If someone asked you to make a shortlist of likely candidates for themes to build an intricately complex hardcore video game experience around, "cartoon girl with a fishing rod wandering surreal dreamscapes of pencils and giant sea life" wouldn't come anywhere near the top 100. Space bros murdering aliens with rocket-powered chainsaw fists? Sure. Ninjas disemboweling japanesque demons amidst geysers of blood? Definitely. Grim police procedurals? For sure. But bizarre schoolgirl daydreams? No way.
And yet here we have Yumi's Odd Odyssey, which is precisely that. You control one of several young women equipped with nothing but a fishing line and sheer gumption as they navigate complex structures patrolled by freakish walking fish and other outsized marine life. The graphics have a colorful, superdeformed look to them; the music sports a jazzy, upbeat feel; photos of food scroll past in the background. It's weird, it's whimsical... and it's also self-esteem-crushingly hard.
At the heart of Yumi's odyssey is a devastatingly complex grappling mechanic. Inspired by games like Bionic Commando, the intricacy of the grappling and swinging has been the calling card of Yumi's adventures through the years — the feature that truly sets them apart from other, ostensibly similar titles. The elasticity of the fishing line that serves as Yumi's grappling wire makes for some of the trickiest 2D platforming action ever devised, because your wire doesn't just send you swinging back and forth beneath a grappling point in a simple arc. You bounce; you wobble; you snap as you swing. Your momentum vanishes quickly, forcing you to enhance your actions by reeling your line in or out. Where grappling in most games works on a single axis, Yumi must content with multiple axes of motion, along with a detailed model of kinetic motion. Series creator Kiyoshi Sakai once told me that the game's aesthetic was designed to evoke the daydreams of a schoolgirl; one can only assume these daydreams are taking place during physics class.
You will quickly come to realize that you can't get anywhere in Yumi's Odd Odyssey without mastering the ins and outs of your grappling wire. In short order, the odd conglomerations of blocks and bricks that comprise the game's world take on more elaborate configurations. Slippery surfaces send you flying in unwanted directions as friction drops to zero. Conveyer belts create moving scenery for your fish hook to snag onto. And all the while, those gargantuan fish wander back and forth, rarely actively hostile but nevertheless deadly to the touch, confronting you with a dynamic hazard to be avoided at all costs.
In its way, Yumi's Odd Odyssey belongs to the same school of game design as N+, Super Meat Boy, and VVVVVV: High-friction platformers consisting of increasingly difficult action sequences divided into small, self-contained challenges. The action unfolds across dozens of stages, and each one tracks the number of times you've completed it, your record time, and (alas) how many failed attempts you've made. The further you venture into the game, the larger those latter two numbers grow... especially the death counter.
What sets Yumi's adventure apart from her similarly demanding contemporaries is that the challenge rarely comes from surprises or "gotcha" design tricks. Instead, you're forced to master a very complex yet consistent set of mechanics across a huge array of stages that put the physics of the game to the test in different ways. Like the best hard games, every time you fail in this game, you come away with the understanding that you fell short, not the mechanics or controls. You didn't slingshot yourself far enough; you got cocky and forgot to watch for the massive guppy that was patrolling the lower platform, just out of sight; your reach exceeded your grasp and you tried to collect that bonus backpack sitting on a tantalizing ledge before you'd built up sufficient skill to grapple to that point; or any number of other platforming disasters that result from your woeful inadequacy as a grappler.
The incongruity of such a daunting and technical platformer with such frivolous aesthetics makes Yumi's Odd Odyssey a hard sell. That's a big part of the game's appeal, though; for nearly 20 years, this series has done its own idiomatic thing, regardless of salability or mass appeal. Despite its legacy and the backing of an established publisher in Natsume, though, Yumi's Odd Odyssey projects the confident quirkiness of an indie game. It won't be to everyone's tastes, but if you don't mind a little cutesiness in your crushingly difficult platformers, you'll find plenty to love here.
- Visuals: Pretty low-rent, but they're not meant to be fancy – just functional. Their simplicity never interferes with the complex game mechanics.
- Sound: So mellow and upbeat they're like to drive you a little crazy, though you can unlock "retro" tracks that diffuse the lite jazz feel with Super NES sound fonts.
- Interface: Frankly, the game's interface elements are butt-ugly, but their bare-bones look reinforces the no-nonsense nature of the gameplay.
- Lasting Appeal: If you're the kind to fall for highly technical platformers, Yumi's Odd Odyssey will hook you. Simply completing the courses is a rigorous challenge, but then there are the hidden collectibles and alternate exits, which demand even greater skill. And if your constant failures don't make you feel lousy enough, you can always compare your completion times to those on the leaderboards....
As challenging as it is strange, Yumi's Odd Odyssey seems doomed to obscurity thanks both to its aesthetics and its quiet release onto eShop. It deserves notice, though. It's the first U.S. release of a long-running cult series from Japan, and – more importantly – it's loads of challenging fun.