The overwhelming impression I get from this level is huge. It’s rare to be in a spot where ceilings are a concern: instead, the planes of the outside areas are separated by a significant vertical space, and the inside area has a lot of tall, open halls. Even some of the horizontals feel a bit stretched out, suggesting a level that’s trying to accommodate a larger number of players without significantly modifying the layout principles of a smaller map. The outsides are especially empty in this regard: all that height, and yet only two floors, each made up of one-tile-thin wooden platforms. There’s a lot more substance in the center, though, to be fair.
What I do quite like is the commitment to being a Pit Level and not just a level that happens to have a pit somewhere. The use of orange leaves around the edges to indicate “this is where it’s unsafe to fall” is quite welcome, and also there’s a bunch of ice ammo (even a powerup!) near the bottom, to make it easier to get your opponents to fall in. I’m not sure without playtesting how likely people are to be in the bottom corners, though the presence of copters and carrots should help… on the other hand, there are other carrots elsewhere… dunno. But it’s a solid design decision.
The graphics are generally pretty solid and it’s mostly easy to tell walls from background, though the thin branches do have some trouble standing out. I’m unsure about the rampant bright orange and green, however. It’s distinctive but maybe not actually pleasant to look at?
There’s something cynical about these maps, with their flat, linear, open spaces and single weapons only. They seem to leave combat up to chance without giving players opportunities to hide behind walls or otherwise position themselves strategically. The graphics (besides the pink sky) are generally detailed and lovely, but the maps are so flat…
One of the more interesting multiplayer level design patterns that’s emerged in JJ2 is the commitment to making it easy for the player to get around without bumping into things. You wouldn’t necessarily expect this from the sometimes downright nonsensical layouts of the official levels that served as our earliest examples, and yet here we are. Arguably this pattern has two main components: if you see somewhere nearby, you should be able to get there easily, and if you’re moving around at high speeds, you shouldn’t get unexpectedly overly impeded. In general, movement through the map should be intuitive, leaving you to focus on where you want to go more than how to persuade the level to let you get there.
And as you might imagine, this pattern really shines through in Crayon Valley. With only a few exceptions—high jumps in the bottom corners, occasional moments of losing speed by bumping into ceilings—it’s very easy and pleasant to get around here. Edges of platforms are perfectly positioned to let you transition to other nearby platforms, which is made the more impressive by how how many tiny platforms there are, all of them more or less working with each other. And yet, miraculously, the layout doesn’t feel clinical at all.
In fact, the level even finds time to divide its layout into two halves, top and bottom, distinguished both by different eyecandy (outdoor trees and hills vs. indoor sand and blocks) and by the thick walls between them, with only a few carefully defined points for the player to switch sides. This should make it easier for the flagholders to escape capture in the lower half, as it can take more work to reach them there—reminiscent of such stalwarts as Happy Castle CTF—but also defines a lot of clear structure. You can get a general sense of where you are at a glance by looking at the graphics around you.
Better yet, the two graphical halves of the level don’t clash at all, thanks to careful use of the same general color palette (rainbows, pastels, and pink walls) and a few common elements like lampposts. With eyecandy doing so much informative work in this level, you might worry that it would be overdone and get in the way of the gameplay, but it manages to accomplish its goals without those pitfalls, succeeding through color palettes and broad strokes at what other levels might need entire arboretums to accomplish. The distant parallax background of the top half uses the same general palette as the rest of the level, but sufficiently faded and low-contrast as to not look confusing solid.
Ammo choice is mostly standard stuff for a CTF level, with the normal set of powerups (bouncers/toasters/RFs). Seekers and fireballs (forced by the level to exclude pepper spray) are also present but can’t be powered up. Electroblaster is the more interesting inclusion and tracks well with the level’s layout, which does have a lot of key spots (in the top half) with thin enough walls to attack other players through. The handful of TNT pickups I’m less sure about, but maybe that weapon is enjoying a renaissance, I don’t know.
All in all, a delightful showing with an uncommon yet vivid color palette. The layout is strictly symmetrical on the edges but not in the center, an interesting choice that gets around an awkward center area where players can clearly see the exact spot the mirroring happens. The CTF bases are in clear visual fortresses but are still quite open, approachable from three different sides. The music is cheery without becoming inane.
I really like how this looks—the colors work well together, the leaves are charming and make the screen look alive without obstructing visibility/gameplay—but not how it plays. There’s definitely room to explore how to use Hurt events (and other things that hurt you) in multiplayer levels more, but I don’t think this is the answer. Right now if you want to get the carrot, you have to take a sucker tube out of the carrot room and into a bunch of Hurt events. I’m really not sure what the reasoning here is but it’s not enjoyable.
I wonder if this level was only tested in local splitscreen multiplayer, not internet/LAN multiplayer? When played in local splitscreen, the various destruct blocks respawn after a while, and even a bunch of enemies(!) appear, but neither of those things happen otherwise.
