Backflip Madness warns players that it features stunts performed by professionals that should not be tried at home. The message is tongue-in-cheek, but it’s a warning the game itself should have followed.
The premise is great: you are a gymnast performing increasingly difficult flips onto a target. If you land in the target area, you score points and move on to the next jump. Miss, and you slam into the ground spewing particle-effect blood.
The jumps start out simple, with your gymnast leaping over himself on the street. Then you’re jumping off a park bench, or a van, or stacked cargo containers, or into a narrow alley from a three-story building. You’ll gain experience points and unlock new ways to jump until you’re leaping from rock to rock in a canyon in ways that would make a mountain goat hurl.
The jumping system is simple and intuitive. You choose which body positions you’ll use, then tap the “action button” to start the jump. Each tap moves you to the next body position, from crouching to pushing off to the different parts of the flip itself. Where you go and how you land is determined entirely by timing and physics.
The game works well as a tech demo, and we have no doubt that the developer could get a job just by letting a potential employer play it. Unfortunately, it’s not a very good game.
Everything outside of the physics engine lacks polish. The background graphics are crude. The menus and score reports are basic text with no formatting or graphic flair. And while there’s a certain dark humor to watching your gymnast flop around like a rag doll after a failed jump, the lack of any independent motion highlights your avatar’s lack of personality. The game feels lifeless and sterile.
The level design does offer some good challenges, and the initial tutorial competently teaches you the basics of the game. You’re on your own after the tutorial, though. The game never explains how to use the new moves when you unlock them. There’s a free play mode, but no pointers or examples.
There are so many ways that the game could provide more than physics simulation and scoring. It could provide an overview of the trickier jumps, so you don’t have to jump blind just to find out where the target is. The “very easy” difficulty could have highlighted optimum button timing, but all it does is give you more lives and slow the action down. (That said, it’s a lot of fun to watch your gymnast slam into walls and trees in slow motion.) Even a help screen explaining the scoring would be nice, but there’s no help at all.
Some people may call this kind of guidance “handholding,” or knock graphic polish as an unnecessary extra– but it’s not. It’s an important part of making a game into an experience lots of people love instead of a game a few people might enjoy. The Super Mario games are legendary not just because platforming is fun, but because they’re full of character and teach you exactly what you need to know as you play.
Backflip Madness seems to be a one-man effort, and we don’t want to be harsh on it. What’s good in the game is very good. But imagine how good it would have been with a user experience designer and an art director working on it. We’re the last people who would tell developers, “don’t try this at home,” but Backflip Madness shows why every part of a game should be built by a professional.