The next entry in the Marathon, Nimbus (also available on Desura), was originally released back in 2010, but I didn’t pick it up until it appeared in the first Indie Royale bundle the following year. And, before I go any farther, let’s get this out of the way: many people will not consider Nimbus to be a platformer. The playable character in the game is some sort of flying craft, and it tends to avoid platforms rather than jump on them. While it’s tempting to respond to these people by stating that this is my blog and I can do whatever I want, in this case I think I’m legitimately justified. Nimbus really does feel like a platformer, even if it doesn’t play like a traditional one. Levels are brightly-colored, physically impossible configurations of floating platforms, peppered with bounce pads, color-coded switches, keys that must be collected to open doors, and rotatable cannons for propelling the ship, just like the barrels in Donkey Kong Country. Oh, and spikes. Lots and lots of spikes. Sound like any platformers you know? The levels are even connected to one another via a map that’s straight out of Super Mario World, complete with level names like “World 1-4” and “World 3-3”. And of course there are secret exits in certain levels leading to bonus levels or alternate paths. Even the (extremely limited) story recalls the Mario games: a big evil thing kidnaps your spaceship friend! Go rescue it!
Essentially, Nimbus asks a question that we have all asked ourselves at some point in our lives: what if Mario were a spaceship?
The mechanic that lies at the heart of Nimbus is deceptively simple: the player’s ship cannot generate its own thrust. What it can do is convert potential energy into kinetic energy, and back again, very efficiently. This means that the elevation of different elements of a level become extremely important, and working out how to build up enough speed to reach areas that were inaccessible before is often the central challenge. There are certain tricks to help with this: bounce pads seem to impart the ship with a set amount of kinetic energy, such that even if the ship barely has any speed left, it can limp its way toward a bounce pad and then spring off it with renewed vigor. Short flights between bounce pads are a common means of traversing the levels in Nimbus. The rotatable cannons can be used to fire the ship in different directions, also imparting a set amount of speed, but the ship loses whatever velocity it had before entering the cannon. There are also speed boosters that can be flown through, and the airborne equivalents of conveyor belts. Plus many more things that show up later and I don’t wish to spoil.
The arrow keys are all that’s needed to fly the little ship around. Left and right turn the ship or rotate the cannon it’s in, up fires it from cannons, and down activates the brakes, which are indispensable in certain situations. But applying the brakes means sacrificing some speed, which is a big deal in Nimbus. Speed is hard-earned. Since the levels themselves determine when and where the ship can gain speed, every bit of it is precious, and often critical to success. Sure, I might be able to get through that maze of spikes easily by applying the brakes and taking it slow, but will I have enough momentum left to fly up that vertical shaft at the end? And if I do, what if there’s some secret areas higher up? No, it’s better to blast through that maze at high speed, avoiding collisions to maintain momentum and make sure I can reach the very top of that tunnel. This can get quite challenging, but anyone who’s having flashbacks to brutally tough thruster games like Lunar Lander can rest easy; since the ship in Nimbus lacks its own thrust, most of the time the player is only required to steer, which is easier to manage. Also, the ship is less sensitive to gravity than in a typical thruster game, and is able to maintain a specific altitude almost indefinitely, even at low speeds. High-speed maneuvers are still tricky, but the camera subtly zooms out when the ship is moving fast to help the player see the obstacles ahead. Also, the map shows a handy difficulty rating for each level, and clearly indicates how many secret coins there are to find within, if any. Coins unlock alternate ship designs and different style contrails, which are purely cosmetic rewards, so this stuff can be skipped for those uninterested in the extra challenge. I was interested, however, so I appreciated that I didn’t need to actually finish a level in order to get its coins. Going back through levels I’d already completed to find coins required the bare minimum of repetition. There are also built-in leaderboards for the fastest runs through the various levels, but these apparently only work in the Steam version of the game. I didn’t mind their absence, but those who prefer the DRM-free version from Desura should be aware that the leaderboards will be disabled.
Nimbus is a lengthy game. There are four full-size worlds with 10-20 levels each (although it’s not required to play them all to reach the end), plus a fifth, smaller world. There’s also a bonus Christmas-themed area that was added in a patch after release, and a place called the Scrapyard that features some levels that didn’t make the cut for the final game. It’s here that the most frustrating moments are found, although there was fair warning before I dove in. Being rather stubborn, I managed to finish every level, including the Scrapyard, but I did turn to Youtube for some hints on the tougher Scrapyard levels. Given the sheer number of levels, I’m impressed with how steadily new ideas and elements were introduced. The early levels are simple, letting the player get familiar with the flying mechanics, but soon the jump pads, cannons, switches and keys are joined by teleporters, gravity switchers, and more exotic elements, and increasingly complex maneuvers are required for victory. Before long I’d learned some new tricks for gaining and maintaining speed, and then discovered that those very tricks were what I needed to find the coins or secret exits in the earlier levels. I rarely felt that Nimbus was repeating itself; instead it was simply exploring all the design permutations that arise from its simple momentum-conserving premise. If there was one problem with the game’s length, however, it was in the music. While the soundtrack is actually quite nice (and available for free!), there are only two or three tracks per world, which meant that music got repetitive quickly while playing. But this bothered me less and less the farther I got, as the best music tracks appear later in the game.
The most important thing about Nimbus, however, is that it feels new. With so many firmly established genres in gaming today, games often have little to set them apart beyond some shinier graphics and a few gimmicks. A first-person shooter with some fancy AI or a crazier gun is still a first-person shooter, and we’ve all played those before. But I’d never played a game quite like Nimbus. Sure, in many ways it’s borrowing from the platforming classics, and the flying ship is similar to the old thruster games, but the simple idea to remove any direct thrust changes everything. It’s a completely new mechanic. And it’s the best kind — one that immediately makes sense, but has implications that are still being explored dozens of levels later. The early levels felt like a fun diversion, but by the end I was a master pilot of Nimbus’ strange craft, and quite impressed with the developers’ creation. It’s a great example of pure game design, and I highly recommend checking it out.
Nimbus is available from Steam or Desura, but the built-in leaderboards for speedruns only work in the Steam version. I should also mention that I did encounter one technical issue towards the end of the game, when it suddenly refused to start even though it had been working fine up to that point. I shot a quick email to developers Noumenon Games and they sorted it out by providing a replacement executable. I doubt many others will encounter this problem, and if you do I’m sure the developers can help you out like they did for me.
EDIT: The Indie Platformer Marathon is now complete! See all the posts here.