The layout is odd for a battle level. There’s only one start position, and from it you follow one of two linear paths (one of which loops back around to near the start) in search of powerups. There’s not a lot of stuff to pick up between powerups—and most of what there is to pick up is gems, which are useless in battle—so battles may end up clustering around those powerups as players who already have them defend their positions against their recently respawned opponents. The flow isn’t the smoothest around: you can bump into walls and stuff trying to progress along the linear paths, and again there are Hurt events to contend with.
I dunno. I’m reluctant to opinionate too much about the non-technical aspects of this level, as it’s clearly aiming for a very different style of gameplay than most battle levels (especially when the enemies work), so how reasonable is it to judge this by the standards of a more traditional style that it’s uninterested in emulating? Maybe if I got some more people together to play this with, we’d have a good time advancing along the level’s main linear path, kind of like an assault level. Maybe not. But the graphical experiments going on here are certainly pleasant to look at in the meantime.
There are two things about the designs of these levels that really stick out to me, so let’s start there.
The first is the trigger crates. There are a lot of them here, and I think some are handled better than others. The ones in the first level are both pretty bad… you have to take a long path to find each one, then take the same path again in reverse after hitting the crate, only all the enemies are gone and you’re just running around to fill time. To get to the first crate, you got bounced by some horizontal springs, but on the way back you have to avoid them… I’m not sure whether this is an intentional challenge or confusing, but I couldn’t find any other path to take.
By contrast, there’s a trigger crate in the second level that is handled much better: hitting it takes you into a new area of the level, with new enemies and other challenges, and you have to navigate all those things before you get back to the main flow. That’s actually interesting, rather than filler.
This may be my personal preference talking, but I think it’s probably better to ensure the player sees the trigger scenery blocks first, before they go hunting for the trigger crate, so they know where they have to go back to. Otherwise you get moments like the second trigger crate in the first level, where the path branches in two directions, one with the crate at the end and one with the blocks at the end, and which direction you choose at random dictates how much time you’ll waste on backtracking.
The other main thing here is that there are points that seem to expect the player already knows how to beat the level. This is a common/easy level design mistake: the person making the level obviously knows where everything is, so why doesn’t everyone else? The less problematic cases of this include unlabeled warp events, or mandatory coins (in the secret level) hidden inside walls; the more egregious case is in the third level, where you twice need to shoot some normal-looking walls (using bouncer bullets!) or else you’ll fall into a bottomless pit. (The pit doesn’t even hurt or kill you, so you have to cheat or else quit the game.) I’m comfortable saying that this is just objectively bad design. (Some of the trigger crate hunting also feels to me like a bit of mind-reading, but I recognize that some players may be more into hunting than I am, so that’s just opinion.)
Those are the main offenses of this pack. There are a few things that are just buggy—bad masking on the ends of vines or poles, springs that don’t keep your x/y speed properly—but whatever, those are easy fixes. Giving the player a whole bunch of powered-up seekers right before facing Bilsy renders the fight meaningless, but it’s never been easy to design a compelling boss battle/arena.
Apart from those focal points, though, I think these levels are decent. There’s a good mix of enemies and pickups, with various nice features like stomp/destruct blocks, springs, vines, and poles to mark that these are distinctly JJ2 levels. Trees and lakes both make appearances in places to make different parts of the levels feel distinct from each other. Sometimes there are little platforms and sometimes there are larger walls… the walls look a bit flat at times but that may be a consequence of the tileset choice. I think in general the moment-to-moment gameplay is pretty solid here, but some more thought needs to be put into determining what moments the player encounters in what order, and how the player is supposed to figure that out.
Do you want to play some Jazz 2? Yes? Great, here you go. These levels feel like Jazz 2.
These are fine levels. They are short, but that is probably why there are three levels with each tileset and not two levels with each tileset. There are enemies and ammo and food and even some springs and blocks. All JJ2’s main things are here in these levels. You mostly go right but sometimes you go up and down, and that’s good.
I think pickups could be placed better. There are many pickups, but often all pickups are in the same place. There are parts of the level with no pickups and then suddenly a part with many pickups. They could be spread more evenly.
The snow levels are especially good because they are not single paths. Sometimes you can run around in other directions for a while. That lets you have fun and make choices. That is a good thing. The Diamondus levels do this less… maybe they are older. Coins are always a fun thing for running around but these levels do not have coins.
The graphics are not very different from normal. They are well made but I will forget about them because I have seen other levels that look the same. Trying out more different things might be interesting.
These levels are fine. I enjoyed playing them. The author is doing a good job of making levels that feel like Jazz 2 levels. They are shorter and maybe easier but still similar. They are much better than Medivo 3, and Medivo 3 is only one year old. I am impressed. I hope the author will soon make levels that are unique.
Treasure Hunt is a multiplayer gamemode, but this level seems to be designed to be played by only one person.
The big problem is the giant pit… if someone falls in it, there’s no way to get them out. if they have any gems, those gems are lost for the rest of the game. If they have a lot of gems, that means it’ll be impossible for anyone else to get those gems from them, and nobody will be able to win.
The other problem is there’s no ammo at all. It’s certainly possible to steal gems from other people using blaster alone, but it’s not very fun. A big part of the draw of multiplayer JJ2 is using different guns for different situations, and that’s not available here.
