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The Maw

(Microsoft; US: 21 Jan 2009)

The Maw is an appetizing title to consider. A small, quirky game for Xbox Live Arcade, it features two adorable (by some people’s standards) protagonists. One is a blue, humanoid alien, another is a bulbous eyeball-and-mouth combination of a creature called “Maw.” Blue (as we’ll be calling it) and the Maw meet on an alien spaceship, where they are both captives. 


Following the spaceship’s crash, the two are connected by an electric tether, becoming almost inseparable for the whole game. You’ll quickly realize that The Maw‘s main gameplay hook is as amusing to imagine as it is to observe: the Maw eats helpless (and not so helpless) alien critters, and Blue does its best to aid the Maw in the endeavor.


The two main characters are brought to life in an amusing, Pixar-esque fashion. When the Maw eats enough aliens, he will expand, allowing him to eat larger, tougher aliens. This animation is accompanied by his delighted, surprised grunts and slobbers. He’s like a huge, purple amoeba-dog, a gelatinous mouth always on the lookout for more food, all the while remaining playful and childish.


Blue is constantly attentive to his companion’s needs, feeding him critters and guiding him with the electric tether. You’ll drag the Maw around with you, but he’s still his own creature. When Blue and the Maw become separated, Blue will wonderingly call out for the Maw in a high-pitched warble. At first glance, this cute duo would seem to have quite an adventure on their hands. They squelch from place to place, eating exotic food and gaining new abilities (and in the Maw’s case, putting on pounds).


Unfortunately, there’s trouble in this strange patch of paradise: the Maw and Blue are cumbersome to control, annoying to watch over, and ultimately never live up to the promises made by their introduction. There’s not a lot of joy in this world, and even less wonder; playing The Maw quickly becomes an exercise in increasingly patience-testing slow-paced tasks. You’ll forget how much you appreciated the Maw quickly, as you come to hate him for his slowness.


In fact, the only major problem with The Maw is the pacing and speed of gameplay. Unfortunately, it’s a crippling sort of problem.


Each time the Maw eats a special alien, he’ll take on that alien’s attributes, à la Kirby. Thus, as the game progresses you’ll chew the Maw through hot air balloon, rhinoceros and laser-eye stages. Again, in theory this all sounds great, but it’s in the execution that The Maw disappoints. None of these different abilities are any fun. Sure, you can shoot lasers out of your eyes, and bounce around the world, but every time you do, it’s a chore. Every single one of these segments feels forced. It’s as if someone somewhere made a list of cool sounding and looking things that could happen in the game. Then, that person went and created a bunch of gameplay elements, solely for their adherence to those aforementioned ideas, not for their entertainment quality.


The banality of the tasks is made worse by the game’s hideously slow movement speed. Again, this shouldn’t be that much of a problem, but what with nothing you do standing out as particularly fun, it really makes things worse that everything takes forever to do. When you get to the end of a level and realize you didn’t eat enough space slugs back in the first meadow, you have to backtrack. Unfortunately for you, backtracking will literally take 10 to 15 minutes, if you can master the Maw’s new hot air balloon state.


Throughout my time with the Maw, all I could think about was how what I was playing was decidedly not fun. It’s too bad, too, because I loved the animations and emotions expressed by the Maw and his companion, and the idea of eating creatures and stealing their powers is an interesting one.


It’s amazing then, that throughout this game, the only moment of excitement I experienced was when the Maw first licked his chops and celebrated a size increase. “Wow, that’s cute and funny,” I thought. Thinking that over and over is not enough to get you through hours of this game. It’s unclear exactly why the creators of this game chose to make movement so slow (perhaps to pad the run-time?). It’s equally unclear how it is that all of the things that are so interesting conceptually could have come out in this boring, frustrating final format.


Ultimately, The Maw feels like the too-literal misinterpretation of a design doc. It meets every single requirement, and it does try to provide you with a variety of experiences, but its unbearably slow pacing and awkward mechanics rob you of any fun you might have had.

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13 Aug 2009
This is a pure platformer but sped up to such a frenetic pace that the loading screen becomes a welcome break rather than an annoyance.
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