At around that time, a lot of things were happening in the games industry. Nintendo’s NES was skyrocketing to mainstream popularity, taking over the world with an unlikely plumber and laying the groundwork for a couple of decades of domination. Meanwhile, the now ‘uncool’ generation of home gaming hardware, made up of systems such as the ZX Spectrum, the much more powerful Atari ST and Amiga, and most importantly to our story, the Commodore 64, still bravely soldiered on in the face of Nintendo’s unstoppable 8-bit juggernaut.
The Great Giana Sisters released onto multiple systems, but it’s the Commodore 64 version that is most fondly recalled. With a soundtrack by acclaimed composer Chris Hülsbeck (of Turrican fame) and pulling a technically impressive performance out of the hardware, the C64 port would’ve been a notably decent game, remembered fondly by a few people. The fact that the first level was almost identical to Nintendo’s own Super Mario Bros added some controversial notoriety and ensured Giana (and her sister, Maria) would take their place among ‘cult’ gaming history. To this day, copies of the C64 version fetch upwards of £200, thanks to a limited release brought on by some legal ‘leaning’ by Nintendo.
Fast-forward 25 years, and despite a perfectly good return in a completely original DS game released in 2009, the Giana Sisters seem permanently consigned to history. That is until one particular Kickstarter campaign pops up. Dubbed “Project Giana,” the campaign run by the newly-founded Black Forest Games promised a revamped and revitalised return of the titular sisters in a completely original, fantastically presented piece of traditional platforming loveliness. They weren’t wrong.
I actually backed the project, as I’d picked up the original Giana as a toddler on my Grandad’s Commodore 64 (I own a copy of the original game somewhere – holding on to it for prosperity) and even played the obscure DS game. I found the games up to that point to be tight, solid, well-made platformers with no extraneous “bells and whistles,” but with enough charm to stand out from the crowd.
Right, that’s your history lesson for the day. Hope you were paying attention, because there’ll be a multiple choice test at the end (spoilers: Every answer is ‘C’). Moving on.
Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, like its forebears, has little time for story. All you need to know is that Giana has entered a dream world to rescue her sister, Maria, and it involves picking up a bunch of glowing crystals. Enough context for you? Good, because it’s all you’re getting.
What sets this iteration apart from the herd is the core gameplay mechanic; at any time, you can switch between Giana’s lovely, fluffy, Disney princess-esque “happy” persona (capable of jumping a little higher and floating slowly back down again) or her dark, gritty, high-school-poetry-writing, Bad Religion-listening ‘punk’ version, who can hurl herself in various directions as a ball of angst-fuelled flame.
“…trying to push your way through a difficult segment after eight minutes of the same level can begin to get frustrating.”
This forms the basis for all the platforming you’ll be required to do, as not only is each persona’s skill required at different times, but switching between them actually causes physical changes to the level around you. In one of the more impressive pieces of presentational wizardry I’ve seen in an indie game (or indeed, any game), the levels visually alter drastically as you switch, going from a twee, cutesy wonderland for ‘punk’ Giana to a dark, nightmarish hell for the ‘Disney’ persona. The process of switching is instantaneous, but the first few times you watch the world smoothly warp around you is quite the sight to behold.
It also affects gameplay, as paths and platforms only become active in one version or the other, temporarily forcing your hand (I prefer to play as much of the game as I can with the ‘punk’ version, since I’m a very ‘gung-ho’ sort-of player who likes killing everything in sight). Also affected are the types of gems you can collect – blue for either type, yellow for the ‘lovely’ Giana and red for the ‘grr’ version. It’s always seemed to me that indie games on the whole are incredibly good at taking a single mechanical idea and extrapolating that to fill up an entire title’s worth of gameplay (VVVVV, for example), and Twisted Dreams seems to successfully subscribe to that philosophy.
There aren’t many levels, clocking it at 23 for the main game, but this is compensated by their sheer size. Each level can take upwards of ten minutes on a first run, with a whole bunch of optional incentives for the traditional completionists among you to come back and give it another couple of stabs. If I had a complaint, it’d be that I tend to prefer shorter, more numerous levels, rather than a few ‘grand scale’ ones, if only because towards the end of each level, it begins to feel more like a test of endurance than skill. Certain platforming ‘set pieces’ are fiendishly difficult and although the checkpoints are well-spaced, trying to push your way through a difficult segment after eight minutes of the same level can begin to get frustrating.
There are also a few bosses, but they almost feel unnecessary. The usual “learn the pattern; hit the boss” stuff seems a little out of place with the constantly innovative use of mechanics throughout the rest of the game. It feels like they’re there just to “tick a box,” which is at odds with the purposeful design found elsewhere.
Even then, these minor niggles didn’t really bother me all that much, especially since just breathing in the game’s presentation makes whatever you’re doing a pleasurable experience. The 3D models on a 2D plane look absolutely gorgeous, with the stark contrast between each version of the world emphasized by a well-implemented art direction. Then there’s the music. Oh, the music…
I’m terribly sorry. I’m going back to my “history lesson” bit again, but you’re going to have to deal with it for a minute (I lied. I’m not even remotely sorry. This is important, dammit!).
I mentioned in the introduction that the original game featured music by Chris Hülsbeck, a composer known mostly for his work on the Turrican series. In a stroke of pure genius, Black Forest Games coaxed Chris into returning to score Twisted Dreams’ happy, saccharine versions of each world. For a fan of the original Giana Sisters, you’d think it couldn’t get any better. You’d be wrong.
The Commodore 64’s music came from hardware known as the SID chip, which produced a particularly distinctive noise that you could identify from a line-up of any random collection of chiptunes. Over in Sweden, this particular sound forms the keystone of all work produced by possibly my favourite band in the universe, Machinae Supremacy.
No strangers to game soundtrack work, having provided the OST for the relatively obscure indie shmup, Jets ‘N’ Guns, and self-professed fans of the original Giana Sisters (there’s even a cover version of the original theme from long before Project Giana existed), the dark, sinister versions of each level feature the band’s rearrangements of Hülsbeck’s compositions. Not to sound overly dramatic, but it’s as if the stars have aligned to provide the perfect love letter to not just an almost forgotten game, but the entire legacy of the Commodore 64 itself. I’m getting all teary just thinking about it…
As I briefly mentioned, there’s a whole bunch of extra stuff to do upon beating the ‘main’ mode of the game, including Challenge and Time Trial levels and three extra difficulty settings. It’s all very complete and polished. With the constant controversy and uncertainty surrounding crowd-funded gaming projects, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams stands proudly as an example of what brilliance may come when everything goes just right.