Other than that, the level looks nice enough, if a bit cramped in places. The walls don’t always tile properly but that’s a common thing with Carrotus/Easter. The background idea is neat but doesn’t quite work right when played in 800×600. Treasure hunt levels and Easter’99 levels are both rare. It’s just a pity the pit makes the level functionally unplayable.
We forget, sometimes, how abnormally complicated level design for Jazz 2 has to be. Both the visible resolution and the characters’ mobility so far outstrip most other platformer games’ that there are few available analogs. What suffices as a perfectly functional, even engaging, layout or visual in another game is skipped over here in a matter of moments. Worse, even the official maps shipped with the game fail to perfectly illustrate the way forwards, having themselves been designed for a smaller resolution and more limited moveset.
All of which is to say: yes, these levels can be skipped through quickly, but it’s not really their fault.
Focusing on the moment to moment level design, there’s a lot of good work here. The ground goes up and down a lot as you progress through the maps, both using slopes and using tiny cliffs, and even some springs make their appearance. A few areas place pickups just off the main path, encouraging the player to explore. Vines and trees give the levels even more variety, including a memorable section in level 2 crossing a pit of spikes using multiple vines. Everything you see here is much more complicated and interesting than you could find in many other 2D platformer video games.
But it continues to run into this problem sometimes.
Now, to be clear, this pack is much, much less easily skippable than the author’s previous works. The author is clearly improving, which is great. Even that video is a bit unfair… levels 1 and 2 are much more interesting than level 3, and also put more work into avoiding that problem, even using the presence of flying enemies to prevent the player from easily sticking to the skies. But it’s still a problem. For all that the levels are getting more interesting to look at, the enemies more carefully placed, the floors less flat… there are still a lot of places where the player has the option of speeding through between enemies and ignoring all of that.So there are two sorts of recourses:
The other, more elusive option is to find a way to focus on speed above all else as the thing the level design should encourage. I don’t think that’s what the author is doing here, because there are a lot of enemies I had to sometimes purposefully avoid, but I don’t want to leave it out as a possibility and suggest the only good way to design levels (or video games) is to slow the player down as much as possible. Perhaps if anything you want a mixture of the two: challenges, then speed, then challenges, then speed. The official levels have a number of automated sections using springs and poles that seem to support this idea, which simultaneously give the player a chance to rest their fingers.
I don’t have much to say about the visuals in these levels. They’re functional and mostly nothing else, with the occasional cute moment like using a tree branch as a bridge instead of using normal floor tiles. This doesn’t look amazing at JJ2’s high resolutions but I think focusing on level design is more important, so I wouldn’t worry about this too much for now.
Overall the first level here is the best and the third is the worst, but none of them are terrible. Clearly a lot of thought was put into keeping each individual area interesting and distinct from the rest. But some more thought still needs to be put toward the bigger picture, focusing on more than putting down one set of tiles after another until the right side of the layer has been reached.
Jazz 2 shipped with three original battle levels—all titled Battle Game, so we’ve had to refer to them as Battle1, Battle2, and Battle3, to reduce confusion—and the first one is by leaps and bounds the most popular. Probably the most popular official multiplayer level of all, with Diamondus Warzone’s star somewhat reduced these days. Many people have reimagined Battle1 over the years, ranging from simple edits to Charnel Keep to Higher Fragging Rate. An important part of how Battle1 works, at least in my opinion, is its reliance on (nearly) one-way pathways and its refusal to let you go everywhere at once. This level does the same.
Tavern of War is fundamentally an oval that you travel counterclockwise. Different points along the outside of the oval have various reasons to stop and explore—powerups, carrots, warps—but that’s all local. If you want to go somewhere else, for example if there’s a player on the opposite side of the map you want to hunt, then you need to travel the oval. If there are only two of you and it seems like therefore you’ll never reach each other, then you try to trap the other player by turning around and moving backwards along the oval to intercept, at least to the extent possible. This isn’t how every custom battle level works by any means, and it probably shouldn’t be either, but it’s a great idea to encounter from time to time.
Eyecandy is generally pretty solid. I think the author is comfortable with layers that move at the same speed as layer 4 and should start experimenting more with background (and even foreground) layers that move at other speeds, to see what effects can be created that way. The chosen tileset offers a good variety of fun features like arches and curtains and stairs, and the level goes all out in scattering them around. Maybe it’s never perfect, but it’s nice to look at without ever becoming so detailed as to obscure the gameplay.
Can I say that the finer layout details are always the best they could be? No. People generally try to avoid enabling access to the far left and right sides of the level, because of the weird running physics there, but this level puts up no such barriers. The powerups have specific ways you’re supposed to access them but don’t seem to realize that they can be shot by bouncers instead. There’s a generating carrot behind layer 3, so it’s hard to find if you’re looking for a carrot but also confusing if you’re already at full health and don’t know why you went into a dead end. The top right area is all kind of empty. There’s a text sign with no text on it. But these are all surmountable issues that a bit more editing work could handle, and really, I think what’s more important here is that this is an interesting idea for a battle level, a layout that generally supports the idea, and eyecandy that keeps things enjoyable without getting in the way.
