Seaven Studio, based out of Northern France, has followed suit with Ethan: Meteor Hunter, a deceptively brutal side-scrolling physics platformer in the vein of Pid and Rochard. Unlike the plucky human heroes of similar titles, Ethan is a charming little mouse who really likes meteors. Luckily for him, they’ve crash-landed all over the world, and he’s ready to collect them all in a series of death defying stunts, aided by the time-altering powers of the glowing alien minerals, which sounds pretty simple, but that’s a lie Ethan inserts into your brain.
Probably by glowing alien minerals.
“Yes, Ethan has a time manipulation mechanic that allows you to move objects around the environment.”
The thing of it is, Ethan is a puzzle-platformer in a way that condenses puzzle-platformers into their base elements. Stages are set up like a traditional platforming game (I was consistently drawing comparisons to Crash Bandicoot), with chunks of floating minerals scattered throughout the air or above difficult-to-reach crevasses in the wall. You run along, jump to touch them and hopefully collect all the pieces by the end. What sets this game apart, however, is the checkpointing system, which is weird to say, but again, hamburger clowns.
Yes, Ethan has a time manipulation mechanic that allows you to move objects around the environment. This can make you land impossible jumps, reach buttons or otherwise help you collect minerals and progress through the stages, even going so far as to activate mousetraps and other hazards to your advantage, but that’s all standard (if bastardly difficult) fare. The checkpoints, by contrast, effectively divide every level into a series of individual puzzles, rather than one complete experience, which means that every time you reach a new checkpoint crystal, you jettison your memory of the previous puzzle in favor of the immediate challenge. You can also reset that individual puzzle using the B button, which reduces the stress of a complete stage run, while preserving the integrity of each level’s parts. Neat!
“One of the things I’ve grown to love about this generation of puzzle games is their propensity for sticking innocent-looking characters into the eighth circle of Hell, forcing them to die in front of the player’s eyes as they move toward some intangibly odd goal. Ethan does this with aplomb…”
What makes it all come together, however, is the insanely brutal difficulty. This is distilled trial-and-error gameplay so pure it makes Limbo look like Barney’s Hide & Seek, and delights in launching little Ethan into sawblades, lava, spike traps, crushing pistons, explosives, mousetraps… really, anything that will see him explode in a shower of Campbell’s beefy chunks. Collecting every crystal shard from a puzzle section is a monumentally difficult task, and Seaven has gone to great lengths to make every puzzle a twisted nightmare of launch pads, time freezing and death. Yes, he’s a cartoony little mouse with a cute tail. But Ethan will die. And it will be painful.
Once you’ve left the evolutionary crucible of the first area, Ethan descends into a flaming hell pit, the likes of which haven’t been seen since The 7th Guest graveyard cake puzzle. The constant need to block and move items with Ethan’s time-freezing ability is short-changed by its limited use, resulting in situations where you have to weigh moving on to the next puzzle with collecting every shard, knowing that if you don’t, you’ll have to come back at some later point and try again. Blocking multiple death wheels with boxes in the middle of a high-speed jump is not as easy as it might appear, and even with the protagonist suspended in mid-air, there’s a very real chance that you’ve missed some small detail that will get him killed. Is that platform going to give out before you can reach the other side? Can that box block a spike pit? Will that object float in lava? Each puzzle pushes you to create a supercharged muscle memory, only to force its discard the minute you hit another checkpoint. Ethan laughs in your face, his backpack stuffed with valuable meteorites. He is crushed by a spatula. Repeat.
One of the things I’ve grown to love about this generation of puzzle games is their propensity for sticking innocent-looking characters into the eighth circle of Hell, forcing them to die in front of the player’s eyes as they move toward some intangibly odd goal. Ethan does this with aplomb and has seriously intense puzzle cred that its cartoony façade might not inform. This is the holy grail of puzzle-platform junkies, the crème-de-la-crème of a genre that’s already known as aggravatingly difficult.
Find a meteor. Save the mouse.
France would have wanted it this way.