Finland? Funland, more like! Or at least that is the impression you might have cultivated had you peered at my distinctly Nordic appointment schedule at the Game Developers Conference this month. For it was there I not only played charming gravity-based PSN platformer Rochard, but also received a riotous introduction to MotoHeroz - the latest game from Trials HD developer RedLynx.
Like Trials, which was excellent on the PC and then arguably even better in re-knitted Xbox Live Arcade threads, MotoHeroz is a 2D, side-scrolling racing game. You have to pilot a vehicle (in this case chosen from an array of colourful buggies) over, through and sometimes below obstacles to reach an end goal.
Every level in Trials was a very personal journey. Unlocking new content was cool, but you really wanted to beat your friends' leaderboard times. This meant keeping your obligations to both speed and control in perfect balance, usually by doing the same sequences over and over again with help from the instant-restart button. The fact the game tallied how many attempts each new score took to achieve was no coincidence.
The more enlightened (or those who had checked out easily downloadable replays) would then embellish these attempts with clever physics tricks, based on the ability to buck and rear in the saddle. And if you never played Trials and have been struggling to visualise what I'm on about, we have plenty of examples to check out in our videos section, although expect to say goodbye to 1200 Microsoft Points shortly after you watch them.
There are similar elements at work in WiiWare title MotoHeroz. For example, you may be in a buggy, but you can still effectively move back and forward in your car seat to change your pitch while airborne. Except you no longer have to restart when you hit your head or come unseated, because neither happens.
If you take a tumble, you just shake the Wiimote to right yourself. There are no checkpoints either, although solo-loving perfectionists can still instant-restart in search of a better time.
Instead MotoHeroz is more like a 2D platformer, with multiple routes through levels, power-ups to collect (like a speed boost, and a coiled spring that lets you bound over obstacles), and cute, simple graphics reminiscent of the livelier Worms games. Rather than the grungy warehouses and industrial settings, MotoHeroz goes for cheery ice and jungle levels with level furniture built out of vines, creepers and logs.
The campaign mode starts off merely asking you to get to the end, but before you make too much progress into its healthy bundle of 75 levels it wants you to compete with ghost cars to reach the end. Online, too, you can download ghosts. You can also form groups so that you can target specific friends' achievements.
But perhaps more interesting is that you can download a daily challenge level and compete against friends to set a high score. RedLynx has a pot of 50 levels that it will cycle through for this, so in theory you and a buddy who know each other online could decide to play a bit of MotoHeroz of an evening, and you'd have a readymade level playing field to fight over. Levels are only about 20 kilobytes, too, so you'll be ready before you know it unless you're playing someone from 1997.
The social side of MotoHeroz is really where it's at, and the game jumps off the screen and nestles in your consciousness when it's thrown into multiplayer. Up to four players can engage in a local Party mode, and it's not split-screen, it's single-screen; each of your buggies appears together at the start, twitching and jostling for position, and you have to race, wrestle and climb over one another to reach the goal.
Frequently speed is not the best answer – at one point I'm well ahead and dash into a carousel that will spin me happily into the finishing bauble, which dangles temptingly from a tree, only for one of the RedLynx developers to take a shortcut by pulling up short of the jump and tipping slowly over the edge, cutting out my faster-paced by unnecessarily elaborate pre-victory lap.
If Trials was performance art, MotoHeroz is a shameful squabble. Expect to talk smack as you tot up victories over a sequence of levels and hurl abuse when you do not. The outcome is far from random, but there are enough variables that luck does factor into it. And sitting down with two or three other people and telling it to throw you into a chosen number of random levels one after the next is a great pick-up prospect.
And while this is definitely not Trials, it does embody one of its most important characteristics: absorbing, palpably artful level design. Each track is a snakes-and-ladders board of intersecting rollercoasters, closer to Sonic the Hedgehog than Excitebike, and finding the most rewarding lines will be a tactile pleasure.
Playing MotoHeroz in a week that Satoru Iwata announced his concerns about games "drowning" in the immense depths of places like the iTunes App Store, one hopes that games like MotoHeroz and Rochard will be exceptions (or that he's just wrong, innit).
But even if they only reach a limited audience when all is said and done, that audience should be very much entertained – and the beardy citizens of Funland are likely to hammer on regardless, which is an encouraging thought.