Definitely my favorite of the author’s uploads so far.
I was excited to see the author trying a battle level instead of a CTF one this time, because battle levels are theoretically more forgiving in their layout demands. There’s no symmetry requirement, and it’s also more acceptable for there to be areas that it’s hard to hit players in, because unlike in CTF there’s no flagholder for you to hunt down. If a player wants to hide away in a weird corner, they’re only hurting their own score, not yours. (Except in LRS.) And yet the design here seems less purposeful than in the author’s CTF maps. I don’t know if it’s a consequence of not having to worry about finding ways to connect one base to the other, but somehow this level ended up with a lot of awkward spots.
The most obvious are the dead ends. There are at least six spots at the end of the level where you end up in a dead end for no more reason than maybe an ammo pickup or two. These are the opposite of what I described above… the player who ends up in a dead end is supremely vulnerable to people chasing after them firing high-speed bullets, and has no way to get out or fight back. Dead ends can sometimes be good layout decisions if accompanied by some reward other than movement, such as a powerup, but the dead ends here are mostly just holes in the layout with no clear purpose.
The author’s good quality that does continue to manifest here is that there are a lot of details. The tileset is given a good workout, with lots of different kinds of walls interacting with each other to provide landmarks and generally make the level interesting to look at as you move around. The main issue with the tileset use, however, is that there are very few slopes, so once again it can be a bit hard to move around, though not to the same extent as in Greenflower Jungle. You can frequently be running along a platform and then crash into a wall that looked like it should have been a slope, all momentum lost. If the author was unwilling to compromise on graphical variety by using the tileset’s main slope option, the diagonal dark brown branch things, they should have either hidden slope-masked tiles behind layer 3 or else used MLLE to edit the masks of some regular tiles to make them slopes.
I think the closest comparison that comes to mind for this level’s layout is Blade’s Battle Pack, with its complicated layouts and sort of random ammo placement, though Blade always made sure to put lots of ammo in and this is still a little too focused on ice for some reason. (This time there’s an ice powerup inside a secret warp.) I’ll always have a big sweet spot for battle levels that have interesting features and are more than a series of wide passages connecting at various strategic points, and this does push some of my buttons in this regard, but inventive design isn’t itself an excuse to neglect flow. The author’s immediate challenge for future level design is to make it easier for the player to get around, so they can easily experience all the fun little details without getting stuck running into walls or not being able to jump high enough to make it onto platforms. The next step after that is figuring out how the level should flow as a whole, with all the individual areas working together in service to that larger flow, but the ability to move is a more pressing matter than the reason to move.
(This review is based only on the Day version, under the assumption the Night version is identical but with a different palette. If this is wrong, I apologize.)
The impression I got here is of the author trying to lay out a coherent and logical jungle world, populating it with several distinct areas—a cave, a treehouse village…—that each have a layout appropriate to that kind of geographical feature. This is an admirable idea, and the complete opposite of the creating a layout first and then applying a theme to it afterwards… it is, unfortunately, much harder to get right than that other option, especially in a heavily layout-focused gamemode like CTF.
The consequence of the way the level is designed is that it’s surprisingly hard to get around. Over and over, I’d expect to be able to go somewhere, only to discover the mask didn’t actually let me. Either I’d guess wrong what was masked and what wasn’t, or I’d be unable to jump up through a platform, or the jump would be just a little too high to pull off. I’m accustomed to multiplayer levels being more or less on my side: if I see what appears to be a path nearby, and it’s in the direction I want to go for some larger purpose (e.g. getting to a base or powerup), I expect to be able to take that path without much thought. Here navigating the level is actively difficult. This is especially dangerous if you’re being pursued by another player and you don’t have the time to stop and figure out how to move around because that will lead to your death.
One such area is the bottom right corner. Its proximity to the red base suggests it’s a either a way of getting to the red base or a way to escape from the red base when you’re being pursued. It’s not. Rather, it’s the only(?) source of electroblaster ammo, which is needed to get the powerups scattered around the level. All well and good, but the actual electroblaster pickups are hidden behind a wall of leaves, so the player doesn’t even know they’re there, and also it’s almost impossible to get out of the bottom right corner in anything approaching a timely manner unless you’re Spaz. Though at least it is possible.. by comparison, in the area surrounding the ice powerup, you can only move from the right side of the level to the left side if you’re Spaz. Likewise, the blue base is flanked by two cliffs which only Spaz can jump to the tops of. Any other player needs to climb a series of nearby platforms and hover over, which takes more work and only affords access to the base from the right, while Spaz can access it from either the right or the left.
There’s not a lot to say about this point, but there’s not a lot of ammo. Probably the most plentiful kind of ammo is ice, which is also the least useful. Arguably the most useful powerup, the seeker powerup, is hidden inside a secret warp, which gives a significant advantage to people already familiar with the map.
I can see what the author was trying to do here, and again there’s clearly a lot of work put into it, especially the luxuriously detailed graphics. It’s just unfortunate that it’s so hard to move around the level, which, again, is fatal when you’re being pursued by a rabbit from the other team.
