There's a takeout place near my apartment called Nong's Khao Man Gai that serves only one dish comprised of three simple ingredients: rice, chicken, and soybean sauce. By all accounts that should add up to dime-a-dozen mediocrity, yet against all odds, it's garnered worldwide acclaim, having been written up in The Guardian, Time Magazine and the Sydney Morning Herald just to name a few.
Mutant Mudds, the new 3DS eShop offering from Renegade Kid (Dementium: The Ward, Moon) is a lot like Nong's Khao Man Gai. On the surface, there's not much to it. A minimal platformer with an 8-bit aesthetic in which you jump, shoot, and hover would be a tough sell even by late eighties standards, yet it rises above its lack of innovation by getting the fundamentals just right.
After an extremely brief intro portraying an outlandishly dorky-looking boy and his grandma watching an invasion of alien mud (mudd?) creatures on the news, you're booted straight into the first level as the lad goes about ridding the world of these monsters. There's hardly any story or text, and there are no experience points, healing items or power-ups to find. Your only goal is to reach the end of each stage and ideally collect 100 gems along the way.
This lack of features almost becomes a feature in itself. By excising the cruft that usually comes with modern games, Mutant Mudds' streamlined sensibilities give it a lot of forward momentum. This quick pace is enhanced by concise levels that take about three minutes to complete, just long enough that dying feels like it has a real consequence, yet short enough to encourage another go.
Mutant Mudds is a throwback to the old days, not just in terms of its pixelated art, catchy chiptune soundtrack and two-button controls, but in its fiendish level design as well. Between steady controls with none of Mario's agility and sludgy sentries repeating the same patterns, the challenges are primarily based on timing.
Due to your languid movement, it can take a lot of practice figuring out when to jump and how long to hover when faced with a series of disappearing platforms, flying foes and angry wind clouds that can blow you to the deadly foreground. Refining one's muscle memory remains as satisfying now as it was in Mega Man all those years back, and sections that once seemed impossible quickly become second nature.
Hidden in each level is a bonus stage mired in red or grey to emulate the graphics of a Virtual Boy or Game Boy respectively. These areas are a particular highlight, as they skew towards the harder end of the spectrum and don't contain any collectibles.
Most of these stages require an upgrade to access. These can be purchased by cashing in gems at Grannie's attic, because apparently giving her grandson gear that would help save his life would be too easy. Consider it tough love. This equipment allows you to hover longer, gain a more powerful shot that can fire further and destroy certain barriers, and eventually jump higher. Only one upgrade can be applied at a time, however, so you can't rely on the same gadgets if you want to unlock every stage.
While Mutant Mudds' mechanics are straightforward, it does have one unique feature. At certain points you can hop into the foreground or background. Though this doesn't alter the gameplay in any meaningful way, it increases the density of each level threefold, giving players a tantalizing preview of the challenges ahead. Much like Pullblox, swapping between three planes remains a great showcase for the system's lenticular screen.
Mutant Mudds doesn't quite have the brash, devil-may-care attitude of Super Meat Boy or the charming personality of VVVVVV, but its refined obstacle courses are a distillation of what made us fall in love with 2D platformers in the first place. Despite being developed by a company called Renegade Kid, Mutant Mudds plays it safe. It never went out to set the world on fire - and it doesn't - but it ascends above its humble concepts with gusto and aplomb.