Version tested: Xbox 360
There are many great stories told about the American frontier and the bold folks who forged it. War hero and adventurer Davy Crockett. Johnny Appleseed's mission to bring fresh fruit to the pioneers. Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack, and his blue cow sidekick.
Then there's the story of Luke, Donna and Rebecca, and their journey to the west in a simple covered wagon. They faced skunk, bandits and even narwhals. They were helped by a B-52 bomber and laser guns, but to no avail. Luke was shot in the throat and died. Donna got trampled by bison. Rebecca soldiered on a little further, all by herself, before a bear mauled her face off.
Your experience may vary, however. Super Amazing Wagon Adventure is a delightful 80-Microsoft-Point Xbox indie game: a chunky Atari pastiche that comes in randomly selected bite-sized vignettes, sending the story down increasingly surreal avenues with every branch.
There are two broad play styles - side-scrolling shooter while in the wagon, top-down twin-stick shooter while on foot - and the game always starts in the same way. You're gunning down animals when bandits attack, you collect berries and check out a cave. After that, however, all bets are off. You may end up blasting piranha underwater or soaring high above the Earth. You may get whisked up in a tornado or stuck in a river. You may investigate a cave in one game and find a cache of shotguns, only to be attacked by giant bats when you check it out in the following play-through.
In its own weird way, the game actually tells a compelling yarn, as deadpan plot twists pile up and you start to really invest yourself in the survival of your randomly assigned characters. There's a breathless child-like quality to the way the scenes tumble along, the free-wheeling tone strangely reminiscent of Axe Cop, an amazing comic book written by a five-year-old and drawn by his adult brother.
The game can be beaten in ten minutes or so, but don't expect to see the happy ending for a while. True to its retro inspirations, this is a brutal and ruthless game that is nonetheless utterly fair and never stops being fun, simply because you can jump back in within seconds and try again, facing completely different challenges.
There's more going on here than just ironic parody, too. Beneath the delirious pixel art there's an actual game, with surprising depth for such a simple concept. Animal skins can be collected and traded, while certain encounters will unlock a series of survival modes. Multiple weapon types make a huge difference, each with a small tactical advantage. The laser gun, for example, has a wide powerful shot but vaporises your target, leaving no pelts to collect. The sniper rifle automatically aims at enemies but is slow to fire.
There are also a variety of different wagons to earn, their criteria tipping you off to some of the story twists you've yet to experience: aliens, time travel, dinosaurs and more. You'll replay because it's fun, but also because there's a natural urge to see what unexpected diversion the tale will take next time. And, who knows, maybe this time you'll get to the end, by luck or judgement.
Much has been said about the death of the Xbox Live Indie Games channel, and it's sadly true that it remains awash in cynically clumsy Minecraft clones and creepy dating simulations. Super Amazing Wagon Adventure is a reminder that witty, innovative ideas can still flourish there. Hilariously weird, with a solid gameplay base, it's really quite brilliant.
8 / 10