There’s a lot of interesting experimental design work in this level, but I don’t think CTF is the best gamemode for it. The fundamental rule of any team-based gamemode is that neither team should be given an advantage by the level design, because it’s random who will be on which team. There are occasional exceptions to this rule, like in Assault levels, where one team attacks and the other team defends, but the expectation there is that at some point every player will swap sides. There’s no such expectation in CTF, so you want a very balanced layout. Most levels achieve this by being fully symmetrical across the vertical axis, so the left side of the map is the same as the right side but mirrored, maybe with some slightly different ammo placement but no other significant changes. Levels like this, where one base is on top and the other is on the bottom, are very rare because it’s very hard to do properly. The existence of gravity means that up vs. down is a fundamentally different question than left vs. right.
In this level in particular, the layout is extra unbalanced. The top area has not only the blue base but almost every useful thing in the level: carrots, powerups, even a shield. The bottom area has the red base, spikes, and a (broken) bottomless death pit. Worse, while the blue base area gives you a lot of freedom for where to move around, there is only a single path to the red base, and it’s very long in addition to being very linear. This means it’s much, much easier to hang around the area of the blue base, waiting for your chance to capture the blue flag or deliver the red flag, than it is to hang around the red base. That’s the kind of gameplay CTF levels should try not to deliver without a very good reason.
Anyway. Just moving around in the level is actually pretty cool, even if I don’t think it coalesces into a balanced whole. In other words, I enjoy exploring this map more than I would probably enjoy playing it, and I’d suggest trying to find a more appropriate way to express this same style. The level has a lot of things to do in it, and I’m always a fan of that, provided they’re there in service to a broader gameplay. Secret areas aren’t really in vogue for multiplayer levels anymore, because they they give too much of an advantage to people who’ve played the level before, so I’d suggest dropping the RF powerup/lightning shield area, but in general I do like the willingness to experiment. As for graphics, while this isn’t my favorite Tubelectric palette, everything comes together pretty well and looks good and intricate. Different areas look somewhat different from each other, which is another important thing to be able to do in multiplayer levels, to help players keep track at a glance of where they are in the map.
Basically, on a micro level, this is really good and I’m happy I downloaded it. There are lots of fine details, both visually and technically. What you need to work on is the macro level: how the different areas in the map relate to each other, how players move from one area to another, and why.
Playing these levels I was instantly reminded of Medivo 3, and I see now they’re by the same author, so that makes sense. Once again the most obvious issue with most of these levels is there’s no reason to actually play them. It’s much faster to use copter ears to skip almost the entire map and not notice any of the details of the layout. Not every level in this pack falls into that same pattern (the Labrat level has maybe the most detailed layout), but most of them do. Three possible solutions to this problem come to mind:
1. Have walls in the air so the player can’t get too high above the ground. A few of these levels do that, but often only once, which provides only a momentary break before you’re back to soaring over everything again.
2. If you’re going to make the level’s progression almost entirely horizontal, at least have it move gradually up instead of down. Almost every level here has the start higher up than the end. The reverse would force the player to pay some attention, and would give you opportunities to design ways for the player to get upwards, such as springs, platforms, sucker tubes, pinball flippers, cheshire cats..
3. Change direction from time to time. The best levels here—Labrat, and the sewers in Colonius—do this, but the rest do not. Look at the official JJ2 single player levels for contrast… they change directions all the time. It’s fine if your overall progression is to the right, because that’s traditional for 2D video games, but there’s no reason not to have lots of moments going up, down, and left along the way. And doing this forces the player to notice your level exists and think about what to do next.
I can’t comment on enemy placement because I hardly ever interacted with any, but I did notice there were very few pickups. Collecting things is the most obvious way to provide fun/rewards to a player, so it’s not something to skimp on without good reason. The boss battles are completely fundamental and added nothing.
The graphics are fine, anyway. I wouldn’t be surprised if the background (and sometimes foreground) layers were all copied directly from the official single player levels (the start of MedivoB supports this theory), but the walls are fine too, in that they seem to tile properly even in the hardest to use tilesets like Inferno. There’s nothing innovative or elaborate about the graphic use here, but it’s all functional, and sometimes that’s all you need for a single player map.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to make a short single player level. Queen’s Castle is a great example of how to do it right—this, however, is not. Throw out most of this and instead focus on doing more of what you did in the Labrat level, where there are actual level features to interact with, a floor that isn’t just a straight line,and a layout that the player has to pay attention to.
It’s unclear what makes these “coop” levels. They’re fully linear…the path never splits in two like you might imagine. Not a lot of high jumps where one player should stand on another’s head. No trigger crates or anything are available to encourage one player to help another. No multiplayer-only events that I notice. Many coin warps (one in almost every level), which are one of the least coop-friendly mechanics available.
But they’re solidly… okay. The graphics are more or less functional, and the layouts are mostly horizontal but do have moments of vertical movement that force you to pay attention to the level instead of holding the run key. Enemies are varied and generally appropriate to their tilesets; only butterflies are seemingly omnipresent but they’re so rare in levels outside this pack that I’m inclined to forgive this detail.
