Developer: Black Forest Games / Publisher: Black Forest Games / Played On: Xbox Live Arcade / Price: 1200 MSP ($15) / ESRB: Everyone
When citing franchises that have revolutionized the videogame industry in the 1980’s, the first name everyone mentions is Nintendo’s most beloved iconic game: The Great Giana Sisters. It was a side-scrolling adventure featuring two sisters who collected gems, jumped on shells, and crushed bricks all while capturing the hearts of children everywhere. That is until Time Warp Productions and Rainbow Arts, the original creators of Super Mario Bros., decided to threaten Nintendo with legal action if their cloned game was not taken off the shelves… uh, something’s not right here.
Yes, the legacy of The Great Giana Sisters is one that’s marked by legal disputes and plagiarism, but it’s also a legacy that made the original Atari ST and Commodore 64 copies collector’s items. Despite its ugly history, Black Forest Games (which is comprised of veteran Spellbound Entertainment developers, a company founded by the creator of the Giana Sisters IP) wanted to breathe new life into the siblings, but with their own ideas this time. Thanks to Kickstarter and the community’s willingness to give second chances, we now have Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams to assess Black Forest Games’ promise of renovation.
Two sisters are sitting in their room, playing what I assume is Giana Sisters DS, when a floating diamond appears and opens a portal, sucking in one of the sisters, Maria. Giana jumps in after her and ends up teleporting into a dream world, where her sister has been kidnapped by a dragon (to give Peach a run for her money). You’re immediately introduced to the transformation system; Giana can manipulate her dreams and in doing so transform herself, introducing you to cute and punk Giana.
As punk Giana you’re in a serene environment with blooming flowers and vibrant plants everywhere, and you have the ability to dash, while morphing into cute Giana means you can jump and twirl in a gloomy scene dotted with dying trees and swamps. The transformation is the most important gameplay mechanic: enemies change appearances, certain platforms and gems become available, gates open, and deadly spikes can either appear or vanish. Switching between Giana’s personas is seamless; there’s no cooldown to slow you down. The soundtrack even shifts with your character choice, a remarkable blend of chiptune and rock instrumentals thanks to Chris Hülsbeck, Fabian Del Priore, and Machinae Supremacy.
Twisted Dreams is not a simple platformer; it demands you understand its mechanics quickly, though all the instructions are graphically demonstrated on wooden signs instead of explaining them in text form. The mechanics you learn in the first few stages are the only ones you will need in later portions; the game does a brilliant job of expanding on its basic mechanics as opposed to bombarding you with more complicated and unnecessary ones. Though the levels are challenging, the game is generous enough with its checkpoints, and you immediately respawn to try again… and again… and again.
As punk Giana her dash ability helps you smash through boulders, destroy enemies (rather than knocking them unconscious as cute Giana does), and bounce off walls—though I had the most trouble with that feature. Cute Giana’s twirl is important for slowly descending downwards. To beat a level you must reach a castle, once again poking fun at its Mario-clone origins. However, in order to unlock the boss stages, you must earn enough star ratings from previous levels. Hence, despite how forgivable the game is on death, dying too much can result in a low star rating, so you may need to redo the stage entirely.
As you progress through the levels, the game increasingly tests your dexterity, timing, and attentiveness. Boss levels push these attributes to the limit; the course you have to slog through before even reaching the big monster at the end are some of the more frustrating aspects of the adventure.
Every landscape is detailed and beautiful, especially when trekking along as punk Giana. The way Giana’s transformations blend the two worlds together is flawless, with paintings morphing from a handsome prince into a hideous monster in the exact screen location. With several pathways and floor levels available in each stage, the game doesn’t have that straightforward feel typical of Mario games.
That said the phenomenal visuals also come at a price. Sometimes the screen is so busy with moving platforms, enemies, and water that you’re unable to see that the bridge you’re about to jump on is missing. You end up dying more times than you should because the invisible platforms blend too well with the environment, and this becomes quite the annoyance in the later difficult levels that require Giana to be constantly moving. It’s also a problem when having to alter between punk and cute Giana rapidly; the world transformations may obstruct your view, blocking you from seeing the enemies right above you. Consequently, it shines a light on the lack of variety in the enemies, most of which are just devils and birds.
There are a total of twenty-three levels, with additional modes available should you prefer a more complex experience. There’s score attack mode for point-oriented players, with the objective of collecting as many gems as possible and defeating enemies to boost your score. Then there’s time attack, where you beat a level as fast as you can while ignoring gems. Conversely, this is a tricky mode given how you cannot restart a level in the middle of your playthrough. If you’re unsatisfied with your run, unfortunately you have to either finish it or restart the game. Then there’s hardcore mode with no checkpoints, and über hardcore, where if you die you start over at level one. Good luck!
Black Forest Games revitalized its series by staying true to the game’s origins while still moving past its blatant clone gimmicks. Even after filing for insolvency when they were Spellbound Entertainment and having to buy back their own assets from the government, they were able to make a positive out of a bad situation. Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is an aesthetically pleasing journey that’s as gorgeous as it is taxing, blending new ideas and old concepts in the same way punk and cute Giana co-exist. This just proves that long forgotten franchises can definitely make a comeback—looks like it’s a trend, Ducktales anyone?—and make a new name for themselves.