All I could think as I played through a few levels of The Stretchers, Nintendo’s new eShop-exclusive Switch game, is that it feels like a Sega Dreamcast game I somehow forgot to play back in 1999. It’s got that low-poly, bright-coloured aesthetic, a tiny little open city in which wreaking cartoonish havoc is acceptable, and a patently ridiculous gameplay mechanic that seems like it’s going to wear out its welcome just in time for the game to end.
Surprise-released with absolutely no forewarning this past Friday, The Stretchers stars a pair of medics who drive an ambulance around town to save and/or endanger people. The primary (but far from the only) mechanic is to find injured people, load them onto a stretcher, and carry them back to the ambulance. If you play it cooperatively, each person controls one medic. If you play it by yourself, you must control both of them simultaneously.
What this means is that each mode is its own unique challenge. If you work alongside another person, you’ll have to coordinate all of your movements to make sure you avoid obstacles, scoop up victims (and optional treasures, for bonus points), and get them into the van without comedically falling all over yourselves. If you’re playing solo, you don’t have to worry about coordinating with another person, but you do have to worry about coordinating with yourself, which can be even more difficult.
I’ve spent all my time in The Stretchers so far playing solo, and my brain is not entirely thrilled with my decision. The game asks you to control each character independently with the controllers’ two analogue sticks, which led me to feel a bit twisted up—especially when the character controlled with the right stick crossed over onto the left side of the screen!
That said, the game generally understands that no matter which way you play it, it’s going to be confusing. So it gives you a generous amount of time to complete its missions. The standard mission involves rescuing Dizzies, townspeople who have been comically incapacitated and stagger about with whirligigs over their heads. (They look quite a bit like the similarly-afflicted characters in Space Channel 5, which I think is what first started me thinking about the Dreamcast as I played.)
You have to find a way through various obstacles to get to the Dizzies, get out your stretcher, crouch down and slide it under them, then get them back to the ambulance. This gets more difficult as the missions go on. You can get tripped up by water sprinklers or cannons firing giant fish out of a nearby boat. You and your partner might have to cooperate to use a lawnmower to clear out grass before you can get to the Dizzies, or bounce on trampolines to get up on rooftops where they’re waiting to be saved.
Along the way, you can rack up bonus points by finding (stealing?) safes full of cash and lugging them back to the ambulance, or for sillier achievements, like walking into bushes. You’ll get penalised for tripping on an obstacle, but not very badly. Meanwhile, a generous bonus timer will be ticking down; if you get all the Dizzies back to the hospital before it expires, you’ll get more bonus points. You can replay missions to set higher scores and earn medals, which you can also get by accomplishing tasks in the open world like staying in the air for a certain number of seconds, or nearly hitting 100 people.
Between each mission, you’ll have to drive your ambulance around the city. Fortunately, driving doesn’t require you to split your brain in half, since only one medic actually drives. These interludes are quite fun, as the city is designed to let you go over ramps and get huge air, terrorize pedestrians, mow down fields of wheat, smash through walls, etc. It’s also full of secrets, like extra outfits and items for your home base, so you can just ignore the missions for a while and go tooling around looking for stuff. There’s also a wide variety of side missions that don’t involve rescues, like cutting down trees with a two-person saw.
I have no idea how long The Stretchers is going to go on for, but it seems to me to be a relatively compact experience. And that’s great! It really does feel like a throwback to the Sega design sense of exactly 20 years ago, of a wacky 3-D world built around a single unique mechanic that’s bright, happy, and trimmed down to just the right amount of detail in its world to support that narrow gameplay concept.