The right things to be retro about can be found in the most unusual places, which is why we’re lucky to have idiosyncratic Jonas Kyratzes, of marginal indie fame and the more well-known The Talos Principle. For Omegaland, his newest project, he taps into the browser-based flash game heydays. In a press release, he remembers:
“We had very limited resources, usually working on our own or in extremely small teams, and also had to deal with pretty severe size constraints. But there was also a tremendous amount of creativity, and surprisingly enthusiastic audiences even for some pretty weird material.”
For me, and maybe my entire graduating class, it was playing flash games, preferably on a hidden screen, or between classes. (Nobby Nuss, Save the Sheriff, and various oddities on Miniclip come to mind.) These were fun times because there wasn’t as much competition to get a game seen, or to make a game brilliant, so the creativity of designers was expressed through a more relaxed, personal vocabulary than they are today.
Omegaland then has the added challenge of communicating the environment or context that gives its appeal to people who weren’t as familiar with flash games. No easy feat. Well, sort of easy. Jonas, again: “I want people to approach it without hype, just looking for a fun little distraction. And if they find that it contains a bit more than they expected, then yay.”
So is the best way to play Omegaland is by stumbling upon it in the Steam store? Obviously, it won’t be puncturing too many filter bubbles people slowly build on Steam. Too bad because it simulates a mediocre yet perfectly delightful flash Mario clone that can still serve as a pleasant distraction, just the same.
‘Lazy’ programming jokes speckle the travels, for example in the two character choices “Patrick,” or “Patricia”: we deduce later that this is to accommodate the level complete sign, the highly personalized “Well done, Pat!”; or the default milliseconds counting down the invincibility star in the top left — the star, like the most aesthetics, seemingly cribbed from the closest source, i.e., Super Mario Bros. Pre-set songs jump around the spectrum of peppy, epic, and slow, all sit with each other like the levels do, like a child mixing cold cereal. All this corner cutting and carefully tuned naivety makes the player sculpt the image of an endearingly new game designer, the voice of which is deliberately crafted by Jonas Kyratzes. If it was just a clone of a Mario clone after all, it wouldn’t be worth writing about.
Fun, yes, but it has more going for it than just that. There is an overworld map, like in Zelda II: The Adventures of Link, that makes it feel all very vast and like an adventure. Due to the nature of the game, this always feels impressive, like finding a box is bigger on the inside. Younger me would have savored the agency I feel as an adult by walking those miles.
The game does try to challenge the player, too, not only in the way Mario-like games do, but in a more speculative way. I’m not just talking about the Saussure joke, but the way it uses the context it builds to vault itself into stranger territory, where the logical rules of good game design and the lore become more reflexive, ambiguous, and less transparent. It won’t make a retro flash game revival, (unfortunately,) but anyone who is interested in the way games can use anti-aesthetics to send a message will have fun thinking about, and playing Omegaland.
Disclaimer: I received Omegaland as a free copy from the developers to write about it. I have played it for 3 hours. You can buy it on steam for $2.99.