If you want a cinematic, oblique, thought-provoking and relatively short-lived experience in the modern gaming age, digital stores such as the eShop and more notably Steam have plenty of content on offer. Independent developers — and bigger publishers that release smaller projects as downloads — now find it easier than ever to share their work with the world, so story-driven, challenging titles are in plentiful supply across various platforms. Another World: 20th Anniversary Edition brings a hugely successful retail 2D adventure of the early '90s to the modern audience, yet it truly belongs in the download realm in this era.
The title starts with a rather slick cinematic, which itself was a revelation when first released on systems such as Amiga, Sega Mega Drive / Genesis and SNES, with a trendy, flame-haired Professor driving to a futuristic science lab in his Ferrari. It's classic '90s cool, as our un-named hero is welcomed into his secured facility by a chatty computer system which dutifully initiates an experiment that vaguely resembles the Hadron Collider and chills with a drink. Natural weather events — you guessed it, lightning — cause something to go wrong and you suddenly find yourself transported to another world, the source of that iconic title — although it's worth noting that the game was known as Out Of This World in North America.
There's no explanation beyond this, and that sets in motion the key aspect of this title. There are no hints or tips — even the digital manual reveals nothing about controls — and you're left to explore this strange landscape, with the story being a chain of events that can be interpreted in various ways. Our spoiler-free interpretation is that the world in question isn't far away from Earth in terms of the behaviour of its inhabitants, in this case portraying a cruel, intolerant side of our nature. With an on-off companion, you're trying to escape a prison and then your pursuers; you don't know why you were captured, who you're running from or where your friend is guiding you, yet you run anyway.
The controls are simple — A to run or as an action button, B to jump — and you pick up a gun, early on, that's used for combat. The gun has three phases; a tap is a normal shot, a brief hold and release generates a temporary shield, and a longer hold and release fires a more powerful shot, though drains the gun's energy. It's explained in a 'Help' menu that we initially missed — the digital manual says nothing — so could be an aspect some will figure out through trial and error.
This is, ultimately, all about that trial and error. Each 'scene' is barely 1-2 minutes long if you know what you're doing, but can take far longer than that while you figure out the winning strategy. There is typically only one way to progress, and on occasion the solutions can seem a tad obscure, such as blasting a hole in a rather sturdy wall. For first-time players that resist the allure of walkthroughs, the right move may seem downright unintuitive at times, and critics of this title can certainly suggest that it's padding for a game that, for experienced players that know the answers, can be quite easily beaten in well under an hour. It's safe to say those experiencing it for the first time will need much longer to get to the end credits.
Another World is a particularly tricky game to navigate, with instant deaths often coming as a shock, some gun fights that call for precise timing and positioning, and puzzles that require you to backtrack against all expectation. That said, it's all intricately designed, meaning you can't get stuck in a loop or trapped with no way out; if your character is stuck in an area, it's safe to say you can interact with something, blast a part of the environment or tackle an enemy. In addition, as you progress there'll be clever moments in which your movement and actions are completely different to the norm, taking you out of your comfort zone. Your biggest challenge is maintaining your patience, though a death will put you back just a few screens on most occasions.
This is, in a sense, a precursor to 2D 'art' puzzle adventures of the day. The key to the experience is in its atmosphere, in the subtle visual cues that tell the story. Should its aesthetic and setting grab your attention, it will drag you forward in your eagerness to see what happens next, to see what the next area brings. The smooth, almost cel-shaded look combines with pitch-perfect audio — again, in terms of retro sensibilities — to make it a memorable journey.
All of what we've said could apply to the SNES original, though this 20th Anniversary Edition does include new features that bring us some fan-service. The 'HD' visuals are welcome in that they smooth out the original engine, and you can press Y at any point to switch between the visual eras; it's a nice touch, and shows that the developers have basically smoothed out jaggy lines and added subtle background effects. It's not a remaster — that should be made clear — and the high definition visuals actually represented what our minds-eye expected of the original graphics, though a press of Y soon wiped out that impression.
Other additions come in the form of three difficulty settings; normal is rather challenging and was our choice, while easy didn't make environmental challenges or puzzles more accessible, but took the edge of some teeth-grindingly awkward gun fights. In addition you can switch between remastered, original and 'original + console music' sound — remastered still sounds retro but is cleaner, better balanced and less distorted than the original option. As for the final option of console music, this relates to the music introduced on some systems such as SNES, as one example, and in our view is a fun alternative — less atmospheric and polished than the developer's original effort, yes, but enjoyable on additional playthroughs. Another bonus is that, in each difficulty level, you can jump into any scene you've previously reached at any time, whereas in the 'good old days' you would have messed around with codes.
Those are welcome enhancements, and the argument can be made that they show a deserved reverence and respect for the source material. An alternative perspective is that they're rather quick, easy tweaks, and at times the fluidity of animation and movement — which were impressive at the time — can feel awkward and fiddly by modern standards. This Wii U port is, also, a lazy one. The title looks and sounds lovely, yet the only way to play is with the GamePad — you do not have the option of using any other controller. The touch screen doesn't work in menus, for example, though the visuals do look good on the softer, lower resolution GamePad screen, as well as on the TV.
Another World: 20th Anniversary Edition brings us a definitive version of a '90s classic, and a 2D adventure that can be argued to be one of the forebears of the modern 'artistic indie' trend. Its minimalist approach and aesthetic style fit the modern download scene well, and Éric Chahi's creation is as engrossing and irresistible as ever in the hands of a motivated, engaged player. That said, innovation in the '90s is par for the course now, and some will find the trial and error nature of the puzzles and challenges frustrating, along with some fairly stiff controls. This is not an experience for everyone, though we'd suggest that those with a love of adventure games and the download scene should take this one on; it's an important part of gaming history and an education for serious gamers.