Retro is in. Video games during the 80s and 90s held a special charm that set them apart from the games of today. As much as I love playing modern video games, I find myself going back to the “glory days of old” far too often. A well-spent evening replaying Super Mario World for the umpteenth time never gets old for me, yet I could be spending it with Super Mario Galaxy 2, which I do from time to time. There is just something about the classics. Whatever it is, game developers have been trying to recreate the appeal and merit of retro gaming. Nintendo has done it with the New Super Mario Bros. series and old-time console contender Sega attempted to do it with Sonic the Hedgehog 4, albeit miserably, but redeemed by the awesome Sonic Generations.
Let’s step back into 1987 for a moment: The Nintendo Entertainment System was dominating the gaming market with Super Mario Bros. A programmer named Armin Gessert wanted to bring the Super Mario experience to home computers, starting with the Commodore 64. He created a game known as The Great Giana Sisters, which Nintendo immediately took issue with due to its striking resemblance to Mario. At first glance it did look like a Mario-rip off, but it actually offered a very different feel and new level of challenge, wrapped up in a nice 32 level package with an awesome soundtrack by game composer Chris Huelsbeck and graphics by Turrican creator Manfred Trenz.
The Great Giana Sisters for the Commodore 64.
It wasn’t long before the game was pulled from store shelves after legal action from Nintendo. It ended up becoming a cult classic in Europe, causing the market value for used copies to rise. Heavy distribution of pirated copies even made its way to computer users in the United States. Rainbow Arts, the publisher of the game, started work on a sequel that would never see the light of day due to the tension with Nintendo, so they retooled the project into a mostly-unrelated-but-obviously-a-sequel game called Hard ‘N’ Heavy which once again featured chiptunes by Chris Huelsbeck. The popularity of The Great Giana Sisters continued to linger over the years, resulting in fan-made sequels and ports to other platforms. In 2010, a talented team of fans released Giana’s Return, an unofficial direct sequel that retained the original feel of the game and offered a new experience that was so well made, it seemed like the real sequel that never was.
Giana’s Return, released on various platforms such as Dreamcast, PC and Mac.
Coincidentally, or perhaps due to fan interest in the development of Giana’s Return download it free here, Armin Gessert and his company Spellbound Entertainment made an official sequel for Nintendo DS, unsurprisingly titled Giana Sisters DS, which saw release in 2009 in Europe and 2011 in the US. Giana Sisters DS was one of the most satisfying and nostalgic experiences I’ve had with the DS. It came out around the same time as New Super Mario Bros., but the beautiful 2D art style and wonderful soundtrack by composer Fabian Del Priore made it a memorable and unique game to play, although it still resembled Super Mario Bros. tremendously.
Giana Sisters DS for the Nintendo DS, later ported to Facebook, iOS and Android.
From the floating blocks you smash to the goomba-looking owls you stomp, the Giana Sisters series faced a lot of backlash for essentially ripping off an iconic style that came from Super Mario Bros. Giana even has a big dragon for an enemy and a player-two twin sister named Maria in The Great Giana Sisters. Listing the similarities would produce a rather long list, but the differences are what made Giana so special. Giana was one of the first female heroines in video games, and she wasn’t hiding it like Samus did in the original Metroid. Giana Sisters’ level design encourages exploration to collect gems and find hidden areas.
Some secrets involved taking a leap of faith down a hole that would normally mean instant death in a Mario game. Giana’s story takes place in her dreams, trapped in a world that can only be escaped by finding a giant magical diamond. Giana Sisters DS didn’t feature the sister Maria, but featured an alternate powered-up form of Giana called Punk Giana, causing confusion amongst fans. Developer Spellbound hinted that there never was a Maria and Giana’s ‘punk’ form may be an alternate personality or imaginary sister that only exists in her dreams. Nevertheless, the two official Giana Sisters games were different enough in their own way to be vastly appreciated.
In 2009, series creator Armin Gessert passed away from a heart attack and Spellbound eventually went under in 2012. The majority of its employees formed a new company to continue Gessert’s legacy as Black Forest Games. Launching a Kickstarter campaign that proved to be a major success, making $186,158 from a $150,000 goal, Black Forest completed development on a new Giana game titled Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams and it was just released worldwide online for PC, with an Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network version coming soon.
The story brings back Maria, kidnapped by an evil dragon and taken to the dream world, and it is up to you, as Giana, to rescue her. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the game as a fan of the series. I grew up with an Atari ST computer, a popular 16-bit computer that battled the Commodore Amiga in a gaming war that was similar to the Nintendo vs. Sega battle. Giana Sisters was my favorite game to play on it. I even had the sequel Hard ‘N’ Heavy.
When I booted up the new game I knew I was going to have fun, but I didn’t know I was going to witness a revolution of the series. Black Forest Games have given Giana Sisters a new identity with Twisted Dreams, taking an entirely new direction that truly separates it from being a Mario-clone. This baby is original, full of fresh ideas that breathe new life into a classic genre.
In a coming-of-age adventure, Giana traverses through two versions of the dream world that represents a cutesy childhood that she is growing apart from and a nightmare that no longer scares her. The world transforms with the push of a button, also transforming Giana into Punk Giana. Giana can glide around in a twirly spin to safely reach platforms and Punk Giana can burst into flames propelling her into the air and allowing her to bounce around like a pinball.
