(JP November 27, 1992)
Quickly growing to be one of my favorite games of all time, Trip World is an incredibly brilliant little title that falls victim to being too far ahead of its time. Criticisms of Trip World tend to focus on it being either too short or too easy, and even those who write positively of it seem to frequently consider it a collection of half-baked ideas that didn’t quite make it into the masterpiece they were meant to be part of. It’s acknowledged the game is technically impressive, but rarely much beyond that.
Titles like this and the Famicom’s Gimmick (also by Sunsoft, and bearing many similar design sensibilities despite the lack of shared staff) often fall under a type of game that rarely gets the genuine attention it deserves. Because they’re both quite expensive and heavily sought after by collectors, and because collectors are often tepid adults who are building a monument to the idea that they liked video games as a child, much of the discussion about both games has little to do with their many amazing qualities and more to do with whether or not they’re “worth it.”
Despite the current popularity of emulation and the incredible ease by which people can play Trip World for free, the idea that it is a collector’s game persists throughout and leads many willing to play it into the experience with the idea that people only talk this game up because of the value of its cartridge (which happens to be unfortunately true). Those few that stumble upon the game without this popular bias tend to still go in with years and years of expectations of ways to play a platformer, and approach Trip World with all the wrong sensibilities.
Something that platformers and games in general have taught us over the years is that the purpose of every game is to beat it. What lies between the beginning and the end are merely obstacles to conquer that impede your progress, and that the end screen is what matters above all else. We look at games as methods of empowering ourselves, and being able to “beat” them is the ultimate way of reaching that empowerment. When a game denies us victory, we say that it is too hard, but what we often really mean is that we didn’t feel strong while playing it.
Likewise, when a game is too easy, we criticize it for not bringing enough of a challenge, for not making us feel clever or capable. Trip World is a game that, even to a greater degree than Kirby’s Dream Land, avoids challenging the player almost entirely. Few enemies in the game can harm you, and boss fights are often very easy to master with a few attempts. While the game does have the common platformer trappings of hit points, lives, and boss fights, it’s fairly easy to reach the ending in just sitting down with the game for an hour or so, and to clear the game on consecutive playthroughs in roughly fifteen to twenty minute periods.
When you approach Trip World with the sensibility to treat it as you would a Mario game, as you have been taught by countless platformers, you reach the ending quickly and feel unsatisfied. That tends to be as deep as we evaluate any game with even the most superficial similarity to Mario – as a Mario game. That’s fine when that’s what a game is trying to be, but it’s absolutely not when we fail to see something trying to escape those boundaries and establish a new identity.
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Immediately upon starting the game, Trip World’s subtle efforts to guide players into the realization that this is not a typical platformer are threefold. To begin, the very first object the player comes across is a fruit that will power-up your player character, Yacopu. It places a flower upon his head and replaces his kick attack with a projectile that will place a similar flower upon the head of any enemy it comes into contact with. While powered up in this way you cannot harm enemies, and the flower merely pacifies them and keeps them in place.
If you allow that power-up to run its course and evaporate or miss your target, the game demonstrates its second method of attempting to guide the player – the behavior of the very first enemy. Rather than attacking you, the friendly creature you first come across seeks only to jump on your head and remain stationary. It cannot harm you, and it tries to nudge you into realizing you may not want to harm it. This attempts to help inform you that maybe, just maybe, not everything in this world is dangerous.
The last way in which the game tries to guide you into a different play perspective is by the use of the score counter at the bottom of the screen. People familiar with games are well aware that when you get points, you’re doing something well and intended, and that when you don’t, you’re doing poorly. Attempting to communicate with the player in a language they’re already heavily influenced by, you are rewarded a small amount of points for placing a flower on the head of your first enemy… but none for attacking them to the point they are defeated.
These methods all exist as ways to ask the player in the least patronizing tone possible to rethink what they consider “play” to be in a platformer. Even as early as when Trip World came out, players already had years of training to treat any enemy as a dangerous obstacle on your path to victory – obviousness of this as apparent as the widely used term, “enemy.” This was so ingrained that even in a game as delightful and thoughtful as the then-recent Kirby’s Dream Land, nearly everything existed to be able to hurt or impede you along your way to victory.
Enemies as sweet and cute looking as Kirby’s Waddle Dee or as innocuous as Mario’s Buzzy Beetle were still capable of hurting the hero and therefore seen as threats. Violence against them, as cartoonish at it is, is something that is seen as accepted and empowering. It’s what you’re supposed to do. They’re animate objects that exist within a platformer, and if they don’t power the player up, then they’re enemies, there only to be exterminated. Upon said extermination, you, the player, are then rewarded by pleasant sounds, points going up, and possibly even an item to collect. You feel good about it.