Ammo is pretty good too, despite the occasional misstep of placing powerups (ostensibly inside coin warp areas) where they may be shot by electroblaster. This pack adapts a common theme from early (think J2C-era) single player packs where it pretends the player has never played JJ2 before and so all mechanics need to be reintroduced, from ammo types to gems and savepoints… this conceit has never once made the least bit of sense, of course, but it’s cute enough, despite the occasional english issue. Even after all the weapons have been introduced, the pack mostly fits each level with only one weapon type, an interesting design holdover from the official JJ2 levels which maybe doesn’t get used as often by other people. There’s a surprisingly good effort to match enemies and layouts to the weapons most useful against them.
I can’t claim this pack does anything memorable. The levels are disconnected with not even a hint of storyline to justify the random assortment of tilesets, and the layouts are never spectacular. But there’s a lot of effort on display here nonetheless. Many of the levels do genuinely have features unique to them, attempting to match the design to the graphics. That kind of variety is a great thing. This is promising. THE COOLEST COOP LEVELS #2 will surely be better still.
I wanted this to be a featureless boss rush so I’d have had nothing to say about it, but unfortunately this pack does grow gradually more ambitious as it progresses, but never in a good way. Besides the obvious technical issues—several custom tilesets aren’t included in the zip, and the rocket turtle level is completely unplayable due to broken masking preventing you from entering the arena—there’s a lack of interesting content. Boss rushes are always a weird video game concept, but they make the most sense in games that aren’t very moddable, where it would normally take a lot of time to encounter all the bosses because you have to play the entire game linearly to do so. This isn’t the case with JJ2, which has custom single players dating back to 1998, meaning there are innumerable chances to fight the various bosses already out there, most of them more interesting than this. The bosses are complete experiences on their own but this pack doesn’t add much to them—Uterus is underwater, the robot boss has some oddly masked flames, Devan has a whole bunch of respawning enemies, but nothing mindblowing. The graphics are likewise rudimentary at best. The only real appeal of this pack is the bosses themselves—depending on any given player’s personal opinions of them—but the thing is, that’s the part of the pack that you played the least role in creating. What moments there are of non-boss gameplay are largely unnecessary pickup collection or shooting through various destructible blocks. Again, there’s nothing new here, and what there is isn’t executed with any great aplomb. To make successful single player levels, lean less heavily on giant chunks of other people’s preexisting effort and focus more on what you can uniquely bring to the table with your own work.
Azazilisland starts strong (as shown in the screenshot), placing you in the middle of the level with a bunch of stuff going on in every direction. This is a very non-linear level, so you can go in any direction and still make progress, assuming progress is defined by gradually removing all enemies and pickups from the level. There are a handful of spots in the level that are actually necessary to visit, in order to hit certain trigger zones, but for the most part there’s not a lot distinguishing those spots from any other possible destination, so your best strategy is just to go everywhere and do everything. If there’s an enemy near you, you haven’t gone that direction yet, so give it a try.
There seems to be a bit of an intended order for you to visit the trigger zone spots, in that certain of them are initially locked off by trigger scenery blocks that get removed by others. Nothing about this order is explained anywhere in the level, and nor is the end area made very explicit, and yet somehow I found myself visiting everything in exactly the right order (and guessing where the end area was). I don’t know if this is coincidence or level design genius but either way it’s hard to complain about.
This is, then, a level all about exploration, and thankfully there’s a decent variety in areas contained within the level: you’re not just in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. The most obvious example is that the entire bottom section is a sandy beach, but the thin wooden platforms are more or less common in different parts of the level, and there are a handful of other landmarks to help you figure out where you are. Additionally, the level is very easy to explore (if you’re willing to do the occasional uppercut/double jump onto a higher wooden platform), preferring lots of small blocks over long tunnels, so it’s always possible to change direction and wander until you find somewhere genuinely new. The only real slipups on the explorability fronts are certain tiles which look like they should be vines but are in fact fully solid, therefore preventing vertical movement between areas.
Indeed, the level is so navigable that there’s even a witch enemy toward the top of the level, with Eva placed a little farther down, more in the middle. If you forget where she is, it’s possible to fall all the way down to the bottom of the level and eventually climb back up to find her again (provided you don’t die along the way). I’m not sure how I feel about the witch’s inclusion overall, but I appreciate that the level makes sure you can get back up to her as a frog… but not much farther up than that.
Besides the one witch, there’s a respectably-sized menagerie of enemies that seem appropriate to the tileset, all managing to pose the occasional, yet never outsized, thread. The level also boasts a solid, yet never excessive, number of carrots and ammo pickups to make your battles that much easier. And ultimately its success lives and dies on the question of how much you enjoy walking around and shooting normal JJ2 enemies, because it gives you a whole lot of opportunities to do that, without any obvious flaws but without any enormous innovation or variety… and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Penguinvasion is a nice, simple level that serves to introduce a lot of HH18 mechanics (gem collection, gift boxes, enemies…) in a safe context without a lot of fanfare. All these things are easy enough to understand that the player is largely left to figure them out on their own without lengthy text signs or other explanations, which is a wise decision. The graphics are never too elaborate but definitely serve to define several different kinds of environments within the level—branch climbing, caves, even a hotel—each of which remembers to have a distinct sort of layout. Besides the trigger crate hunt at the end, nothing is ever going to be especially memorable about this level, but that’s because it has a different job to do: to be a relaxing introduction. At this it succeeds perfectly.
