You Have to Win the Game, it tells me — it’s right there in the title! — but I just can’t. At least, not yet. I’ve tried, and with more hours to play maybe I could. But I have to admit that on first blush, this retro platformer stumped me more than once, which is awesome.
You Have to Win The Game is intentionally framed in a very 1980s aesthetic (although actually, we had our sixteen-color monitor until 1994). From the curved TV frame to every beep and pixel, the game is meant to evoke an era of side-scrollers long gone by. To evoke, yes, and to reflect, but not to clone.
From the existence of a tutorial (in an extremely streamlined, single-screen format) to witty room names, You Have to Win… reflects a modern sensibility that expects players to have been around this block before. We know how we expect this all to work: you run, you jump, you collect stuff, and you avoid spikes and water. The game expects you to get the jokes (one room full of snakes is called “Obvious Movie Quote”) and roll with it. You’re also on your own for figuring out which surfaces are solid and when.
One key aspect of the side-scrolling platformer is absent, however: the scrolling. Rooms in You Have to Win… are connected and contiguous, but each stands alone. On the plus side, freedom to go either to the right or to the left is unrestricted (certain environmental considerations or puzzles aside), and backtracking or trying alternate routes is not only possible but necessary. On the minus side, occasional movements off-screen, in any of the four available directions, are indeed a leap of faith: you need to hope that you’ll be landing somewhere that’s not likely to kill you.
But nothing in this carefully-assembled cavern is accidental. If you can’t see where you’re leaping, it’s meant to be a risk. Checkpoints are visible and carefully placed, so that even the most frustrating of puzzles won’t send you sprawling back to the beginning.
And yet sometimes, going back to the beginning is the best way to play. You can’t run out of lives; despite being one of Mario’s third cousins, You Have to Win… doesn’t share that particular kind of cruelty. But after a certain amount of exploration, if you find yourself well and truly stuck, starting fresh from the top with foreknowledge of some rooms that await can be exactly the balm you need.
In the end, You Have to Win the Game reached deep down to touch a forgotten corner of my soul that hasn’t had a workout in many, many years. Dimly, I began to remember how games felt in the late 1980s and very early 1990s, and that sense of doom-coloured, dogged exploration is exactly what You Have to Win… hopes to invoke.
You Have to Win the Game is available as a free download (Windows only) from the developer’s site.