McPixel holds the prestige of being one of the first ten graduates of the Steam Greenlight service. If screenshots alone were used to appraise the title, it’d be difficult to digest how the game managed to earn its alumni status. The graphics are blocky and crude to an extent even beyond the retro aesthetic that has become trendy among indie titles. While McPixel is certainly no masterpiece, it certainly does not deserve to be passed over because of its graphical brevity.
McPixel is best categorized under the point-and-click adventure game genre. Regressing from titles such as Monkey Island and Grim Fandango, McPixel eschews narrative, continuity, and inventory management entirely. Instead the game focuses on presenting the player with a series of single-screen challenges at a gatling pace. Players are provided twenty seconds to find and disarm an explosive device on the screen using only the items at hand. If the titular character cannot improvise a way to defuse the bomb in time, he is consumed in a fluorescent orange explosion of pixels. As if the title wasn’t hint enough for you, yes, this game is a McGyver parody.
Unlike Richard Dean Anderson’s iconic pop culture persona, players will find themselves relying less on logic and more on trial and error. The laws of the McPixel universe are muddled and arcane. Defusing the bomb is never as simple as cutting a wire. Players are instead implored to doddle around their environment, haplessly interacting with objects and people until they eventually trigger a complex Rube Goldberg chain reaction that inexplicably disarms the explosive device. None of these triggers are obvious; solutions to puzzles include feeding the bomb to an extraterrestrial stoner, scalping a booby-trapped afro using a vinyl record, and offering McPixel as a sacrifice to the volcano gods to avoid an eruption. I haven’t been so perplexed by a game’s internal logic since I played Sam & Max Hit the Road back in the 1990s.
Finding these solutions would be infuriating if it weren’t for the hilarity of the game’s failure states. Each wrong answer is crafted with the same polish and care as the right answer, offering a short animated cut scene of McPixel ineptly fumbling the situation and inevitably being consumed by flames. As a result, the player never feels punished for failing a puzzle. In fact, since there are only a handful of possible outcomes per screen (and they never make any sense at all), the developers obviously intend for the player to enjoy the absurdity of trial and error rather than be genuinely challenged.
This absurdity is reflected well in the game’s unapologetically retro graphics. McPixel looks like it could have been released on a big black floppy diskette back in the early 1990s. This chunky pixelated aesthetic has seen success in games such as Orest Szopiak’s legendary Road Thang and pairs especially well with the stripped-down controls employed by McPixel. I can envision myself playing this game using a chunky single-button mouse and archaic 16-color monitor back in my elementary school’s computer lab. While the approach obviously banks heavily on nostalgia, the crudity of the graphics reinforces the ridiculous nature of the game.
Despite its humour and charm, McPixel is a game best enjoyed in small doses. Due to the lack of genuine challenge, the puzzle solving can be become tiresome very quickly. And while I salute the developers for adhering so religiously to their choice of aesthetic, the chunky graphics and tinny music can similarly fatigue the senses. Thankfully the game anticipates this and cordons off the puzzles into bite-sized brackets of six. And even if you only play McPixel for a few minutes a day for a handful of days, you’ve garnered more than enough value from the game’s $4.99 price tag.
McPixel is a strange take on the point-and-click adventure game genre to say the least. It can’t be considered a particularly innovative title on any front, but it possesses a peculiar sense of humour and charm that merits it a look. As long as you aren’t too put off by the game’s intentionally crude aesthetic, McPixel is as a good a way as any to kill an afternoon.