Tipplenborough is a rarity in any game, JJ2 included, being a level with a primarily vertical orientation. Certainly you spend a lot of time in horizontal areas, but the goal is always to find a way up, at least until a point toward the end where you have to fall down for a while before you can start going up again… that part is confusing and could be better signaled. The level looks very big and impressive and must have taken quite some time to construct, especially considering the amount of exploration that’s possible to do across the various paths. A speedy player could easily see only a fraction of this map in a single playthrough. On the other hand, the different paths all seem fairly similar in their gameplay, not deviating much from normal JJ2 fare… and there aren’t a whole lot of gems, and even the episode’s distinctive giftbox mechanic falls by the wayside here… and it’s weird having normal fire dragons right after the first level’s ice dragons… so Tipplenborough feels almost more of a standalone affair than part of the broader episode. It’s hardly objectionable as a refutation of HH98’s level design style while using the same tileset, but the ambition of the hugeness doesn’t seem 100% born out in the moment-to-moment.
Cold Paw further demonstrates the hazards of coordinating the finer details of different levels in an episode being made by different people… the little walking penguin robots are feeling quite overused by now, but the ice bats that this level introduces (and should therefore highlight) hardly seem to appear at all. But gift boxes return in full force, and the level does manage some other level-specific focuses as well, mostly springs and pepper spray. There are a couple moments here that don’t seem quite prepared for Lori’s reduced jumping powers, and the red poles as barriers never quite clicked for me as a layout concept, but this isn’t a bad level, just a kind of punishing one. After two dark ice cave levels in a row, we’re about due for something in the open air…
Under the Weather is a strong contender for the level people remember from HH18, with its heavy focus on gimmicky gameplay. The freezing temperature mechanic that hurts you when you stay outside for too long is too omnipresent to ignore and becomes a serious threat toward the end of the level as shelter becomes more sparse. The tiny jumping snowman enemies are this level’s other big threat, frequently placed where you can least afford to pay attention to them because you need to get back inside before it gets too cold. If anything they may be a little too fast, but it’s interesting to see HH18 bringing out tougher enemies, forcing you to remember your stronger weapons. The same cannot be said of the ice golem boss battle, unfortunately, who is probably perfectly interesting but always goes down in seconds. This level is also smart enough to not have the entirety of its layout revolve around the temperature mechanic, so there are a couple of fun cave areas that are also high on the gimmicky end and yet manage not to overstay their welcome. The level is fairly short and linear because it needs to be, but it’s definitely a great example of thinking about what sorts of things video games can do to evoke the deadlier side of winter.
Breaking Out unfortunately feels out of place in a pack that’s otherwise gradually increasing its complexity and scriptedness. There’s a definite difficulty to the gameplay here, as enemies shoot lots of bullets at you (even the ice bullets are nicely positioned near spikes or jumping snowmen), but not a whole lot of interest value. You bust into jails, grab coins, go to the coin warp, and then do all the exact same things again. It’s also unclear why things aren’t scripted more than they are… the prisoners are static tiles instead of animated, the “keycards” are just trigger crates, and the coins are just coins. Things get more interesting at the end with the boss battle (and its utterly unnecessary cutscene moments), which has an elaborate set of moves not common among JJ2 bosses, but unfortunately again it’s just a quick bullet sponge and the attacks can probably be ignored unless you specifically want to watch how cool they are.
Toyed Badlands is pretty interesting as a very exploration-heavy map that trusts you to eventually figure out the right way to go as you gradually hit more trigger crates. This would quickly fail in a level with only one kind of eyecandy, but fortunately that’s not the case here, and there are several distinct areas (including some buildings with actual labels) that make it much easier to tell at a glance where you are and remember where there’ve been lock blocks before. Little details like rotating lollipops or spiky Lego bricks add a lot to the atmosphere. The ice skull guys from the previous level are back but this time are much less dangerous, which is kind of a weird progression… all that’s newish on the enemy front is ice-colored versions of Tuf Turtles and Doggy Doggs, and even those are familiar from HH17. Sometimes the map is more cramped than it needs to be, which doesn’t 100% facilitate exploration, and there’s never really a standout moment, but this is still some good fun.
Pikitia Ara feels in some undefinable way like an overgrown JJ1 level, and has a lot of good old-fashioned platforming and spelunking and enemy dispatching. There are two fun new foes on display in this final level, both of them quite tough, but the player’s arsenal has evolved to the point that they feel totally fair and correctly placed. Spike bolls get a lot of really good use here. There’s an unfortunate moment of sequence breaking available to anyone willing to shoot a checkpoint with electroblaster, but everything else seems to work as intended and it’s a nice challenge (but never too challenging) that doesn’t do much out of the ordinary but doesn’t make any mistakes. It is a bit of a weird choice for the final stretch of this episode, though, wearing its winter holiday theme only very loosely.
