The world of physics based video games is a small, yet surprisingly interesting place. Games like Armadillo Run or World of Goo, puzzle games that rely very little on action or story and instead focus on letting the player really interact with the game environment. One of the more influential games to come out within the last handful of years was Crayon Physics Deluxe, in which the player draws shapes that end up becoming objects in the game. Like all innovation, Crayon Physics was subsequently copied several times with nothing new added to the mix. With Max and the Magic Marker, the main element of Crayon Physics, the drawing, is blended with a side scrolling platforming game, adding a whole new layer of strategy to the concept because now instead of moving a ball from point a to point b, you move a character while also collecting things and killing the minions of the games antagonist. At times this all gets to be a bit much, but for the most part Max and the Magic Marker does a good job of maintaining imagination and keeping the player interested.
The story is…well honestly they aren’t very clear about the story. Pretty much all that matters though is that a kid named Max who has bitchin hair a la Johnny Bravo gets a marker in the mail one day. Apparently this marker does…something, and max ends up chasing down a big purple guy named Mustacho. Why is Max chasing (or maybe it is running from) Mustacho? Why is the first world a suburb, the second a beach, and the third a factory? What are the orbs that Max collects, and possibly most importantly, what makes this marker so magic? Was it made by a demented scientist, or Jesus? These and any other questions you might have about the games many plot holes are never answered or even acknowledged. I guess, in short, if you want a good story don’t play a physics game because they all seem to be like this. But who needs a story when you have good gameplay?
When you first start to play this game it may take some getting used to. Not only is the marker (controlled with the mouse) a giant orange stick perfect for distracting you or blocking your vision, but at times Max is no ballerina and he is very limited in his movement. Several times while playing this game I wished for some more normal human movement such as crouching or walking (as opposed to constantly running everywhere) but it seems that good old Max only has four joints and only knows one speed, fast. A running crouch-slide similar to what Mario has been doing since NES would have been a dream in this game. PC platform games are kind of awkward as a rule though, mainly because a keyboard just doesn’t have the sensitivity needed to pull of anything that resembles grace. I would say plug in a controller, but you need a free hand to guide the magic marker.
The marker itself handles well, and aside from being butt ugly the only real problem with it is that you end up drawing pretty much the same thing over and over again. It’s sort of a double edged sword that comes with combining these two sorts of games. On the one hand you have an action/platforming game, and on the other is a puzzle game that stirs the creativity in us all. Sadly the action game side of Max pretty much renders the creativity null because you often don’t have time (or ink) to plan out anything elaborate or complex, but instead end up drawing lots of stairs and ramps and the occasional see saw. After making it a certain point in the game you unlock a “full marker” option which starts you off with full ink, but even this runs out and when you complete a level with this selected the game calls you a cheater and your score is not saved. Granted, this is an action/adventure game first I suppose, but a nicer balance between accomplishing the goal and having room for creative fun would have been very welcome.
Don’t get me wrong, there are several things that this game does very well. First and foremost is that it is fun and rather intuitive. It really is a blast drawing a see saw and launching Max soaring into the air. Also the option to pause and draw comes in handy several times, and allows for a bit more thought. The presentation of the game is quite nice (even if the world select screen is almost a duplicate of World of Goo’s) and the graphics are not only very pretty, but with six detail settings you could probably run this well on any machine, my dual core handled it on full graphics without a single problem, so its not system intensive in any way.
The main plus to the game is its level design. At first glance several of the levels seem a tad one dimensional with the main goal being get from left to right. After a bit though you notice that on just about every level there is a whole other portion of map either up or down. It’s a lot of fun because it gives you the feeling of having discovered something secret. Also along the way are special black orbs to collect which normally have a mini game surrounding them, or at least a tricky puzzle that will push the limits of what you think that magic marker is capable of.
For the most part, the physics engine in this game runs without any hiccups. I couldn’t find out whether or not they made one specifically for it, or used an already established one, but from my experience it plays something like a more fluffy version of the Box 2d engine. At times Max reacts a bit odd, ending up sideways or flying through the air for no particular reason, but the objects in the game all react well and don’t lend to any annoying “it wasn’t my fault!” sort of deaths. Also whoever decided to not include a “lives” system into this game and let you die any many times as you need deserves a big old kiss, because you will die a lot when playing.
All in all, Max and the Magic Marker is a fun game that puts original spins on two great ideas. Any flaws it has are minor enough that the game is still a joy to play, and the difficulty curve is pretty much perfect, giving you ample time to learn how the game works, and by the final world presenting you with serious mind bending challenges. On the games website is a free demo, and the full version only costs twenty bucks to download. Though I didn’t try it, there is also a Nintendo Wii version of the game that was released in March, if I had to guess I would say it is a fitting system for this game. One last thing, if you play this game, expect a lot of “cool”, the sort of almost forced “cool” that was big in the early 90’s and is probably symbolized best by the main character being named Max, since everyone named Max is by default, incredibly “cool”.
Max and the Magic Marker (PC) / 2010 Legacy Interactive / http://www.legacyinteractive.com