routes by way of a cinematic, but which requires exploration and timing to achieve. A lot of inspiration was taken from Super Mario 64. Anyone can beat Super Mario 64, and anyone can beat Harold (by coming in at least 3rd place in every race). Only the truly dedicated, however, have managed to find all 120 stars in Super Mario 64 (I did it on the original and on the DS version), and the same will hold true for Harold. The design of the levels definitely invites repeated play to improve your performance. Stuck on a track, and unable to get up to first place? Check out the game’s leaderboards to see uploaded videos of the most successful runs and learn from those who have gone before you.
Harold is the first game coming out of the Florida based developer Moon Spider Studio. It is expecting a 2013 release for XBLA, PSN, and Steam. Make sure to check it out. It is a sunrise without my neighbor’s cats, beautiful and functional.