In 1987, just a year after Nintendo released Super Mario Bros. for the NES, Time Warp Productions developed The Great Giana Sisters, a 2D platformer with more than a passing resemblance to Nintendo’s flagship title. Eventually, Time Warp surrendered to legal pressure from Nintendo and stopped producing units of their game and immediately shelved any possible sequels. Although Giana Sisters was well received and has since become a cult classic, for the most part it has been relegated to an obscure bullet point on top ten lists on gaming websites. And other than a few re-releases and unofficial sequels, it looked like that was where it would stay until indie studio Black Forest Games ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to rescue the characters and concept from oblivion.
Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is the product of the German company’s re-imagining of the often overlooked classic, and it is one of the most tightly designed and creative platformers in years. The game is an excellent example of how a game can operate without words. The entire story and tutorial is communicated flawlessly without relying on a single written or spoken word. The title screen shows the silhouette of sisters Giana and Maria back to back, each playing a handheld game. Selecting Adventure Mode prompts a blue vortex to materialize and absorb Maria. Immediately after, Giana dives in to rescue her, thus is the adventure established. From there, subtle signs and button prompts tell the player where to go and instruct that player on how to use every ability in Giana’s arsenal. What makes Twisted Dreams so unique though, is how closely its aesthetics are woven into the mechanics.
The player can switch between Giana’s “cute” and “punk” alter egos. Giana’s cute self can do a short double jump and glide softly to the ground, while her punk self can roll up into a ball of fire and launch in a quick burst in one direction. Cute Giana’s glide lets her cross long distances, while punk Giana’s fireball is harder to control but gives her more height and can dispatch enemies. When switching between the two, the entire world changes from a deep red, hellish landscape into a lush, cartoonish Eden. Cute Giana occupies the nightmare world and punk Giana traverses the paradise and the stark contrast between character and surroundings makes it nearly impossible to lose track of where the character is, even while careening and bouncing through each level.
Changing between cute and punk Giana doesn’t just alter her abilities or the mood of her surroundings. It also alters the levels and the challenges as well. Transparent platforms for one Giana become solid for the other, enemies that throw projectiles in one environment will charge in a straight line in the opposite world, and flat surfaces for cute Giana are springs for punk Giana. Often the player will need to switch between each iteration multiple times in a single jump. The changing levels add a layer of depth that constantly requires a second thought but never becomes too overwhelming to interrupt the fluidity of a platforming challenge.
At about thirty levels, the game feels a touch short, but the levels are sprawling and intricate. Each level scores the player based on how many colored gems that they’re able to collect and how many times that they died to beat the level. While the original Giana Sisters may have been accused of ripping off Super Mario Bros., Twisted Dreams is far closer to the Genesis-era Sonic the Hedgehog games in level design. As often as not, going left when the game says go right will lead to a sizable obstacle course gushing with hidden gems or a collectible icon that will unlock concept art. There’s plenty of exploration to be had, and there’s always a reward for taking the tougher path.
The levels are also impressively lengthy. There are regular checkpoints spaced evenly throughout the levels, and even though the game quickly becomes very difficult, it seldom feels like there are too few checkpoints to manage the challenge. Because the game scores the player based partially on how many times they die, failure always presents a real consequence. On the other hand, because there is not a set number of lives, the game allows the player to experiment and retry as many times as needed. It’s challenging but never punishing.
While the game is visually stunning, the levels do start to get old after awhile. There are perhaps too many forest and castle levels and not enough mountain, cloud, beach or water levels to shake things up. Also, props in the foreground have a habit of occasionally getting in the way of obstacles. Moreover, enemies and deathtraps sometimes blend in too well with their environments, and sometimes that makes death feel cheap when something that doesn’t seem like an obstacle causes a restart. But again, the game allows the player to try as many times as they want, and any gems that they’ve collected since dying remain collected. So, it’s very rare that the game feels unfair.
However, the balance of the game depends largely on whether or not the player is playing with a good controller. The game was designed with the Xbox 360 controller in mind, and without a working Xbox controller or a close substitute, the game becomes artificially difficult. Twisted Dreams was simply not designed to be played on the keyboard or with a directional pad. It might be less accessible for players without a controller readily available, but it’s the kind of game that might be worth picking up a knockoff Xbox or PS3 controller to have a chance to play. That, or there’s always the planned release on XBLA and PSN to wait for.
I imagine the platformer is a deceptively difficult genre to design. There’s more to it than stringing obstacles along a straight line and baiting players with strings of coins. Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams offers a compelling challenge, a gorgeous environment, a creative core mechanic, and a brilliant delivery. It hits all the right areas that it’s supposed to. The Giana sisters might have been created to capitalize on the voracious popularity of Mario, but that was then. Now it seems like the fabled plumber could learn a few things from his one-time disciples.