SuperMash – We’re using the GOOD potatoes
SuperMash looked like one of the standouts during Nintendo’s recent Indie World Showcase, a genre-defying retro throwback to early Nintendo titles which seemed perfect for the Switch.
Surprisingly, the game had already launched one day before the presentation on the PC, where it’s an Epic Games Store exclusive. While it won’t be ready for home consoles for a few months, the PC version should give us a pretty good idea of what to expect when it arrives.
So how does SuperMash play?
SuperMash is a love letter to Nintendo games of the late ’80s and early ’90s, a period when developers were still experimenting with what could be accomplished on the Nintendo Entertainment System. The game’s premise is that you work in a modern game store which sells retro titles, and find an unusual console at a garage sale, one with slots for two cartridges. This heavily modified “Playtype” console came with a stack of homebrew games, as well as a journal left behind by the person who was working on them.
Six genres are represented (with more on the way as DLC, according to the developer), and players are encouraged to mix and match them to create different blends of games, which the characters in the store call “Mashes.” It’s a good thing you found this machine, because your store has lost its lease and you’ll need to sell a lot of these custom games to keep it running. This story is told in a visual novel style, but it’s pretty much just a wraparound for the real meat of the game: the mashups.
Each of the genres borrows heavily from a classic NES title, though the visuals are usually more representative of what the Super Nintendo could handle.
The “Action-Adventure” cartridge is basically a Legend of Zelda clone, the “Platformer” cart resembles the Super Mario series, “Stealth” copies Metal Gear, “JRPG” takes inspiration from Final Fantasy, “Metrovania” unsurprisingly borrows from Metroid and latter-day Castlevania titles, and “Shoot-em-up” seems to be inspired by Galaga and Capcom’s 1942. Each genre can be crossed with one other, or you can slot two of the same cartridges in to get a purer game experience.
Each of the genres has its own story and characters, which can be explored through the journal. Collecting certain key items from one or another of the genres will unlock entries in the journal, which is how you progress the plot in the visual novel “real world” scenes. Unfortunately, there’s no way to guarantee your goal for a level will include one of these key items, so it’s a bit random how many mashes you’ll have to play before you can get to the next plot hook. Completing a journal page will let you take on the boss fight for a given genre, using a specific character and skill set tailored to the boss.
One other detail worth mentioning is the idea of “Dev cards,” which are earned for every successful mash completion. They can also be earned using in-game currency or by completing sidequests in the visual novel portion of the game.
Dev cards give you a degree of agency by letting you control “glitches” in the mashes. These are beneficial or detrimental modifiers which can make a given mash easier or harder, and there’s usually at least one of each active based on the difficulty settings you’ve chosen for your mash. There’s no way to turn these glitches off, so being able to control which ones you see helps quite a bit. Dev cards also allow you to select a specific protagonist, weapon, background, and/or music for your next mash.
A lot of SuperMash’s charm and how well it works on you is going to depend on how much nostalgia you have for the time period it’s trying to represent. Each mash you create has its own title screen and introductory cutscene, and these can be pretty entertaining in and of themselves. Who wouldn’t want to play through Dude-Bro Odyssey or High Roller Ninja?
The interactions between various genres can be pretty interesting. Blending a JRPG with a shoot-em-up gave me a game where I could only fire at the alien bugs coming from the top of the screen once my Active Time Battle gauge had filled up, which was far more tactical than I’d have expected. It’s not the same every time, either; trying the same combination later on gave me a role-playing game where a military fighter plane served as the protagonist, or a dungeon crawler where random encounters took place as sky battles over a nameless desert. When I tried making a Stealth RPG, I found it amusing as hell to see SuperMash’s Solid Snake stand-in giving a snappy salute to a knockoff of the Final Fantasy fanfare after a battle.
Unfortunately, moments like this are few and far between. Everything in SuperMash is procedurally generated, and this can lead to some impossible scenarios if an enemy ends up in exactly the wrong position, or if a glitch cuts off access to a key item. The platforming physics cause you to fall straight down if you take a hit midair, so some mashes become incredibly frustrating for no good reason. You can also end up in a scenario where enemies gain health every time you input an action, so shoot-em-up enemies end up gaining health faster than you can blast it away.
The main problem is very few of the games you’ll end up creating using the mash system are worth playing more than once. None of the mashes end up being anywhere near as good as the titles they take inspiration from. It’s an impressive technical achievement, to be sure. But I’d much rather play a handcrafted level from a game like Shovel Knight than a hundred algorithmically generated levels in SuperMash. I’d be much more interested if this engine were used to create a Mario Maker-style tool which allows for precise platform and enemy placement, instead of the computer-generated levels you end up playing through.
I didn’t find the visual novel’s story especially compelling, and the ephemeral nature of the mashes means there’s not really any in-game progression to work toward. You may pick up a few power-ups on your way through a mash, but they’ll be gone when you start the next one.
I also ran into a few situations where the game I mashed up crashed on me, though these were explained away in-game by the rickety nature of the modded console. It only seemed to happen when I blended the Stealth and Shoot-em-up genres, which don’t go together especially well anyway.
Unfortunately, SuperMash is a game where the concept is better than the execution. While the spritework and chiptunes are nice, the gameplay holds the whole thing back; a big problem when the gameplay is supposed to be the main feature. Ironically, the mashed-up games usually end up being less than the sum of their parts.