"Open Gate." That’s the first thing you’ll do in Thimbleweed Park. It’s an inauspicious beginning, sure, but immediately illustrative of the kind of experience ahead, mechanically. You’re going to have to get familiar with verbs, instructing your pixelated avatars around the environs of the wider Thimbleweed County as you, as one of five different characters, get to the bottom of all manner of shady shenanigans plaguing the area.
The game’s opening is rudimentary, then, but also something of a red herring, as the prosaic rarely comes sits at the forefront of Thimbleweed Park. Much of the action here – measured and never pressured though it is, this being a point-and-click adventure where timing and accuracy takes a back seat to creative combinations of items and movements – is concerned with a palpable weirdness, the kind that feels familiar while stirring in unexpected twists and turns, ending on a real doozy (not that we’re about to spoil the story here).
The game initially manifests a kind of Twin Peaks-meets-The X-Files aesthetic and atmosphere. It feels spooked, not quite of this plane of existence, long before you get to play as an Actual Ghost. Soon enough, though, factoring in the silliness and highly self-referential nature of proceedings, the game’s tone becomes more Eerie, Indiana than anything where the stakes are rather more raised, its gentle drama underpinned by sharp funnies. And its keenness to let the player know it’s both a video game and part of a very specific lineage of them, where fourth-wall breaking is often part of the package, is always endearing.
The game’s relaxed movement through the narrative gears is a good thing, because Thimbleweed Park is in its element when the player doesn’t feel a great urgency to get things done, instead luxuriating in the finely realised, not-quite-8-bit-rendered world that the team at Terrible Toybox, headed up by LucasArts legends Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick (who are co-designers here), have constructed. Yes, everything’s purposefully flat, but once the wider county beyond the town of Thimbleweed Park is unlocked – you’re going to need some loose change for that – this is a world that’s open and alive, believable despite visual limitations, even while displaying a distinct lack of certain individuals and amenities. But, like we said, no spoilers.
Which is tough, truly, because so much of the pleasure to be found in the 1987-set Thimbleweed Park – the year of Michael Jackson’s Bad, The Lost Boys in cinemas, and the start of Star Trek: The Next Generation on TV (the game features a chuckle-worthy nod to the latter) – is through the unfolding of its didn’t-see-that-coming sci-fi plot. So far as contemporary gaming yarns go, this is one of the year’s best, full of winks to the camera and plentiful Easter eggs. The “villain” of the piece, for example, shares a name with a certain spectral pirate captain and a library-hanging pot plant, which is surely no coincidence.
How it plays is entirely in keeping with Winnick and Gilbert’s point-and-click past, the likes of Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island. You use verbs – “give”, “talk”, “open” – in association with characters and collectibles, and lo: the magic happens. And that’s how it feels, magic, when you crack one of this game’s many puzzles, bound as they are by a skewed but consistent sense of logic. Understand the inner-workings of Thimbleweed Park, and the games that inspired it, and you’ll crack the case presented to you without breaking too many sweats.
But if you’re really struggling to make sense of what appear to be simple fixes but never are in point-and-click games, like refilling printer ink or acquiring a postage stamp, you can start the game in “Casual” mode. This is an option at the very beginning of proceedings, but choose wisely, as you can’t switch midway through. The easier path is one that’ll not just simplify puzzles, taking shortcuts to solutions, but will see you miss out on entire scenes set in areas of Thimbleweed County that you’ll never visit. If it’s the full experience you’re after – and why wouldn’t you be? – be sure to go “Hard”.
Which is, to be honest, more genre-faithfully obtuse than anything else – not so much hard in the usual gaming sense of near-insurmountable odds, more necessitating a flexible approach to the game’s internal logic to work your way through. (Tip: if it ain’t screwed down, pick it up, because you’ll likely need it later.) But any players already familiar with point-and-click classics past will know that finding the answer to many posers is a multi-step process culminating with a feeling of satisfaction right up there with a Street Fighter perfect or Rocket League thrashing. Done the right way, passing through all the hoops, working out how to get that stamp is a real treat.
And if you’re absolutely, hopelessly stumped, this Switch port includes the game’s June-patched “HintTron 3000™” telephone service – call 4468 at any time for a nudge in the right direction (helpfully, one character will always have a period-blocky mobile phone on them). Don’t hesitate to use it, as if you let your frustration build up, you’ll put Thimbleweed Park down and most likely never come back to it. We’ve all done it.
But don’t, here, as it’d mean missing out on what’s more than sheer nostalgia, a project brought to life through the commonly sepia-tinted lens of Kickstarter (no spoilers, but you might want to keep that aspect of its development in mind when playing the game’s later stages) but woefully out of place in 2017. Thimbleweed Park might look like a throwback, in both its setting and rendering, but it’s got smarts that feel totally relevant in there here and now.
Or, maybe, those older titles were simply ahead of their time (that’d explain why Monkey Island remains such a delight, 27 years on from its release). Or: this breed of adventure, presented as well as it is here, is one of gaming’s rare, genuinely timeless propositions. Whatever the case, the knowingness of this game is one of its greatest assets, and its warm humour – occasionally pointed, especially when coming out of the mouth of Dana Scully-ringer Agent Ray, but never crude – ensures that two-dimensional playable characters are better fleshed out than those of many “realistic” action-adventure or role-playing games. You really get to know these people, despite their primitive appearances.
The game is playable with the Joy-Cons or Pro Controller, but supports touchscreen functions in handheld mode, too – as you’d expect, given Thimbleweed Park is also available for smartphones. Using a stick, the cursor can be a little floaty, but again: there’s no significant emphasis on perfect timing, or pinpoint accuracy for the most part, so taking things slowly is a valid way to play. Bumble away, to your heart’s content. Performance isn’t a factor in a game like this, really, but you’re not going to find any game-spoiling slowdown, tearing, glitching, or anything like that. Not unless the game means it.
"Open Gate." From small beginnings, unremarkable indeed, can come great things. In the right hands at least, and the industry veterans behind Thimbleweed Park have realised a game that can stand beside the ‘80s and ‘90s adventures that made their names. With so many Kickstarter projects promising much and delivering little, if they deliver at all – thousands have failed to meet their targets, and disappeared – what could have been so much vapourware has proven more ForeverWare, its adventuring, inventive puzzles and perky dialogue as welcome today as back in this genre’s golden years.
Point-and-click beginners may struggle with the myriad puzzles Thimbleweed Park lays across its curiosity-piquing plot, but its developers have rightfully made it possible to get ahead even when all you see are dead ends, with the inclusion of the tips line. It means that what would have been an essential only for a very specific audience is, with no explicit fail states, easy for anyone to not just enjoy, but actually finish. And going around for a second time is still a treat, much as Monkey Island et al were, as you can clearly see all the pieces of the grander picture coming together to comprise a fascinating whole, climaxing with one of gaming’s better twists.