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Having seen how quickly upcoming platformer Yooka-Laylee smashed its crowdfunding target, there seems to be a real appetite for the return of the style of game that defined so many of our childhoods on the Nintendo 64. The team at Playtonic has been unashamedly vocal about their desire to recapture the magic that made Rare such a beloved developer before Microsoft reduced the studio to a Kinect factory, with the classic Banjo-Kazooie clearly the main source of inspiration. The long wait for Yooka-Laylee is nearly over, but Sumo Digital has also sensed an opportunity to appeal to our nostalgia with Snake Pass, which couldn’t look or feel like more of a throwback Rare game if it tried.
With it riffing so clearly on a genre associated with Nintendo hardware, it’s no surprise Sumo Digital worked overtime to have a Switch port of the game ready for the same release date as other platforms. Taking place across just over a dozen bright and colourful levels, starring a dynamic duo of a snake named Noodle and a bird named Doodle, Snake Pass absolutely wears its heart on its sleeve. Even the delightful music sounds befitting of an old Rare game, having been orchestrated by Donkey Kong Country composer David Wise. Its visuals are, in fairness, more similar to a relatively more contemporary Rare title, with Noodle looking like he’s just slithered out of Viva Pinata.
Where the similarities end are in how Snake Pass actually plays. There’s mileage to be had in describing it as a platformer, but there’s no jumping whatsoever, nor are there any enemies to best. Snake Pass is all about traversal driven by a commitment to the physics of its lead character, much in the same way as Octodad. Each level is packed with hidden collectibles, but the path to completion is usually quite obvious, and it would be easy to get there too if Sumo Digital had caved in and given Noodle the ability to propel himself upwards, perhaps by contorting himself into a spring and launching into the air. Instead you really do have to think and move like a real snake.
The right trigger initiates forward movement, but to make ground with any sense of urgency Noodle has to slither left and right with the left stick to pick up speed. Noodle can raise his head to begin the process of clambering above obstacles, which range from simple divots in the ground to bamboo poles intertwined to form climbing frames. All of the levels have a great deal of verticality and these frames form a huge part of it. Making your way up them demands patience, with the left trigger constricting Noodle’s body to allow him to hold on to the poles. Doodle is the final utility in Noodle’s arsenal, with his companion able to grab hold of the end of his body and hoist it up for a bit of extra leverage.
If it sounds like a lot to take in, that’s because — by the standards of modern video games — it is. Snake Pass only has 15 levels and none of them are particularly complex, with no objectives other than collecting different trinkets, but its control system and the physics that drive it are truly unique. There’s plenty of frustration to be had if you forego patience, but incredible satisfaction to be gained when you finally master Noodle’s intricacies. It may take a number of hours for some to get to grips with it all, and for them it’ll be unfortunate that the game’s short length means the credits will roll just as they begin to feel confident with the controls.
There are issues besides its length, though, and unfortunately they’re more fundamental to the gameplay itself. For a game of this ilk to have a bad camera is a cardinal sin, and Snake Pass comes dangerously close to that standard on occasion. You have some control when it comes to rotating the view side-to-side, but making your way up the aforementioned climbing frames can sometimes be made difficult by the camera’s inability to adapt the view. Falling to your death is frustrating at the best of times, but doubly so when it feels like the camera played a part. Speaking of death, Snake Pass could also do with a more generous checkpoint system.
Despite these problems, Snake Pass is an eminently likable game, helped by the terrifically colourful visuals and charming soundtrack. The game scales down to the Switch really well for the most part, but does run at a slightly reduced resolution compared to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions. Those playing on PS4 Pro can play at 4K but the option to play at a locked 60 frames-per-second at 1080p is preferable. If you’re on PC, you can expect the best of both worlds.
Images: Sumo Digital
Snake Pass can frustrate as much as it delights, but the flaws will be easy to ignore for those who grew up during Rare’s N64 heyday.