Have you ever played a game whose mechanics just click for you? I'm sure you have — otherwise, why subject yourself to a medium that feels alien and uncomfortable to you, right?
Myself, I've spent the past 25 years or so in search of a game that manages to nail the art of grappling the way Bionic Commando on NES did. (That's grappling as in swinging on a wire and hook, not as in in-close wrestling with sweaty muscle dudes.) My love for that 8-bit classic is a matter of public record, mainly since I won't shut up about it, and that has everything to do with its wonderfully intuitive control scheme. Bionic Commando made the bold design choice of dropping the ability to jump from a genre that had revolved entirely around the idea of jumping since Mario leapt his first barrel, replacing that fundamental action with the need to master a grappling hook. It worked, because the NES game's mechanics worked so well — mastering the protagonist took some practice and required good timing, but the responsive controls and fluid movement made the process of building that mastery a pleasure.
No other grappling platform has managed to reproduce that same sense of ease and freedom that I felt in Bionic Commando. I always enjoy any game that attempts to make swinging a viable mechanic, though. Like Umihara Kawase/Yumi's Odd Odyssey, or Ninja Five-O. Those platformers lacked the fluidity of Capcom's mechanics, but they worked on their own merits by focusing on a more technical implementation of grappling — particularly Umihara Kawase, whose creator considers its physics a point of pride. But it hadn't been until I played Tribute Games' Flint Hook last week at E3 that I finally found a grapple-based platformer that felt immediately intuitive.
On its surface, Flint Hook could practically be a poster child for the default state of indie games. It's a 2D platformer with chunky retro graphics, a chiptune soundtrack, and procedurally generated levels in the tradition of the classic roguelike. But, like the best indie games, Flint Hook's creators didn't simply draw the line at making a retro-style platformer; there's a more concrete ethos behind it. Specifically, Flint Hook makes heavy use of that hook mentioned in its title; while the protagonist can make tiny little jumps like a normal platform hero, the real spirit of the action comes into play when you begin zipping around the screen by making use of his grappling wire. Unlike in many platformers which feature swinging mechanics, Flint Hook's variation can only attach to specific points in the scenery: Large golden rings, reminiscent of Simon Belmont using his whip to swing from anchor points in Super Castlevania IV. These rings appear in far greater numbers than in that older game, though, scattered throughout each screen of each dungeon to allow you to traverse, dodge, and maneuver rapidly.
It works wonderfully. Much as with Bloodstained, the secret behind Flint Hook's appeal has everything to do with the feel of its controls. The interface plays down precision and technical perfection in favor of speed and fluidity, and this does wonders for playability. You can fling your wire in any direction at any time, and when you do the hook traverses the screen almost instantly. It tends to be fairly forgiving about grabbing on to targets; as long as your aim brings the wire reasonably close to a ring, it'll connect. Once you do connect, you can zip up the wire; the focus isn't on swinging but rather on closing distances, and the wire fires off so responsively that you can effectively "fly" around the screen by chaining together grapples.
I spoke briefly to Flint Hook's creator at the show, and he confirmed that locking down not only the mechanics but above all the essence of play were his team's first priorities. Flint Hook's control interface succeeds in two respects: First, the grappling wire is near-instantaneous, which allows you to literally jump right in and immediately begin zipping around the screen like a pro. Perfect grapple navigation does require some timing and practice, but that process feels effortless and fun. Secondly, there's just the right amount of inertia to the player's movements. While the wire extends the instant you activate it, zipping along that wire to reach your connection involves a very slight start-up delay that lends the action a hint of weight and cartoonishness. It's a subtle effect, but as with Bloodstained perfectly honed Castlevania physics, that subtlety makes all the difference.
As mentioned above, these wonderfully honed control mechanics exist in service of a roguelike platformer. Flint Hook takes place across a series of futuristic pirate space ships which players invade and loot, and each ship consists (so far as I can tell) of a random array of rooms. The room interiors themselves are hand-crafted, designed to play up the grappling mechanics, but the overall layout of the ships — including the location of exits and the keys necessary to open them — changes from session to session. Given the brisk pace of the action, infinite procedural iterations is probably more practical in terms of sheer design necessity than a more structured world design would be. And, as excellently as Flint Hook plays, it's hard to complain about the possibility of experiencing the game with infinite variety.