44: AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! for the Awesome

Me and this game, we got previous. Dejobaan hurt me man, they hurt me real bad. The Wonderful End of the World was for a long time the worst thing I’d played this year until I stumbled onto their masterpiece, 1,2,3 kick it. Bearing this heartache in mind, I prepared for war with the last survivor of the Dejobaan games pack. There was a montage where I was initially poor at a task then improved in measurable and tangible ways, scored by an eighties-sounding guitar piece. After two to three minutes of punching rolled-up carpets, dancing through tyres and so forth, I was ready for the fight of my life. One of us wasn’t getting out alive.

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AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! is the semi-sequel to Dejobaan’s breakthrough hit of 2009, A reckless disregard for gravity, and comprises a graphically spruced up version of the original plus a big hatful of extra levels and challenges. It does start with a great and simple idea – you are a base jumper, a chap who gets his jollies from leaping off a building and ideally not dying on the way down. Your aim is to do the most extreme and exciting jump possible and I don’t care what you think, that is such a great, easy-to-grasp idea.

So you jump and the first thing you spot is the skyline. You’re not diving into a sterile blue sky, there’s a whole range of glowing, pulsating distractions as you glide down. There’s odd configurations of geometrical shapes, flashing haloes of light, scrolling walls of error text and whatever else they could think of to make your dive a little bit visually stimulating. I do appreciate this and the game, despite its basic graphics, actually looks very good when in motion. Even though the world around you is made up of bulky 3D shapes, there’s just enough character and colour about them that this divebombing illusion can be sustained.

It also helps that you’re actually going pretty fast. After your jump you’ll speed up quickly until you reach your terminal velocity which, while not lightning-fast, does mean that following the optimal route isn’t as easy as it looks. Slight deviations will take big adjustments to fix and if one of them sends you slapping into a building, it’s bad news. If you’re lucky, you’ll go into a momentary uncontrolled spin, and if you’re unlucky then you’ll break every bone in your body and have to do the whole thing again

A good question would be: “Why are you even going that close to buildings if they cause you such inconvenience?” and that’s the second thing I like about Aaaaa – the scoring system. You get points for every building you float near, so it’s more beneficial to be doing laps of the sky than taking a path straight down. You get points for getting very near to a building for extended periods of time, so it’s best to take the narrow gaps over the wide ones. This is classic risk-reward gameplay, the more dangerous the route, the more points it will score you, and again this is something that I quietly appreciate.

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The reason you’re going for big points anyway is that each level forms part of a grand wall of levels, and initially only one of them is playable. As you complete descents, you get awarded “teeth” based on how good your fall was. You stockpile those teeth and use them to purchase other levels. The most difficult levels, all the way on the other side of the wall, take some serious moolah to unlock so it’s in your interest to make elegant attempts at every level you face. This is a splendid way to give some meaning to otherwise easy early bits, and is a powerful motivator for you to go back and improve your score. Those rewards are actually pretty perfectly pitched, too. A normal jump won’t be good enough so you have to pull out all the stops every time to get the maximum reward.

It’s not easy to do a dangerous descent because the controls are only really guidelines. Once you’re in freefall all you can really do is nudge and nurdle your base-jumper, give him vague inclinations of the direction you’d like him to move. You can’t slow down so everything must be done right, and you have to be thinking a couple of moves ahead at all times. As time goes on, you hone your reflexes considerably, able to consider things that your original lunging dives couldn’t do. You’ll fly through narrow tunnels, dance between packed platforms, and it’ll begin to feel almost natural, but you still have that knowledge that if you don’t plan ahead, you’ll most likely die. I mean, you’ll die a lot anyway, but if you didn’t plan it’d be even more so. I’ve spoken at length about how I like plans, haven’t I?

The potential troublespot comes with the presentation. Aaaaa seems a little more proud and smug of its indieness than most parents are of their children. The overlong, alphabet-beating name is just the first of a series of assaults on your senses that ends with the ridiculously long achievement descriptions. Everything is just that little bit too twee, at first, and the overall sensation I got was that they were trying far too hard to be funny. However, over time, this contempt breeds familiarity, you stop caring about it and enjoy the game for what it is, a compact, simple, enjoyable ride.

For me it’s a cross between Audiosurf and Super Meat Boy, combining the twisting, turning, twitching journeys of the former with the structure, difficulty and devotion to style of the latter. I often praise games for the way everythings fit together just so, in the service of a greater concept and Aaaaa has achieved this well. Somewhere is a big document that says “PEOPLE FALL OFF BUILDINGS” and everybody made sure to read that document. Then they acted on it, and everything in this game feeds into the grand goal of realising that vision.

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Aaaa is a Dejobaan game finally worthy of the word game. Of course it has its problems, it eventually gets far too difficult for me (though I was damn close to unlocking everything), and you’ll reach a point where you’re just bashing your head against a brick wall (both figuratively and in the game) trying desperately to break through and finish this sodding level. More seriously, it’s based on that whole SMB ethos of proving your worthiness at a level before you can progress and I’m conscious that some people hate that idea, but I would argue in defence that you can somewhat pick and choose what level you do next rather than following a prescribed order. I would also say the level design quality can vary. Some can be completed first time if you’re sufficiently clued-up, whereas others conceal a multitude of dead ends and traps that you’ll only know about when you smash in to them. To complete those levels, you’re going to go through a lot of trial-and-error.

But I like it.

3 stars, 8 hours played

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