Sunday, January 3, 2016

Review: Spinster

Note: Awhile back, I offered to review any game if the developer sent me a review copy. Surprisingly, someone took me up on that offer. If you want to support Spinster, you can go to its Steam Greenlight page and vote for it.

Okay, so there's this game called Snake, and it is, like Tetris, one of those primal, elemental games so elegant and minimalist in its mechanics that it's hard to imagine it was the work of human design. Like, with just a few blocky pixels, it still manages to perfectly communicate both its basic mechanics and the scope of what's possible with mastery to the degree that it seems less like it was invented and more like it was received from some Platonic realm of essential gameness.

The way Snake works (or at least, the way it did on the QBASIC version I played years ago) is that you start off as a square on a blank screen. At some random point on the screen, a square of a different color appears. By use of the directional buttons, you can steer your square into this other square. If you do, you gain some points, a new colored square appears at some random point on the screen, and your square gains a tail (basically, an additional square that follows your front square's path). The more squares you collect, the longer your tail becomes. If, at any point, you steer into your tail or the edge of the screen, you lose the game. At certain point thresholds, you would advance to later levels, which would have additional obstacles you had to navigate around.

The basic elevator pitch for Spinster would be "Snake, but with cats."  Instead of being a square, you are the titular Spinster, and instead of finding other squares to collect, you are rounding up your 101 stray cats. It's a cute idea, and when you are running through the world of Downton Tabby with a trail of cats behind you, it does indeed look as adorable as it sounds.

However, Spinster is more than just a Snake reskin. It also has a strong exploration element. Your missing cats are scattered around a large map that starts off in a suburban home and goes through parks, city streets, a graveyard, and a shopping mall. Scattered through this map are minigames, visual jokes, and secret unlockables.

It is at this point that I must confess that I am probably the wrong person to review Spinster. I played it for about 5 or 6 hours, and I was just terrible. My high score was 8 out 101 cats, and I completely failed to unlock any of the alternate gameplay challenges like night mode, zombies, or alien invaders. I did feel like I was improving over time, and maybe with another 10-20 hours, I might have gotten halfway decent, but my reaction time is slow, so it would have been an uphill battle the whole way.

With that caveat in mind, I have to say that Spinster's combination of classic Snake gameplay and open-world exploration has potential, but has not quite zeroed in on the exact formula that will make it its own, unique fusion of its inspirational sources. As it is, the sometimes conflicting needs of its two constituent genres can often work to the detriment of both.

Taken as a variation on Snake, Spinster undermines the earlier game's built-in difficulty curve. Because your trickiest obstacle in Snake was always your own tail, it was inherent to the game's basic mode of play that it start off relatively easy and get harder as time went on. In Spinster, you have to worry about things like household objects, trees, and moving cars, and because the placement of the cats in the map is random, you can start the game with some very tricky maneuvers to perform, regardless of the fact that you haven't had time to build up a tail.

Similarly, Spinster doesn't quite work as an exploration game because Snake is a puzzle game that requires pixel-width precision and unflagging concentration, both of which are detrimental to the experimentation and risk-taking that mark your best open-world games.

For example, in one of the corners of Spinster's map there is a graveyard that is a clear homage to Pac-Man, but in the visual language of Spinster (dogs instead of ghosts, headstones instead of walls, etc). This is as delightful as it sounds except for one small detail - imagine playing a game of Pac-Man where you die if you touch the walls.

I'll admit, part of my diffidence for Spinster comes from the fact that I'm a bit of a gaming wimp. Spinster falls into that category of games that offers fair, but unforgiving gameplay and then makes up for the fact that you are going to die frequently by letting you restart with lightning speed (it may well have the quickest game retry of any I've played for the blog, once you lose your four lives, you restart from scratch by pressing the space bar). And I've had . . . issues with games like that in the past.

Yet it's undeniable that I often felt that Spinster was too difficult for me, even on Easy mode. For much of my time playing it, I wished there was an "exploration" or "practice" mode where you couldn't die, just so I could check out the map and get used to maneuvering around the various obstacles (a suggestion if the developers decide to implement such a thing - maybe you could lose cats whenever you hit an obstacle and they could respawn randomly on the map, then put a timer on the whole thing and track how long it takes people to reach 101 cats).

The only question is whether I'm an outlier on this issue. It may well be that 9 out of 10 people find Easy mode easy and that Spinster simply isn't the right game for me. However, in my experience, while Spinster presents itself as a casual game, with a premise guaranteed to appeal to people who want something cute and silly, it is actually a seriously difficult puzzle game that requires precision reflexes.

And that's fine . . . As a puzzle game, Spinster works. The goal of the game is clear, and the set of skills necessary to achieve that goal are not at all obfuscated. Once you've played it for a few minutes, you'll know exactly what you're getting, and what you're getting is a solid, if punishing puzzle game with a cute exterior (my favorite part of the game was the punny names of the stray cats, I especially liked "Feline Deon" and "Will Feral.") It's the sort of game you can easily play for 10-30 minutes at a stretch, if you don't mind a high score of a half-dozen cats, but which will require months of practice to get anywhere near 100% completion.

My final verdict is that Spinster is the perfect game for a cat lover who also themselves has the reflexes of a cat.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Having read every entry of this blog up to this point I just wanted to drop by and tell you how much I enjoy your project.

      Keep it up and don't worry, if you come dangerously close to completing your goal for the end of 2016 (60 games to go) I will surely find something awful to gift to you. ;)

      - Dragnipurake

      This time with a signature.