If you were around for the 16-bit era, you surely remember the influx of mascot-driven platformers at the time, such as Bubsy and Awesome Possum. Most of these games were nothing more than copies of popular games like Sonic the Hedgehog that wanted a piece of the popularity pie. Surfin' Sam: Attack of the Aqualites feels like it would have been almost at home in this era; as we'll see, that is not a good thing.
Surfin' Sam, the heavier cousin of the Bic pen mascot, is a surfing dude who likes catching waves with his dog, Flip-Flop. The story is given to us through comic-book panels — one day, aliens known as the Aqualites attack and start turning people into mermaid-like creatures. This is about all the background the game provides, but most people don't play a platformer for the story.
As soon as you jump into Surfin' Sam you'll notice that this game is rather ugly. The game's backgrounds look like clip art, and the sprites for the enemies, Sam, and Flip-Flop look like they didn't necessarily come from the same game. The simple comic-book style backgrounds and platforms don't mesh well with the animated characters on screen.
The game provides you with a map screen as you move among the game's 30+ stages in a linear fashion. Aside from a few power-ups you can buy that only last for a few seconds, Sam has a pretty basic moveset — he can move, jump, shoot purple energy balls, and do a little dash move in the air. This dash is never explained in-game (in fact, nothing really is), so it can be used to save yourself from a bad jump or zoom ahead in the level if you want to skip some sections.
Speaking of bad jumps, they're sadly at the core of this experience. Sam has some of the floatiest controls we've ever felt in a 2D platformer — his jump, especially when doubled, feels like he's jumping on the moon. The dash move is rather slippery, and while it might help you make the last-ditch hop onto a platform for safety, you might find yourself bumping the button by accident and rocketing to your death, too. The physics are all over the place; you'll find yourself rocketing into the sky for no apparent reason if you jump into a corner just right.
When you find a big pool of water, Sam can glide on it with his surfboard... sometimes. There's no rhyme or reason to it, but some bodies of water automatically start Sam surfing away, while others force you to swim through them. It's inconsistent.
Most levels in Surfin' Sam only task you with getting to the end, but there are also three stars you can earn on each stage. One is granted for finishing before time expires (though some levels have no time limit), one for collecting enough coins in the stage, and a third for beating a certain score. The stars have no evident purpose, though - no doubt originating from the mobile release - so don't feel like you have to go for them.
To complicate his quest, Sam needs to deal with Aqualite enemies, the threat of falling into the ocean, and other obstacles like fire. The game is full of floating platforms that aren't particularly well-placed, so falling into the ocean is a constant threat. The enemies here are also rather tame and uninspired — most simply walk back and forth and shoot at you if you're in range. Some stages also contain bosses, which similarly walk back and forth between two boxes, waiting for you to shoot them.
Often, the level design is a bigger problem than the enemies themselves. You'll find yourself being forced to get shot by an enemy who's shooting a narrow gap you need to pass through, or being forced to take a leap of faith and landing right on a foe. Since enemies can hit you multiple times in just a few seconds, these blind jumps can mean you losing a life.
Sam can take three hits per life, and has three lives per stage. The lives reset every time you clear a level, which keeps things from getting too frustrating. You can grab frequent health pickups to keep yourself going, as well as time pickups to give yourself more breathing room to reach the goal.
Some levels task you with finding Sam's dog Flip-Flop and escorting him to the end of the level. However, the game never lets you know when you'll have to find the dog in a stage — it simply plays a sound and says "Where is Flip-Flop?" when you get to the end without him. Thus, you have to backtrack (sometimes having no choice but to die so you can resume from a checkpoint), find the dog, and escort him back.
These stages are not enjoyable — the dog can get stuck on all platforms in the level, meaning you have to carefully wiggle him around tall structures so you don't make a break for the exit with him stuck behind you. This objective makes already irritating level design even worse.
Surfin' Sam, ultimately, lacks polish. This is evident (for example) in Sam's lack of animation (jumping and "swimming" have him taking the same pose as standing still), graphical assets having empty space in between them, the level timer not restarting when you die and go back to a checkpoint, water not slowing you down until you jump once inside it, and the way the game abruptly stops when you lose all your lives.
This game's music is also 'stock'; it sounds like something you hear when waiting on hold with customer services, and the bosses have cringe-inducing, over the top "dubstep" music. What's worse, though, are the sound effects. Every single time Sam picks up a couple of coins in quick succession, he yells out "COINAGE!"; every time you get a health pickup, he says "I feel much better!" He also makes the same "huh!" noise every time you double jump. After thirty times of hearing this, it begins to grate on you; repetitive noises can be a norm in platformers, but they don't work well here.
Surfin' Sam is, ultimately, mobile shovelware repackaged for Wii U. In fact, this is actually a mobile game that was released onto Android and iOS earlier in the year for free — if you're thinking about trying this game out, we recommend that you give it a shot on your mobile device first rather than put down cash on this port.
Sufin' Sam is a disappointing platformer. The controls are floaty, the level design is poor and forces you to take leaps of faith and backtrack, the sound effects are grating, and the game looks like a mashup of mismatched assets. It's playable, sure, but beyond that it offers little redemption; we recommend that you stay away from this one.