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Up from (Super) Obscurity

This should be a pretty weird article: not only did I go against my normal genre limits and buy a platformer, I got what is reportedly a pretty darn good, yet still obscure, platformer. And it basically has dozens of good components, but overall...
But I'm getting ahead of myself; first we should just bask in the coolest parts of this game's load screens: a mode-7 zoom on a villain who looks like a cross between Long John Silver and Skeletor, plus a really long title that has the fourth-most* METAL use of an umlaut in the modern world:
*: the top three most METAL use of umlauts can be found in the band names Motörhead and Mötley Crü, respectively.
Yes, this week we're looking at the Pirate-and-Bubblegum-'em-up known as SkülJagger: Revolt of the Westicans
There's so much to say about this game (which I'll abbreviated/de-umlauted as SkulJagger from here on out) that we'd better switch into pictures-and-list mode to get through it all.
So, what is SkulJagger?
It's a pirate-themed platformer,
...with beautiful graphics (and music),
...it has a lot of backstory, and a cool way of wedging just enough story into the game (before each level, there's a descriptive caption like above, followed by a zoom-in on a slightly different part of the island where the level takes place),
...it contains big levels with numerous hidden nooks and crannies (which you find either by clever jumping and/or use of bonus items that let you climb higher, or occasionally from hidden "warp zones" that throw you into treasure-filled caves).
...it has the most easy-to-remember and brilliant variation on the "4-digit password" feature I've ever seen (every three or so levels you get a four-word password, made out of this set of 16 different words available).
Also it has some memorably weird enemies (mixed in amongst the standard "bugs, rats, and bats"):
And it has coolest (and most nonsensical) use of candy as a weapon since A Boy and his Blob:
In SkulJagger, picking up different fruits (fruit flavors?) give you one of four different BUBBLE GUM POWERS:
Orange = You can spit orange bombs for a few seconds
Grape: You are enveloped in an invulnerable Bouncy Sphere for a short period of time. (You can use this a weapon, or if you build up momentum you can bounce up high into the level)
Cherry: if you inflate it slowly and steadily (and avoid enemies), you can rise straight up until you hit the top of the level.
Watermelon: you spin in a barely-controlled figure-8 shape around the screen for a few seconds, smashing anything in your way. Fun for fighting bosses, or at parties!
How could this game go wrong?
I mean, one of this game's menu options is "BUBBLE GUM PRACTICE", for cryin' out loud!
Even the controls are pretty decent. For example, the worst thing you can say about jumping is that, if you slash with your sword in mid-jump, your jump's arc gets a little choppy (no pun intended).
So why don't I love this game, and give it a whole-hearted/ahoy me-hardies recommendation? Is it my well-documented bad taste in video games, or my dislike of platformers?
Well, the sad news is that the game play is lacking in several key and mutually-reinforcing categories: your weaponry isn't fun to use, and you have too few power-up options, none of which are game-changing, meaning there's little point in exploring the levels for hidden stuff.
SkulJagger's sort-of-bland sword
Your basic weapon, the stolen sword of Cap'n SkülJagger, is a pretty dull piece of cultery.
There's a lot of good things that can be said about it: it has not-too-bad range, it picks up items if you slash them (meaning, if you could kill an enemy with it at the top of your jump, you can jump again and pick up the gem he left behind by slashing wildly at it), and it can also destroy enemy projectiles in mid-air (though they often come quickly enough/from odd enough angles that it's hard to take advantage of this).
However it's often the case that you'll be sitting back and flailing with your not-very-cutlass-like sword, because most of the enemies just pace back and forth in a certain area. They'll come right up to the edge of your range as you madly hack away, then turn around and walk the other direction, none the worse for wear.
And while you can climb like a ring-tailed lemur, you can't attack while shimming up a rope/ladder/rigging, nor can you jump upwards while climbing. The best you can do is step off to the side and try to get a lucky slash in as you fall straight down. This often leads to no-win situations like this:
But what about your power-ups?
All is not lost, however: one of the most common (and useful) power-ups are the Red Gems. With them your sword fires a medium-range projectile when you swing it:
You can have up to three red gems at a time, with each additional one letting you fire another projectile before the previous one(s) have disappeared (think Double-Shot and Triple-Shot from Castlevania, or Double-Hook from Super Buster Bros).
