Michael Iantorno PhD Candidate, Game Designer, and Writer

Vertically Challenged: A Review of Tobe’s Vertical Adventure

Tobe’s Vertical Adventure is disposable, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s a short, sweet piece of candy that you savour until it dissolves in your mouth and from your memory, a quick snack that you sneak between meals. Having picked up the retro platformer off Steam for the digital equivalent of a handful of change, my expectations were reserved. However, my tenacity was rewarded with a fun, engaging arcade experience.

Tobe is a slacker who is dragged on a whimsical treasure hunt by his carefree girlfriend Nana. The reluctant adventurer must navigate a series of deep caverns to find the excessively large chest waiting for him at the bottom. Once the chest is cracked open, the level begins to fall apart. Tobe then has a fixed amount of time to backtrack upwards and reach the escape rope at the top.

The key to enjoying Tobe’s Vertical Adventure is gauging your expectations. This isn’t Cave Story. Tobe’s Vertical adventure is only a few hours long, and its paltry narrative – told through a series of slideshow images before and after each zone – is intended only as a framing device. This also isn’t Spelunky. Infinitely variable randomly generated levels are eschewed in favour of intentionally designed vertical corridors with clearly marked goals and exits.

I've got you, vertically! Pretty sneaky sis.

Instead Tobe’s Vertical Adventure is an arcade affair. Our protagonist spelunks his way through four zones each containing four linear levels. The level structure reminds me a great deal of the original Kid Icarus, where running off the right side of the screen improbably loops you back to the left side. Tobe, thankfully, controls a great deal better than Nintendo’s cherubic protagonist, being able to wall jump over or roll under obstacles. This mobility makes navigating the NES-style levels much less frustrating than it could have been, while the countdown to destruction maintains some iota of  the era’s difficulty. Overall, the game does a fairly proficient job of appropriating and polishing these classic run, jump, and collect mechanics.

The graphics, too, do an excellent job of emulating retro classics. While they are certainly nothing to write home about compared to outings such as the aforementioned Cave Story, they are simple, clean, and appealing.

Where Tobe’s Vertical Adventure falters is in its complacency with being average. There was never a time playing the game were I felt wowed, surprised, or said to myself “oh, that’s cool.” The level design is tight, but uniform. You won’t encounter a set piece, boss fight, or obstacle that is unique to a specific level, and even the elements that are tied to specific zones are recycled ad nauseam. This homogeneity makes the level design unmemorable – a crushing criticism for any sidescroller. Where would Super Mario World be without memorable levels like the Ghost Ship, Cheese Bridge, or the controller-smashingly difficult Tubular?

This girl might as well be Tobe in drag

Other aspects of the game are similarly status quo. The second playable character, Nana, is almost a carbon copy of Tobe. Not enough effort was spent differentiating her control scheme, and it hardly seems worth beating the game a second time with her. The absent of robust secrets, achievements, or unlockables is also disappointing considering how short the single player game is.  The game too often gets away with offering the bare minimum, and this makes it feel threadbare at times.

I could nitpick over lost opportunities like this all day – it’s pretty much my calling – but the fact of the matter is that Tobe’s Vertical Adventure is a genuinely enjoyable game. Yes, it’s short and somewhat thin, but it’s less than five dollars on Steam – even less if you can hit a holiday sale. So ditch the Starbucks tomorrow morning and pick up a copy of Tobe’s Vertical Adventure instead!

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By Mathew
Michael Iantorno PhD Candidate, Game Designer, and Writer