Whatever the platform, whatever the medium, modern digital content stores are busy places. What makes your game stand out from the crowd on a place like the Switch eShop is a complex equation, though there are shortcuts. While Bird Game + isn’t going to draw anyone in with its title, the game’s commitment to minimalist, black and white 3D graphics may grab your attention. Unfortunately, it fails to deliver anything particularly interesting beyond this first impression.
Bird Game + is an on-rails flying experience, with an emphasis on positioning to dodge oncoming obstacles. Retro-minded readers may think of Space Harrier, without the shooting or bright colours or out-there visuals, catchy soundtrack, impressive scrolling speed or constant perspective on a flying dude’s butt. So basically, you may think of Space Harrier without any of the reasons you would reasonably want to play Space Harrier.
There’s some unfairness in the comparison, sure, but there are things to learn from that game's bright, otherworldly visual style that bear mentioning here. Specifically, while Bird Game’s textureless, black and white 3D meshes stand-out in screenshots, in motion they do a poor job of communicating movement and depth in a way that even Yu Suzuki’s completely two-dimensional chequerboarded worlds had less of a problem with.
Space Harrier (and other less combat orientated games with a similar setup, like Race the Sun) also prove that the apparent contradiction of marrying the freedom of flight and the restrictions of on-rails gameplay needn’t completely undermine the experience. Unfortunately, playing Bird Game +, you won’t quite reach the same conclusion due to frustrating level design and weak controls.
The game gets off on the wrong foot by encouraging you to turn on motion controls (via 'ZL' and 'ZR') that in handheld mode result in you dipping immediately into the sea if you can’t instantly find their sweet spot. The stick controls are relatively unobjectionable, but the addition of tighter turns and swoops with the Y button is a source of confusion: the effect is far too subtle and any speed or turning advantage is poorly communicated due to the visuals.
The recurring obstacle that introduces this swooping action – a sideways rolling, instant-death-bringing log – is particularly difficult to outrun if you don’t start turning immediately upon seeing it, and symptomatic of a range of problems in the game. Passing this challenge usually feels like a fluke. One example, in the game’s third and final level, can be most efficiently avoided by flying inside it, a method that definitely feels unintended due to the unnatural camera angle, and lack of a message announcing that you’ve found one of the game’s secrets.
Such secrets are found in the levels' tendency to offer alternate routes in a perspective that doesn’t really support them. Bird Game + essentially takes place in an invisible tunnel, meaning you frequently bump up against invisible walls when trying to navigate around obstacles (or above them, as should be in your skillset considering you’re supposed to be a bird). You’re best off keeping to the centre track, but when you’re set off down a left or right path it feels like the game doesn’t actually want you to be there.
A number of these infrequent alternate routes are gated by the game’s other main verb. Pressing 'A' grabs door-opening cords, as well as a number of other objects introduced in levels 2 and 3 (bombs, spears and fish, the latter of which nominally increase your speed, though again, it’s hard to tell this is happening). Grabbing door cords results in an aggressively vague piece of animation in which your gull flaps around a piece of string attached to a midair nothingness. This causes the Joy-Con to vibrate unpleasantly (turn it off in the options if you don’t fancy developing carpal tunnel syndrome).
Bird Game’s lack of definable visual theme beyond its monochrome aesthetic – you are a bird in a macro world of insects and garden plants growing in some kind of sea – doesn’t play as quirky, so much as a grab-bag of whatever was at hand. The regularly repeating assets do little to enrich the already colourless world, and you’ll start to gain the sense that it looks as it does because it is simply unfinished, rather than because a particularly strong sense of creative vision shaped it this way.
This impression isn’t helped by some of the ropey presentation in this Switch port. Expect to experience disconcerting, screen-freezing loading times between stages (level 1 and its gameplay timer currently appear a good ten seconds before the titular bird actually spawns). In level 2, the game’s two music tracks appear to merge together. The leaderboards also do not currently appear to track Normal and Hard difficulty runs.
This isn’t to say that Bird Game + is entirely without merit. Each of the game’s three levels is capped off with a boss encounter that, though typically too drawn out, features a good sense of escalation while intelligently demanding players apply new skills introduced in the main levels. The game’s procedurally generated endless mode is also arguably a better format for this type of game – it’s less frustrating to start from scratch rather than be forced to repeat a particularly annoying piece of level design again and again. This said, you may have to brave the main story mode to understand how the later bosses are defeated by certain moves (e.g. the dodge on the 'L' and 'R' buttons when used with a spear).
However, these potentially promising but undeveloped elements just reinforce the sense that there’s no particular focus here. Perhaps a better version of this game would have a more refined idea of what it’s trying to be – doubling down on either the sedate, relaxing experience the art and music appear to sell, or the high-paced score attack game that it plays like in its more challenging modes. Though perhaps when you haven’t got past ‘Bird Game’ on the list of potential titles, you’ve never been particularly invested in that question to begin with.
Despite looking moderately eye-catching in screenshots, Bird Game + ultimately proves to be the game that its title suggests: a bland and frustrating experience in search of an identity. The concept has potential, but a lack of polish and focus means it never really leaves the ground.