Game design 101: when designing a game, make sure that any and all physics make complete and utter sense. Unless your game is going for the opposite effect, then try to make sure that anything that happens actually happens because reality.
Kula World skims this line and treads the ground in between making sense and none at all. And when it does make sense, it’s purely to get YOU, the player, into some sort of bother. When it doesn’t make sense… it’s purely to get YOU, the player into some other sort of bother.
Suffice to say that within no time at all, you will be immensely frustrated at Kula World, an early 3D puzzler from a Swedish developer for the original Playstation. And although it fared pretty well when it was released, gaining a plethora of acclaimed reviews from different sources and whatnot, it is difficult to see what the appeal was.
Time has not been kind to this game.
Essentially, Kula World is a puzzle game taken place in the middle of the sky where you are a beach ball (I AM NOT FUCKING KIDDING YOU – because why would I be? It’s the 90s. That decade was weird…) and the concept is to traverse the sky-based landscapes finding fruit, coins, keys and the exit in order to receive an emboss-effect WELL DONE in the sky as you are taken to yet another sky-based maze in the sky for you to fall off of and suffer the consequences of LOST POINTS.
LOST POINTS. THE PAIN.
The sheer horror, people.
And that’s pretty much it. You’re bouncing about like a proper beach ball on blocks in the sky, following paths, traversing against gravity by rolling up the walls and upside down and wondering whether Isaac Newton is in fact rolling in his grave as he wonders quite what the fuck is even up with this shit.
Considering the game is 22 years old by now, the main look of the game is still reasonably good. The ball, items and blocks look nice enough, even though there’s not a huge amount of detail to them, and the soundtrack complements the game very nicely. There’s an odd mix of calming ditties and stirring, wind-coated beats interspersed with some rave elements in the bonus stages but none of it feels wrong or out of place.
Presentation-wise, back in the day, this was actually a pretty solid example of how to do a puzzle game in 3D without looking like arse.
The backgrounds cannot be treated in the same way though. These are not backgrounds, they are jpeg picture plastered in the background and the quality of them is actually quite poor now. Yeah, it’s not the be all and end all of it, but seeing a pixellated background looking murky and dirty as you roll a Skegness beach ball around in the sky can be a bit off-putting. I mean, particularly if you think about it like I just did. It’s perfunctory for the type of game it is, I mean. You want decent graphics in a puzzle game and you’re really barking up the wrong genre in general. I shouldn’t complain too much.
But fuck it. I will. And I’m gonna.
The game begins off serenely and calmly enough by abruptly starting you off with a simple enough GO COLLECT THINGS AND DON’T FUCK IT UP type of tutorial level… without actually explaining it’s a tutorial. It is one of those games where you’re given the training wheels and held by the hand for a little while. There’s no real exposition to it or any actual explanation as to why you’re doing it or how to even go about it. I mean… really, it’s just a ‘jump right in’ kind of experience that feels very… unusual. There’s no sense of what you’re doing or whether you’re even doing it right. You have the same kind of objective each time – that being the collect the keys type of ‘objective’ that is pretty much a commonplace way of saying “we couldn’t come up with anything better than this but it’s a puzzle game so fuck you” – and after a while… that’s really all that even matters. There are coins and fruit to collect but let’s be clear here… collecting the fruit doesn’t do much except give you a fucking bonus level to get even more points.
“PUZZLE GAMES ARE ALL ABOUT POINTS – LET’S GIVE THEM ALL POINTS!”
“WHAT WILL THEY DO FOR FUN?”
“COLLECT MORE POINTS!”
“THIS IS GENIUS. WE SHOULD MAKE MORE GAMES.”
They actually didn’t.
(At least not for the Playstation…)
Now they did manage to throw in a few more game mechanics than just collecting coins for points and/or fruit for extra points. They dotted some timers around the field that turn over the sand timer – which can, of course, be massively detrimental if you turn one over at the start of the level and end up with 5 seconds left because I’m an idiot and keep fucking picking it up, DUMBASS. The second thing they threw in were some pills. Now… in my head, initially, I’m thinking these pills are clearly for health regeneration…
At least until I remember that a beach ball has no health and the only things that tend to kill the beach ball are falling off, spikes and the hot panels in the later levels that melt the ball…
Health is not a thing.
SURPRISE TRIP-OUT IMMINENT.
Yeah, the pills make the screen go into a serious disorienting trip, the game go into slow-motion mode and the timer go twice as fast as normal.
