The whole point of a role-playing game is, quite obviously, to play a role. To pretend to be someone - or something - else. It's a mystery, then, why so many RPGs ask you to play minor variations on the same part. There are only so many times you can put yourself in the shoes of an amnesiac swordsman, adopted prodigy or mysterious barbarian before your enthusiasm starts to wane.
Saturday Morning RPG asks you to try something else on for size: you are an average 1980s high school nerd who gains access to a magical notebook. That notebook enables you to imbue everyday objects with mysterious powers, and thus take on bullies and super villains alike
It's a fairly unorthodox setting, but it's essentially an excuse to relentlessly riff off '80s pop culture. Everything from Transformers and Michael Jackson to Back to the Future gets a cheeky nod. Of course, '80s nerd culture referencing is hardly as fresh as it used to be. Since Saturday Morning RPG first launched for iOS in 2012 we've had the likes of Stranger Things and the Ready Player One movie dragging what used to be niche pursuits into the mainstream.
Fortunately, Saturday Morning RPG is a pretty serviceable RPG in its own right. Structurally, it's a tribute to classic JRPGs, with each of its four episodes providing a freely explorable overworld map, several side-quests, turn-based battles and convoluted character personalisation systems.
The key area of success here is Saturday Morning RPG's battle system. Yes, you and a bunch of goons are still essentially taking it in turns to punch one another. But it's carried off with a surprisingly light touch. In particular, there's a far more hands-on feel to the combat here than in many JRPGs. After a neat nod to scratch-and-sniff stickers essentially rolls the dice on a potential stat boost for the fight ahead, you're thrown into a surprisingly involved turn-based scrap.
Not only are your special attacks humorously outlandish (transforming into a juggernaut and running over your enemies is a highlight), but they often have a damage-boosting QTE element to them. It might just be pounding the 'A' button or timing a button press, but it helps lessen that feeling of being a passenger that many traditional JRPGs suffer from.
Similarly, when you're taking a shot from your opponents, you can mitigate the damage by timing a press of 'A' as close to the point of impact as possible. This is a welcome provision, as the tougher fights in Saturday Morning RPG can be a bit of a slog. Having three self-healing soldiers attack you twice each without reply can stretch the patience somewhat.
Fortunately, Saturday Morning RPG is always ready with a silly side-quest or referential quip. The dialogue is a little hit and miss, but there's always an affectionate nod to '80s culture around the corner to restore the spirits. To that end, we suspect that your enjoyment of the game is going to depend much on whether you get the references, or even whether you are of an age that means you were around in the '80s yourself. Otherwise, the game's rudimentary graphics might well put you off.
There's a narrow line between a deliberately retro aesthetic and just plain amateurish execution, and Saturday Morning RPG strays a little too close to that line on many occasions. Sometimes it nails the period with a scene that looks like it was lifted from a classic '80s beat-'em-up, while at others it looks like a rough storyboard for an early episode of South Park.
What's never in doubt, however, is the affection for the source material that the developer holds. There's a giddy energy woven into the fabric of Saturday Morning RPG that will carry you through each of its episodes and past its many rough patches if you let it. Suffice to say, if you find yourself playing the role of a 30 or 40-something JRPG fan suspiciously well, then this could be the perfect Switch side-project for you in between more polished fare.
As a loving tribute to JRPGs and '80s pop culture, Saturday Morning RPG has rough edges a-plenty and even more bright ideas. It can frustrate and baffle, particularly if you're not au fait with the period, but it's always keen to invite you into its world.