Control is simple, but the gameplay is not. You have to use your wits and quick reflexes to navigate the levels. Switching between the nightmare world and the dream world will open doors and allow Giana to navigate around obstacles. Like previous games in the series, you collect diamonds scattered about. This time around, only Giana can collect yellow diamonds and Punk Giana collects red diamonds in a similar way to shoot-em-up Ikaruga’s polarity mechanic. The unique abilities that allow Giana and Punk Giana to navigate levels may feel familiar to Sonic Heroes fans and it seems like the gameplay and visual style may have been influenced by the side-scrolling platformer/puzzle series, Trine.
Twisted Dreams features alternate paths and hidden locations in literally every level, but the most impressive part about the game is the way it looks. It has matured and evolved from the Mario-clone that it once was and has become a new beast of its own. The graphics are gorgeous and beautifully artistic, maintaining a visual appeal like that of a painting. The game does well to depict a dream world and the switch to a nightmare can be as simple as a snowy mountain transforming into a volcanic wasteland. Detail can be seen everywhere, with every level designed to encourage exploration and immerse the player into an unforgettable experience.
The package wouldn’t be complete without the amazing soundtrack that marks the return of composer Chris Huelsbeck in collaboration with Fabian Del Priore, but the real surprise is the addition of Swedish SID-metal band Machinae Supremacy. In 2001, Machinae Supremacy gained internet fame with the release of a remixed cover of the popular Great Giana Sisters theme song. SID-metal is a genre that spawned from Machinae Supremacy’s use of SID, the Commodore 64 sound chip, to enhance the sound of their music and identify them as a band influenced by video games, check them out. Machinae Supremacy composed the entire game soundtrack for the indie PC side-scrolling shooter Jets ‘N’ Guns in 2004 and their appreciation for the Commodore 64 and Giana Sisters made them the right people to work on Twisted Dreams.
In a seamless and genius transition, the music of the game transforms along with Giana and the dream world from electronic to a rockin’ nightmare. The game’s options menu allows the player to listen to one specific soundtrack if they so choose, but having a soundtrack that transforms with the world adds a whole new element to the gameplay experience.
Twisted Dreams just oozes with creativity and nostalgia. Fans of Giana Sisters DS will see familiar gameplay elements and recognize classic tunes re-imagined during their playthrough, but don’t expect to pick up the game and master it with ease. Giana Sisters DS was very easy in difficulty when compared to its older sibling. Like New Super Mario Bros., extra lives were gained easily and not dying very often was a bit of a bummer. It was definitely fun, but not very challenging.
Be prepared to die, a lot. Twisted Dreams is difficult. Normal difficulty is mandatory on the first playthrough, offering an unlockable hardcore and uber-hardcore mode when certain challenges are completed. The difficulty with the gameplay comes from the timed jumps and obstacles that stand in your way. The enemies are a piece of cake to defeat, but preventing them or other hazards from touching you is not so easy. Fortunately, Black Forest Games placed level checkpoints EVERYWHERE also giving you infinite lives.
I died up to 90 times on some levels. It shows you how many times you died after you finally complete a level, which can take up to 30 minutes if you explore every nook and cranny and die repeatedly. With 23 large levels to play through, this can easily keep you busy for hours. The enemies are cleverly used as obstacles that call for some strategizing to bypass, following patterns that remind me of the original Castlevania’s well-placed enemies. The enemies also change appearance when you shift to Giana’s nightmare. The game only has three boss fights, but they are quite challenging and it’s very rewarding to defeat them. That is the best thing about the game’s design. Each level intelligently trains you on the mechanics and abilities of Giana. By the time you reach the final level you will literally be tested on everything you’ve learned. It will frustrate you, but you will learn from it and improve your reflexes and motor skills with repeated play.
In terms of difficulty, and I hate to mention Mario again, but imagine the challenge of playing Super Mario Bros. The Lost Levels (Super Mario Bros. 2 in Japan). Don’t let the difficulty scare you away. It’s a learning experience and you will feel very accomplished when you complete the levels. In fact, the indie game Super Meat Boy might be a more appropriate comparison in terms of difficulty and utilizing infinite lives to hone your platforming skills.
In each level you collect diamonds on your way to the goal. Collecting all the diamonds in a level along with the amount of times you die in that level net you a star ranking at the end. In order to unlock the boss levels, you must earn a specific amount of stars. I had no problem unlocking boss levels until I reached the final stage and realized I can’t complete the game unless I go back and play previous levels to gain more stars. I somewhat dreaded having to go back to levels where I died repeatedly, but I was surprised to locate secret areas I had missed on my first playthrough and I was able to avoid dying a lot easier. Luckily the game allows you to die a few times and still receive the stars, but the uber-hardcore mode is less forgiving, giving you one life to beat the entire game. They might as well call that the impossible mode. I look forward to seeing speed runs and gameplay videos by hardcore players on YouTube. It’s such a rewarding experience playing this game. Fans will be delighted to see an unlockable art gallery along with a score attack and time attack mode.
Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams unexpectedly came out of nowhere and it’s a definite candidate for one of the best platformers in recent years. Originality is not a term that Giana has been associated with, but it’s a term that it can now embrace as a new start for a franchise that has serious potential. Thanks to Kickstarter the game actually exists and it’s something that Armin Gessert would be extremely proud of. The team at Black Forest Games deserves some serious kudos and I can’t wait to see what they’ve got in store for us in the future. Visit their official site to purchase the PC game on Steam, GOG, or Gamersgate. You won’t regret it!
9 out of 10.
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