While it’s difficult to argue or believe that games necessarily breed sociopathy, they certainly rarely go out of their way to teach any degree of empathy. Trip World allows you to play it as you would any other platformer without stopping you or slapping you on the wrist with a bad ending, but it tries to tell you that the real joy here is in playing with your enemies – not hurting them. The number of unique enemies in the game to help support this is nothing short of absolutely astounding.
Only a single enemy in all of Trip World repeats itself between stages, making encounters as unique and memorable as they are fleeting. Few enemies even repeat between screen transitions as you progress through the stages, and many of them are one-of-a-kind. Despite the intense diversity of enemy types and sheer number of unique encounters, every single enemy type on the game features unique behavior that you will never again see exactly copied.
This, coupled with the game’s incredible animation, makes it an absolute delight to try and see exactly how everything will react to you. Enemies are gorgeously detailed and feel alive, and their body language contributes as much to their abundant personality as their behavior does. Will this one want to be friendly with me? Is this one a bully here to get in my way? Is this one just existing in its natural environment and curious about why I’m here?
These are all behaviors you can miss if you elect to play this game like an ordinary platformer, and they’re all what compose the very heart and soul of Trip World. In Mario, we feel good when we step on a Goomba’s head and squish him on our way to the goal, but what if he weren’t so intimidating? What if he just wanted to be your friend? What if we were allowed to touch without harm? Wordlessly, Trip World answers these kinds of questions with excellent visual storytelling and interaction that allows you to feel the sum of this adventure within the span of a few seconds.
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Modern games often explore the idea of non-violence in what players have come to understand as typically violent environments and trappings in a variety of ways, but they often tend to reach this success through openly condemning the player for what they’ve done. They scold the player, rather than gently urge them, and they respect the player’s intelligence much less in doing so. Player agency is often secondary in these games, and your objective is frequently as simple-minded and singular as what they’re trying to rise above. A game like Spec-Ops: The Line asks me to feel bad for committing violence, but it can only communicate this to me through forcing me to perform it over and over again.
Trip World is a game that is now over twenty years old, and it feels like it was nailing these concepts in a much better and more concise way, far before people popularly considered this a legitimate method of game design. While the end of each stage forces you into a boss fight with a violent solution necessary to proceed, the game world is filled with life that you slowly gain the determination to protect from the threat that has loomed over you since the beginning. Your actions are given motivation, and they’re relayed to you in a way that is much cleverer than a text dump at the beginning or as a forgotten aside in a manual about how what you’re doing is justified and there are probably things somewhere out there you’re doing this for.
While you could attempt to frame Yacopu’s journey as one of revenge, I feel like the ending outright makes the idea of that silly. He’s there to help and protect, and conflict (which is typically only gently kicking something) is only forced to reach an ultimately peaceful solution for everyone. The elegance of Trip World’s storytelling allows for me to be enriched in its narrative simply by taking my time and wandering through it at a leisurely pace.
The various power-ups often fundamentally alter how Yacopu interacts with the world, and he can freely transform into an aquatic or airborne form at any time. Ease of control is consistently well implemented, and there are often subtleties to understanding the nuances of movement that help flesh the game into a deeper experience than first glance would indicate. The trick to sharp vertical ascent when flying may feel clumsy, at first, but it will eventually reveal itself to be as clever and rewarding of skill and understanding as the game’s tougher boss encounters.
Visual quality, as mentioned briefly earlier, is breathtaking, especially as far as the Game Boy is concerned. Easily one of the best looking and most technically impressive games available for the console, the environments are lush and carefully rendered, and the enemy animations are so superb they’re more or less without equal. Trip World jumps to life with an enthusiasm unlike almost anything else available for the system, and easily deserves its many accolades in this regard.
Sound-wise, it’s almost equally impressive. The instrument samples on display are incredibly diverse, and the composer clearly demonstrated mastery over what the Game Boy was capable of producing. Compositions are memorable and surpass expectations, although the repetition of the game’s primary boss theme is one of few things that ends up ever-so-slightly grating on me. I’m particularly fond of the first level’s theme and its marked air of determination – it feels surprisingly intense and helps establish Yacopu’s strong sense of bravery, despite his harmless, cute appearance.
When all is said and done, there is nothing to deny that Trip World is a very brief game, but it’s very rare in all of video games to see so much said with so little. Its story of a lack of sales and success is well known, but as I hope I’ve illustrated, it’s not for what people usually argue. Extremely deliberate in its gentle, caring design, Trip World is like a sideways look into a universe where game design became more thoughtful, rather than less.