Woah Dave!, a video game review

Apr 28, 2015 at 12:34 pm

Woah Dave!
Available for: Nintendo 3DS, PS4, PlayStation Vita, iOS, OS X, Linux, Microsoft Windows
Version Reviewed: Nintendo 3DS 
by Jay Lonski

Maybe it’s just my inner bowerbird talking, but the cover art for Woah Dave! has the kind of  chunky and colorful panache that I’ve come to miss in the era of urban camouflage and washed-out browns. Not that the game actually has a physical cover for art to adorn, per se. It’s available almost exclusively as a download from digital distribution services; the exceptions are a few physical arcade cabinets the developer built, though I doubt you’ll find those for a handful of change on the Internet.

That chunky and colorful vibe is consistent throughout the Woah Dave! experience. Attempts to cash in on the aesthetics of earlier eras of gaming are fairly common these days, especially on the indie scene, and the results are mixed. Most attempts seem narrowly focused on the distinctly NES 8-bit side of things, which might account for some of Woah Dave!’s novelty and success: its style is also influenced by an earlier arcade era, perhaps with a shade or two of Atari 2600 and Intellivision thrown in for good measure.

The game’s aesthetic success probably has a lot more to do with its intelligent synthesis of ideas from the eras it seeks to emulate and the modern realities of gaming. Although the in-game art style and promotional artwork call to mind the delirious, psychedelic reality of games like Burgertime and Yars’ Revenge, those classic, frenzied elements are neatly framed in a simple and modern series of menus and options. Achievements also make an appearance, though at this point their inclusion in any game feels like an obligatory concession to modern trends; once you’re a few hours into the game you’ll stop seeing them anyway, barring the very occasional major disaster.

The pitch-perfect gameplay pushes the game comfortably past the parody line and well into pastiche territory, though the game isn’t without its own sense of humor; high scores, for example, are measured in measly cent increments, a prod at the tendency of games to deal in arbitrarily high numbers. At its core, Woah Dave! is a fantastic reminder of why two-button games ruled the landscape for so long: accessibility and deceptive simplicity. One button makes Dave jump, and the other makes him chuck whatever he’s holding. Aliens hatch from eggs that drop from the sky and if they touch Dave on their march down to the lava, he loses a life. Let the aliens reach the lava and they return with a vengeance as mutated varieties. The aliens can be destroyed by throwing unhatched eggs and skull blocks at them, the latter of which also destroy the eggs themselves. The destroyed eggs and aliens drop coins which, when successfully collected, serve as the aforementioned points. Patently bizarre, but spend a few minutes with it and you begin to understand the hallmark video game logic that dictates it all.

Unlike Mario Bros., and a lot of the other obvious retro inspirations for Woah Dave!, a primary part of the game’s difficulty does not stem from controlling the character — Dave is perpetually spry and responsive, something that can’t be said for a host of older platforming heroes. Dave’s creators have clearly paid attention to a design lesson hard-won by designers in the years since arcades were popular: no matter how inspired the setting or gameplay is, if the main character doesn’t control well, the whole game will be clouded in frustration. Once again, the designers choose the right elements from the realms of classic and modern sensibility: Dave might jump and throw with modern precision, but he stops short of leveling up or equipping better loot.

Where Woah Dave! really starts to expose its depth is in the risk/reward elements that stem from earning coins. Eggs and basic enemies are easy to kill and manage, and initially it seems like good practice to kill them as quickly as possible. The moment you discover that mutated enemies yield more coins for each mutation they’ve undergone is absolutely strategy-shattering. After that revelation, how you choose to corral the enemies becomes a much more deliberate – and consequently interesting – affair. Do you kill them early for easy coins or risk losing control of the stage for a better payout?

The relationship with the WOAH block (Woah Dave!’s screen-clearing take on the classic Mario POW block) can be similarly tricky. More often than not, I found myself losing a life in the desperate scramble to get to it; I started to rethink the whole notion of even using the thing after wasting my second WOAH block in a row by panicking and accidentally throwing it into the lava.

Even the skulls are more devious than standard ammunition. Similar to the eggs, they exist on the stage for a limited amount of time after spawning and when their time is up – boom! A tiny explosion capable of taking out foe and oblivious player alike. The moment you start placing skulls on the upper platforms in the slim hopes of clearing an egg or enemy that has yet to even spawn is the moment you start to realize that Woah Dave! has completely scrambled your expectations.

Woah Dave! is already out for a variety of platforms and a deluxe update — which fills in a few of the game’s shallower spots like stage variety, character options, and boss battles — is coming in the near future. The Steam version includes the deluxe additions, a bonus for those who would rather play the game on their computer than a handheld or console. With a title that deserves the exclamation point that it so awkwardly insists upon, Woah Dave! is an obvious recommendation to anyone raised in an arcade or intimately familiar with one of the dozens of re-releases of Mario Bros. For those with the good fortune to identify with neither of those experiences, Woah Dave! will still be a frenetic yet accessible experience, albeit one lacking the sweet shimmer of nostalgia.