One may have noticed that a lot of indie platformers tend to go with a retro aesthetic as of late. On one hand, one could see this as a way to capture the feelings of platformers of the time and are missing in games today. On the other hand, one could see them as a way of cashing on nostalgia from older gamers while simultaneously avoiding innovation and saving on the graphics budget. You Have to Win the Game is somewhere in between those two. One obviously cannot claim it is a cash in due to it being free to play and I don’t doubt there was a legitimate vision set for this title. However it is clear that this vision was a rather bland one.
Right from when you start up you can tell this game is trying way too hard to be a 1980s PC title. The first thing you hear is loud typing noises as the title is typed out automatically. You are given absolutely zero plot or back story in this game and your only motivation is, as the title says, “to win the game.” As far as I know, there isn’t even a story given for the game on its Steam page, just play it because they say so. I admit it is rather petty to really complain about this and I don’t even consider it a flaw; just more of an indication.
The entire point of this game is to mimic 80s pre Super Mario Bros PC platformers, but one really needs to ask why. Why is it not good enough to have a game that has the improvements of newer games instead of being like older games to a fault? There is very little effort put into the presentational values of You Have to Win the Game. First of all, the game is completely devoid of music during gameplay. A large element of just about any game, even 2D platformers, is the general feel and personality of the game. Music is very effective in shaping the mood of a game and giving off a specific emotion or personality. Having an absence of music removes a large amount of personality from it.
The sound effects are also just as irritating and grating as older PC games as well, and the lack of music makes these even worse than they would have been otherwise. Graphics wise you have two settings. The default setting, and the only setting in the original version, is made up of only shades of darker and dull colors, with the exception of dark purple. Well what do you know; this game is more modern than I thought. The other setting is in what looks like a pixelated NES style, but it involves more colors and a much better art direction. I naturally went with that one for most of the game.
The game’s screen is even curved in at the sides to make it look like you are playing it on an old PC monitor; and yes there is no option for a normal setting. What reason for this is there other than nostalgia pandering? It adds nothing to the game, takes away from its aesthetic, and makes the game look like a let’s play filmed with a camcorder. On the other hand the game does follow the older game tradition of separating rooms by screens Zelda one style, and there are amusing names for each screen. Some of them may be joke titles like a room with a bunch of prawn like enemies being called “hardcore prawn” and a room with snakes being “obvious movie quote.” Some others may be hints towards certain puzzles or warnings such as “you really don’t want to go left” in a room in which doing so will put you at the beginning of a very annoying jump.
For what little it attempts, You Have to Win the Game does well in terms of gameplay. However one should note that despite being doable, a lot of areas can be rather annoying. While it is true that a lot of jumps or obstacles do become easier with close observation and timing, said timing only does so slightly and it still feels like most are based completely on precision, timing, and memorization. This type of approach is not good game design in the slightest.
A well designed game should never be based solely around “press X to not die” over and over again. It should be a game where your skills at the game can actually improve. Your skills will never improve in You Have to Win the Game; you will only adjust to the demanding nature of it. Despite this, the game is not even “hard” because you end up adapting to the nature of it and can get by once you know its tactics.
Yet the game does not even posses the benefit that comes from a difficult game; the adrenaline rush that comes from a sense of risk. Normally in these types of games, you would have a risk of losing progress if you fail a jump and would need to start back further. In this game, you have a save point at every remotely difficult moment and are respawned right in front of it. This design choice flat out admits that its design was unfair and that it would be unplayable with a gameplay mechanic similar to emulator save states.
The game does actually have a “YOLO mode” (and no that name is not creative in the slightest), where you have one life, but that is just a cheap way of adding artificial difficulty. In fact, such a mode is unplayable. The only way to actually improve the game would be to actually have decent level design.
What is even worse about the game’s design is that, despite having Metroidvania elements like gaining new abilities to access new areas, these new abilities do not help you traverse older areas at all. In a well designed game, the older areas would be designed to become easier and more convenient once you gain the ability to double jump or wall jump. However, the ability to wall jump never helps you get by a segment where you need to make a precise jump over a large spike pillar while land in a hole with spikes on both sides while making sure you don’t even touch one pixel of them. You have this room right before you get your new powerup though, and in case you decide to go back in order to find those moneybag collectables that the game expect s you to find for no reason, you have to go through that annoying and tedious jump again.
The final nail in this game’s coffin was the nasty trick it pulls in its ending. Once I got to the final area of the game, I came to a two way point with two doors. One of them said to only go in one direction and not to go in the other. Given natural curiosity, I went in the one it told me not to, which just got me an ending screen telling me I “lost the game.” Normally this would just be a nonstandard game over screen and you’d be put back at the previous save point. Here however, it overwrites your save data and makes you start the game from the beginning. Yes the game punishes you for daring to think outside the box. Just do everything for the sake of doing so without question.
What is even worse is that there is a money bag in that room that triggers said ending, but when I played it, collecting a certain item in the middle of the room caused the ending to proc before I could get the money bag. That means that if I wanted to complete the game 100%, I’d need to get this ending again to get the money bag, and play through it once more after that for the good ending. Spoiler alert, the ending is that you win the game, how riveting!
Conclusion (The Game, You Lost)
Just about every single one of its flaws can be summed up with, “because fuck you that’s why!” It does not even have a humorous charm to said flaws like I Wanna Be the Guy or Eryi’s Action. Instead you have a game with little sense of personality or charm, yet is certainly bland and tedious. Yes it is playable but that does not make it a good game and there are far better games you can spend your time with that are also free. So in short, no, you do not have to win the game, because winning this game yields no reward or incentive. You don’t play games to win, you play them for fun, and this game does not do that.
This review was originally posted to GameFAQs on May 6th of 2014 and has since been updated with enhanced presentation.
If you would like to support me or this site, then please support my Patreon if you would like to see higher quality content with more resources to put towards it. If you don’t want to spend any money on me, then you can also help out by simply sharing my blog on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, or anywhere else where others will see it. You can also follow this blog if you would like to be kept up to date on my stuff, or you could follow me on any of my social media pages (listed at the bottom of the page) and could stop by The Guardian Acorn Discord chat if you would like to talk to me and my homies.