Of course...the first time you get hit by an enemy? Kiss ALL red gems you have goodbye: you're back down to 0 and no projectiles!
Okay, well; that sucks...but what about the OTHER power-ups?
Well, there's green gems:
If you have any of these and you're hit after you have 0 red gems, you lose all your green gems but at least you don't die.
And if you're hit by any enemy/projectile/etc when you have no red gems or green gems? Arrr, it be down te Davey Jone's locker for ye!
Well, how many Green Gems can you have?
While you can collect a seemingly infinite number of green gems, there's no advantage for doing so (except the points you receive when you pick them up). Having 21 is no better than having 1: one bump from an enemy will take them all away.
As far as I've been able to tell, you can't collect enough green gems to let you withstand more than ONE green-gem-stealing enemy collision, or to give you a 1-Up, or anything useful like that. This means the only purpose of finding more green gems is more points (which ALSO never reward you with an extra life).
Hmmm, that's weird. What else is there?
Well, there's the Little and Big Blue Gems, but they're just level checkpoints and level exits, respectively:
If you get a Little Blue Gem, then die before you've completed the level, your next life will start at the Little Blue Gem check point.
And you touch the big Blue Gem to exit the level (and make an amazing face like you're yelling "BLARRRRG!" at the top of your piratey lungs)
Wait a minute -- what about that cool bubblegum you mentioned earlier?
Yes, it's kind of fun...but you can only carry one, can only use it once, and they all last for a very short period of time.
Of the two more offensive-weaponry types of gum*, the Watermelon wacky-attacking acts basically like a "smart bomb:" by the time it's run out, you've usually cleared the current screen of enemies (though with bosses you can often get several hits as you loop around the screen). The Orange bomb-spitting is effective, but runs out pretty quickly -- and once you start chewing it you can't save it: it's on a timer rather than a number of bomb-spits.
*: there's a rarely-used phrase
That leaves the "extended jumping" ones: there's the Cherry hot-air-balloon bubble (which at best lets you rise straight up; useful for exploring but not world-shattering), and the Grape bouncy-ball, which can bounce upwards from platform to platform as well as providing some invulnerability.
As such, none of them are terribly useful in the heat of battle; they're best saved for boss fights (and some boss fight levels have extra gums lying around).
Ah, Boss Fights! A close-fought game of cat-and-mouse, I hope?
Well, not really (though it's funny you should say that, as at least one of the bosses is a giant rat). All the bosses I've seen (Sküljagger himself, a giant rat, more Sküljagger, etc) are of the "rush at you and hit you" variety. The game's weird "get gems/survive enemy collisions" mechanic makes the boss fights kind of odd:
  1. you try to do some damage with watermelon or orange gum and get hit.
  2. Then you try to get some licks in while you're invulnerable after that hit, and then you get hit again, losing your red or green gem.
  3. Once you've lost your green gems, you run away and try to pick up another gem so you can repeat step 2.
Yes, the boss levels have extra gems lying around, which is the only thing that makes these fights possible. Rather than making the fights kind of platformer-y, so you could avoid the boss when they charge at you, it's always a war of attrition.
Overall, not a receipe for fun.
Yes, that's the missing ingredient: Fun
I think the biggest underlying problem stems from your poor choice of power-ups:
Once you have at least one red gem and one green gem, there's no other items you can find which are worth the risk of getting hit.
It's very easy to brush against an enemy and lose your red gem projectiles. The various gums give you some extra options, but you don't generally want to use them on basic enemies. However most of the game is basic enemies, and if one catches you off your guard, you lose your projectiles.
Then you're not exploring to collect hidden treasures. Instead you're desperately swinging at every barrel and candle-holder hoping that one will give you one gem, ANY gem, so you don't die a horrible death the next time a mouse brushes your leg.
Yes, if you ask me, SkülJagger is a frustrating case of "So close, and yet, no fun."
Well, that's all I got. Anything to add, Pitfall Harry?
"No time to talk now -- me and the hero from SkulJagger just found a bonus level...which means we get to swirl down a rotating mode-7 vortex on our way there!"
— carlmarksguy, 2013-03-08
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