There's a pretty good chance that at least one of your favourite games came about by mashing together the features from two other popular titles. Games are a fluid, iterative medium and that cross-pollination between genres is how they evolve. Role-playing XP systems leak into racing games as shooter systems bleed into platform games as puzzle mechanics take root in action-adventures - a constant churn of ideas and systems that, every so often, throws out an exciting new path forwards.
But what happens when you mash up everything? That's the question posed by Concursion, a game that is basically what would fall out at the other end if a bunch of classic arcade and video games fell into Seth Brundle's teleportation pod from The Fly.
The debut title from indie developer Puuba, it's a resolutely old-school game: a 70-level marathon with demanding checkpoints as you try to make it from one end of each stage to the disco-themed goal at the other, ideally finding all the green crystal shards along the way and beating the best completion time into the bargain. Neither of those goals are essential, thank goodness, since this can be a ferociously tough game. On most levels, you'll be glad just to reach the finish line on your first run.
The unique selling point is that these levels are made up of five different gameplay styles, all of which overlap and bleed into each other. There's a Mario-esque platformer, in which you play as a guy in a red horned helmet. He can sprint to make long jumps and defeats enemies by jumping on their heads, but can be killed in just two hits. There's a ninja game too, very much in the Shinobi vein. Here you can double jump, stick to walls and fend off attackers and projectiles with your sword.
Also in the mix is a physics-based game where you're in a space suit and can't even walk left or right. Your only movement comes by using your thrusters to propel you upwards, then controlling your direction in the air, dodging floating meteors as you go. Also space-themed is a horizontal shoot-'em-up where you pilot a ship and must dodge incoming fire and shoot down or dodge attacking enemies and bundles of debris. Finally, there's a Pac-Man style maze game where gobbling dots of specific colours will open or close appropriately coloured doors.
These play styles don't line up in an orderly fashion but spill all over each other through pixel-art portals. Stray into a different area of the screen and you stray into that game, swapping to the relevant character but retaining whatever health you may have left. You may need to get a running jump with the red Mario guy to reach a patch of the ninja game, so you can do a mid-air double wall jump to reach a section of screen where you become spacesuit guy and can jet upwards to collect a green shard.
Even then, the overlap is more dynamic than that makes it sound. Moving hazards are also susceptible to this world-swapping mechanic, so projectiles fired from one part of the screen will turn into something else and be affected by different game rules as they travel through portals. Even your enemies will change, switching from samurai spearmen to trundling dinosaurs, falling out of one game, landing in another, wandering into yet another.
I don't use the word "portals" by accident, because when Concursion's ideas click together the result is as mind-expandingly thrilling as Valve's first-person puzzler. Old play styles become fresh and alive, and your brain is forced to work just as hard as your thumbs as you juggle five different gameplay concepts on the fly. When Concursion works, it's absolute genius.
When it works.
Inevitably, given the game's concept, it ends up being a jack of all trades, master of none. The shoot-'em-up elements are chaotic, spewing enemies and bullets in patterns that are all over the place, when that genre demands clockwork precision for skilled players to slip through with practice. Platforming is similarly loose, often demanding pixel-perfect jumps but not quite nailing the tightness of control that makes such exacting standards fun. Each of its five gameplay styles works well enough when jumbled together, but for the protracted sections where one style must dominate, the game's appeal nosedives.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the boss fights which close out each of the game's worlds. These mix in yet more play styles - RPG battles, fighting game bouts - but when played using platform-jumping or 2D-shooting inputs, they feel like a stretch too far. It doesn't help that the game is utterly linear. Although it mimics Super Mario's top-down over-world map, there are no alternate paths to take through the levels. If a boss fight - or even just a level with a particularly infuriating instant death section - stymies you, that's it: you're stuck until you can get past it.
Such is the way of old-school retro play, of course, but Concursion snaps between thrilling ingenuity and clumsy frustration so fast and so often that you'll be left with whiplash. I can't remember a game whose peaks were so high and whose troughs were so low. It's a game you'll want to tell all your friends about one minute, but will never want to play again the next.
That's one hell of a rollercoaster for any game to ride, and Concursion's scruffy presentation does it no favours. The visuals are downright ugly and deliberately so, it seems. There's a reason so many indie games opt for pixel art - it's simple but looks stylish and charming. By contrast, even though the gameplay reaches back to the 1980s, Concursion's cheap-looking sprites belong to a 2005 educational browser game. This makes collision detection hard to judge, and coupled with the fact that in some areas it feels impossible not to take damage, you've got a game where failure often comes with the added sting of unfairness.
It's a hard game to sum up. The flashes of genius in Concursion's construction are some of the freshest and most engaging gameplay I've seen from the indie scene in years. I want to be able to recommend it for that reason alone. But there's a lot of game surrounding those moments, and a lot of that game isn't particularly good. It's fiddly and annoying in a way that the best hardcore retro games - the Mega Mans and R-Types - never were. They were tough, they demanded superlative skill, but they gave you the tools to develop that skill. Concursion is a little too shaggy, a little too loose in control, to reach that level. An interesting game, then, and sometimes a brilliant game, but one that demands a little too much patience and forgiveness to fully appreciate.