They’re red and yellow pills, I should have fucking known about that. But NOOOOOOO, here’s me thinking a fucking beach ball would have a health bar or something.
It’s not a game-breaking mechanic by any stretch but given they’re best avoided for time purposes, the only reason you would do that to yourself is to experience the weird trippy sound effect you get when you collect one and the tinny, blocked-ear music droning away in the background like you genuinely just went from zero to drunk in one second flat, without the cries of “you’re my besht mate, John… John? John! John… you… are my besht… mate,” followed perhaps less entrancingly by a puking noise.
Paint the picture more vividly, why don’t you?
Controls-wise, we aren’t looking at anything super exciting. The ball moves beautifully and fluidly and there’s more than enough responsiveness to your button taps throughout the game. The jumping feels right and the physics and weight of the ball feel spot on… even though the beach ball goes upside down and leftside up and downside right and all that bollocks… I’m guessing here now but… magnets? I dunno. It just shouldn’t happen and yet it does. Fucking hell.
Unfortunately… there’s really no more to it than that. And back in 1995, that was fine. Genuinely, that was actually fine. I used to enjoy this game. It frustrated me and compelled me in ways I wasn’t expecting. I rented the damn thing twice because I enjoyed it so much. The only other game I did that to was Soul Blade because mum wouldn’t let me buy it as it was rated 15 and wanted to see what it was like. She said it was fine in the end because there wasn’t any blood and I wasn’t likely to use any swords or staffs or whatnot because we didn’t have any so she seemed content enough. I was also 14 at the time so PFFFFT.
Kula World WAS good. It WAS a lot of fun. And it could still be… if it hadn’t aged so badly and been surpassed by other better puzzle games or actually… been fun.
And that’s the problem I have with it: why WAS it fun? What made this game fun back then? The uniqueness of it? The fact that it’s such a weird concept of seeing a beach ball tootle around a blocky maze in the middle of the sky?
Or is it actually because deep down, behind it all, it’s actually far more charming than anything else?
HOLY SHIT. I’M CRITICISING A GAME THAT I THINK HAS CHARM.
And yes… that level of charm is all well and good because you’re moving around a beach ball that’s totally unique to this game and it’s a beautifully presented game (or it was at the time) and the calming, yet uplifting soundtrack doesn’t impede upon the game but matches it stride for stride and all of that. I mean, it is glorious to listen to and there’s so much going for it.
But fuck me is it boring as fuck to play now.
Catastrophically, the game has withered over time. Playing it again was a dire, dull, unfun experience and those kind of things make me very weary. I couldn’t even put my finger on what it was that irked me so. The monotony of it? The frustration of it again? Thinking back, I remember getting to levels and being very cerebral about the way I played it and realising that the trial and error style of completing a level was part and parcel of the game itself. If you missed a jump the first time, you suffered the minor penalty of losing points until you had no more to give. It was actually a pretty neat little system because it required you to earn those points – it gave them a purpose. I mean, think back to Nanotek Warrior’s review where there’s absolutely NO REASON to do anything other than jump over everything. Instead, here, the points actually could be used for something helpful – it allowed you to play for longer.
But fuck me, I don’t want to.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the game at all. It plays well, it’s solidly built and for a first game developed by any company, this is actually a pretty fine game to put on your resume. It is a shame that the company ended up doing other things but even if people said “MAKE A SEQUEL TO THIS GAME,” I doubt there’d be much reason for it. I mean… what could they add to the game that would make it better? Tighten up some graphics, add more levels… an extra power-up or two… maybe… but besides that, you’re kind of at a loose end. It feels like there’s no more to the game and I think that’s part of the problem. If you discuss the idea of the game with people… eventually you would all come back to the idea that there’s no more to it than what it is. It’s… done. This is the finished product. There’s nothing more you can do it to to improve it… surely.
I’m not entirely sure I’m quite getting my point across with this review. I don’t think I’ve been quite so positive with a review and still said not to play it because it’s crap.
I’m not SAYING it’s crap. What I’m saying is it used to be fun. Today… it is not fun. It doesn’t inspire the same level of fun or excitement that it did back when I first played it. It all feels quite cheap and cheerful, save for the cheer because I don’t think I can quite remember cheering much when I played it this time.
Poor, poor Kula World.
It might be Kula in the sky… but it’s just… not… Kula…
Sod it. This isn’t making a decent pun.