Game-related ramblings.

Scratching That Itch: Binaries

This is the fifty-seventh entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

That’s right: here is another random selection from the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. It’s Binaries, by Ant Workshop. Its tagline in the bundle reads:

Controller-smashingly tough puzzle platformer

The joke’s on you, Ant Workshop. I’m going to play this one with my keyboard!

Reader, let’s talk about the colors cyan and orange. These are contrasting colors, juxtaposing well, and as such have become omnipresent in all sorts of visual media. Many big budget films, television shows, or games feature these two colors almost exclusively. Skin tones are shades of orange, so set them off with some cyan. Got some torches or campfires? They’re orange, so better make the surrounding gloom an inexplicably bright cyan. Got some fiery explosions? Offset their orange glow with the cold cyan starlight of space. Have two types of portals in your game? Better make them cyan and orange. Cyan and orange are so overused that I sigh inwardly every time I see them. It just smacks of laziness to me. Why bother having an actual color spectrum when you can just use these two, and people seem to like it? Why stand out from the crowd when you can look exactly like everything else?

Binaries is a game about a cyan ball and an orange ball, navigating single screen cyan and orange platforming levels, trying to get to the cyan and orange exit areas. Sigh.

The actual game is fairly clever though. You see, players control both balls at once. The controls themselves are simple: move left, move right, and jump (to various heights, depending on how long the jump key is pressed), that’s it. But every action moves both balls, and what may be a clear jump for one ball might lead the other straight into some deadly spikes. The real crux of the design, however, is that each ball can only be harmed by obstacles that match its color. Land the cyan ball on some orange spikes, and it’s happy to simply roll across them without taking a scratch. But lead either ball into a matching obstacle, and it’s time to start the level over from the beginning.

This leads to all sorts of nefarious level design. Early on, I was reminded of the DROD games, in which protagonist Beethro Budkin must sometimes use mimic potions to spawn copies of himself which mimic his movements. He then faces puzzles which center on clever ways to change the relative positions of himself and his mimic, often by maneuvering the mimic next to a wall so it cannot move when Beethro takes steps in that direction. The same principle applies to many levels in Binaries. Getting one ball into a specific position can allow the other ball can to move freely for a while. But Binaries doesn’t dig as deep into this idea as DROD does, it instead imagines many different consequences of its simultaneous control scheme.

Some levels place the two balls in separate but similar environments, with different sets of obstacles, so players must find a path that dodges both dangers at the same time. Other levels might put one ball in a small space and the other ball in a larger one, such that the hazards crammed into the small space place harsh constraints on any move made in the larger one. My favorite levels, however, are the ones that place both balls together in the same area, making use of the color-coded obstacles to create navigational challenges. Perhaps one ball needs to shield the other one from dangerous projectiles. Or maybe their paths will criss-cross each other, as they each roll through corridors that only they can safely navigate.

There are more than 100 levels in Binaries, although it’s hard to tell the exact number since they’re laid out on a strangely shaped grid of circles. This ensures that there’s always a few new levels to try in case one gets too frustrating, which is good because Binaries gets very hard. Constantly assessing the dangers to both balls simultaneously is taxing, and I often found myself cursing as my victory was snatched away because I didn’t see that one projectile in the corner of the screen. I played Binaries in short spurts, a few levels at a time, to manage frustration, and found myself enjoying it despite the high difficulty.

It helps that Binaries continues to introduce new ideas and mechanics as it goes on. Just when the levels start to feel stale, new twists are added to spice them up. And, for all my complaining about the cyan and orange, I should mention that the options menu includes several settings for display colors. Some of these are clearly jokes, like the greyscale setting that makes it impossible to see which ball is which, or the “pixels” setting that simply puts a pixellation filter over everything. But others are viable alternatives, like the red and blue “inverted” scheme.

Speaking of jokes, there are also a bunch of these, but they mostly fell flat for me. Text appears in the background of levels, often changing as the balls reach new parts of the screen, but I found this really awkward to read. I’m already trying to keep track of two balls at the same time, I don’t have any focus to spare on reading these messages. Many times I found myself looking at a punchline, having missed the setup. The ones I did catch, however, were largely unfunny, relying too much on references to other indie games. A recurring gag about the “theme” of the game is a particularly egregious example. There are jokes about how the developers plan to add zombies, or survival mechanics, because those seem to be popular at the moment. There are even levels parodying specific games, including Thomas Was Alone. None of these sparked a smile.

The core platforming, however, is solid enough to make up for it. Many times I despaired upon entering a new level, gazing upon its sadistic design, only to find myself clearing it a short time later. Binaries is difficult, but not crushingly so, and I was impressed by the imagination and skill of the level designers. If the sight of some of these levels made me blanch, the thought of designing one is downright terrifying. But Ant Workshop pulled it off over and over.

I was satisfied once I finished all the levels, but each is graded based on the time it took to complete, so players who like perfecting their technique will have plenty of chances to do so. And I bet that even players who won’t want to tackle the toughest levels will still enjoy a good chunk of Binaries. If you missed it in the bundle, it’s sold for a minimum price of $9.99, including Windows, Mac and Linux versions. Just work past the cyan and orange.

That’s 57 down, and only 1684 to go!

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2 Comments

  1. kelvingreen

    The colour mechanic reminds me of the shoot-em-up Ikaruga, although there the polarity shift is between black and white.

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