Saturday Morning RPG is Traditionalist Retro Gaming Done Right

Meet Martin “Marty” Michael Hall, a ordinary high school kid with a remarkable ability to turn the mundane into magic. Marty’s story begins much in the same way many of our own teenage fantasies start — in our dreams. As Marty falls asleep, his dream is shaped by a TV show featuring the villain Commander Hood. Marty’s mind intercepts the stimulation from the show, casting him the protagonist in battle with Commander Hood: kidnapper of Samantha – the girl literally of Marty’s dreams – and proponent of shotgun-styled weddings. After getting his ass kicked, a witty wizard sporting an ultra hip demeanor bestows Marty with an “ancient artifact” that can take down Commander Hood – a ’80s styled Trapper Keeper.

Saturday Morning RPG’s emphasis on the old-school Trapper Keeper as Marty’s – and therefore the player’s – source of power mimics the mobile industry’s values in spite of the AAA console market. The Trapper Keeper represents tradition, a return to form, as power. The use of pixel animation makes SMRPG traditionalist. If you want, think neo-noir, only as Tom Auxier pointed out, the lines of influence are clearer for us videogame folk to see than for audiences to see in a movie like Brick, for example. And as Christopher Nolan, a traditionalist in his own right has proven through use of film over digital, utilizing an outdated form can be an effective tool toward innovation and creativity if done well and without a total neglect of modern benefits.

Marty’s magic notebook is fashioned with customizable Scratch-N-Sniff stickers that yield additional benefits to speed, defense, attack and magic depending on how fast you can flick a finger back and forth on the screen. With just one finger, SMRPG finds that elusive, almost mythical, JRPG clitoris. One that hasn’t been stimulated in years, mind you. Tap the screen to select the Indiana Jones inspired satchel containing floppy discs, basketballs, joysticks, Transformers look-a likes and Michael Jackson’s rhinestone glove. Tap the screen again to target an enemy and once more to hit at the exact moment for maximum damage. The same goes for defense. Simple and effective, yes; but more importantly it is inclusive. I feel connected to the action and consequently become a participant whose mental and physical reactions mean the difference between game start and game over, and more importantly between Marty and Samantha.

The episodic nature of cartoons allows the season to be digested slowly and thoughtfully. Using the benefits of iOS and the App Store, Mighty Rabbit plans to release SMRPG as a season, with several episodes scheduled throughout the year. These episodes can be played in any order, with stats and inventory carrying over between each as you play. Releasing the game in episodes fosters a situation where gamers feel compelled to play at a much slower and methodical pace, rather than racing through the game and bragging about their speed online.

Blame it on the platform limitations, or on the title’s humble funding through Kickstarter, but SMRPG isn’t interested in dazzling audiences with visual spectacle. Instead the aesthetic choices affect the narrative. For instance, the pixilated NES style smashed against stylistic polygonal backdrop sets the stage for nostalgia (while still appearing flattering on the iPhone’s retina display), taking us back to a simpler time before cable television stole cartoons from Saturday and redistributed them across the week like a Robin Hood of animation. The pastels breathe life into the tongue-in-cheek characters of SMRPG, like the school faculty who insist they “are not soldiers” and will “totally kill you” for not flushing your toots. Several characters resemble actual Saturday morning cartoons and 80s pop culture icons, such as the Transformers, Michael Jackson and The Karate Kid, but with subtle differences to avoid copyright issues.

The retro movement has been criticized as anti-progressive, faux-innovative and nostalgic for no other reason than being nostalgic. SMRPG should serve as an example that derails this thought train to expensive roadside waste, as every bit of its nostalgia and retro design serve a purpose to create an experience grounded in tradition while still taking advantage of the technologies mobile gaming has to offer. Perhaps its most notable difference is in the soundtrack, where audio mixing can be tricky on mobile devices because of limited asset space. Think of it like this, a music album is about 3MB per track, while the limit of apps for over-the-air download is 20MB – hardly any room at all for a soundtrack to breath and impress. Perhaps this is the reason why many retro games imitate lo-fi NES soundtracks, but SMRPG is different. It succeeds on a musical level by enlisting the ’80 certified talents of Vince DiCola (Rocky IV, Transformers: The Animated Movie) and Kenny Meriedeth (Duck Tales, Power Rangers). The result is a tangy re-imagination not possible by retro-imitation. Wearing the standard Apple earphones, I found the lows thundering, the mids clear and the highs crispy. There is an undeniably retro feel in the soundtrack, but aside from one Transformers: The Animated Movie reject, it’s all modern stuff played by guys who helped shape your animated adventures in the ‘80s.

It’s not all good in the hood, though, as the controls suffer the same fate of most mobile games. Touching anywhere on the screen produces a virtual analog stick that follows your finger. Sounds easy enough, but the lack of multi-touch to hold two points at once makes for some clunky maneuvers as your finger eventually slides too far to the side of the phone. What’s more, for a game as intuitive as SMRPG there’s an unnecessary and annoying amount of tutorial. In a title where exploration is encouraged, it feels as if you’re not so much in the wild as you are in a city park with your parents. The most authentic aspect of the controls — at least for the dudes — is the ability to play with one hand while the other rests cozily inside your pajama bottoms like your mom used to scold you for while watching cartoons.

Saturday Morning RPG is traditionalist retro gaming done right. Rather than retro for retro’s sake, SMRPG is a videogame for videogames’s sake. That is, SMRPG uses a traditional lens to frame a modern take on a stale genre without screwing with the underlying principles gamers love about JRPGs.