I almost missed Underland. No press releases, no personal recommendations. I was just scrolling the Nintendo eShop one day and luckily it stood out – a strange 2D affair with graphics that took me back to the days of the BBC Micro and games like Exile – spacesuited figures alone in caves, the whole thing rendered magical by the limited colour palette. This is a video game, but for people of a certain age it feels specifically like a computer game.
Exile is sort of close, I think. That was the first game I remember playing that had meaningful physics, not that I realised that at the time. Underland is also a physics playground. I’m so glad I found this wonderfully odd game. I’m so glad I didn’t miss it.
Underland is a game about getting from A to B. Again and again across its ingenious challenges you have to move your little guys from the starting platform to the finish line. What you do in between though is where it gets interesting. You’re deep underground. Solid rock might block your path. Lurid green toxic goop might be waiting to cause trouble. And of course, you might blow yourself up, each death announced with a polite popping sound.
Things start simply. Maybe you need to use your circular drilling guy to chug through a wall so you can get your people to safety. Maybe you need to just hop over a pool of toxic death and you’re on your way. But soon it’s all far knottier. There’s a dip in the ceiling you can’t duck past, but you can see behind the dip there’s a pool of that bright green acid. So drill through it? But then it just splashes around on the ground. So maybe drill down first, but then your drill is stuck down below and can’t be of any more use.
Underland is quick to throw in new toys. Little RC TNT carts that can be buzzed into position and then detonated. Funny little funnel numbers that will transport goop from one point to another. After about fifteen minutes of playing I found my first level with a canon.
But these things are so much fun to use because they are in the service of a game that has very clear objectives, and which manages to wring a lot of possibility from its cramped stages. Even when the easy solution is clear, I find myself using the tools at my disposal to try and hack a more complex win together. With acid sloshing and earth disappearing behind meshed teeth, Underland is just a lot of fun to play around with.
More than that, though, there’s that compelling fiction it shares with the likes of Exile. Far from home, deep underground, the soundtrack a menacing distorted muddle of echoes and distant thudding. Underland – you’re brilliant. I am so glad we found each other.
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