Frigid Fortress leans heavily on traditional approaches to forbidding atmosphere but with a definite wintery flavor, a solid decision. The first boss gets around the shoot-the-cyberdemon-until-it-dies issue that other bosses in HH18 had by having invincibility frames of its own, encouraging strategic (read: high-damage) attacks mixed with a lot of dodging. The second boss has a difficult job to do because the number of hearts players could be fighting it with is potentially highly variable, but arrive at what I think is a good solution by exhibiting a range of different attacks that are interesting but never unfair, so if you don’t have the hearts to just sink bullets into it forever (and it’s got quite a lot of health), dodging is a realistic option. The dialogue and plot twist between fights are hardly novel but you wouldn’t expect them to be for a holiday pack anyway. Everything here is satisfactory for a video game boss experience.
There’s a lot to like here, but not a lot to love. It’s also hard to escape the fact that Faded Story Part 1 has essentially two halves, so let’s talk about that.
The first half (and also a little bit at the end) is all scene-setting and story. At one point you’re free to walk around a village for a while, entering buildings and talking to other rabbits, but there’s no gameplay to speak of and you get the sense it only uses standard JJ2 physics for the sake of convenience. At one point you seem to have the chance to buy some powerups or food, but as far as I can tell there’s no way to actually get money; it’s just the appearance of a shop because villages have shops.
More memorably there are a lot of cutscenes. The episode opens by gradually zooming in on a closed book, then the book opens up and you get to turn the pages by pressing right. The art isn’t amazing but it’s neat that there’s art at all—even the more technically sophisticated cutscenes from devres only ever bothered with (lots and lots of) text. Design schematics for the robot boss are the highlight here. Some non-scripted JJ2+ features also make appearances: big flickering lights and fast warps for the doorways and dialogue sequences. Oddly some conversations use standard text events instead of the custom dialogue system… perfectly serviceable but less consistent.
The other half of the episode are the three or so levels of JJ2 gameplay, specifically the kind of JJ2 gameplay that thinks trigger crates (and occasionally trigger zones) are the best thing ever. There are also still some nods to storytelling in the more gameplay-oriented portion of the pack, with transitional areas between tilesets, but at this point it’s mostly about finding ways to head to the right side of the level by hitting this or that trigger crate and then figuring out what path it opened up.
Trigger crates do make up a lot of the level design, but not in a terrible way, and really the level design in general is pretty good, even if I did seem to find a couple sequence breaking moments. It’s much more in the style of custom JJ2 levels than official JJ2 levels but still acquits itself well, even if it does lean maybe a little too heavily toward enemies that are very hard to see. Not a lot of walking enemies to be found here. There’s pickup variety, some swinging platforms, some good spike placement. Areas with different graphics use somewhat different styles of layout, contributing to the feeling of these levels taking place in real locations, which is always useful for a story-based episode. I don’t remember playing any good float-sucker-buttstomping sequences recently, and this episode delivers a couple of them.
What I don’t quite get is why the two halves—the story and the gameplay—are mostly so separate. Multiple j2l files are devoted at the start to introducing the player to the systems for entering buildings, having conversations, and so on, but the plot is actually quite minimal and all those things disappear completely the moment you start shooting enemies. Why aren’t there NPCs to talk to in the gameplay levels too? What was the point of making something so innovative (if still a bit unpolished) at the start if it doesn’t end up being important?
I’m glad to see this is only a first episode. It’s generally perfectly enjoyable to play, even if its level design does mostly fall into familiar patterns from other custom JJ2 maps, but there’s room for it to grow as well, as it becomes more comfortable with its innovations, more willing to play around with them, and more invested in art quality. There’s still room for Faded Story to become the next Demon Invasion.
The level is a bit empty of interactivity toward the start, and I don’t think Devan was necessary, but otherwise I’ve got nothing to complain about here… the eyecandy is solid and the gameplay is great. The pathways tend to be just narrow enough to invoke the feeling of being in a (jungle) cave but not so narrow that they become uncomfortable. There’s a lot of variation in stuff to do, in particular the rolling rocks that are executed incredibly well: you know they’re coming and they land where they’re supposed to land and they’re minor inconveniences in-between. You’re forever changing direction as you navigate the level and it feels very nice and organic. Sometimes there are some interesting jumps. Secret areas tend to be fairly rewarding and not very hard to find, which is a combination that leads to a good feeling of fun. A lot of mileage comes from hollow logs, often in combination with sucker tube events, and they give the level a memorable uniqueness without ever venturing into being overused. The tileset is used to pretty much its full effect and there are a number of spots where there’s a tree or a some platforms or something to make sure the level never spends too long on one thing. A fine example of pure JJ2 leveling.
I… I guess? Ultimately this is a puzzle level masquerading as a quick prank. The presentation is rather bare-bones but there’s a bit of thinking to do anyway. Sort of a very low budget somnium. Winning kills you, always a sign of a good level.
Eat your lima beans, Johnny.