In 1987 a humble little game with a difficult-to-pronounce title and cover art that makes me grin every time I see it was loosed on various consoles including the Atari ST and Commodore 64. The Great Giana Sisters is only one of many games of the era that took its cues from the near-inimitable Super Mario Bros, but this game did such a good and successful knock-off job that Nintendo mobilized the lawyers and Giana was eventually withdrawn from sale.
The 26 years that followed held some interesting turns for the Giana brand. Creator Armin Gessert founded Spellbound Entertainment in 1994, which developed mid-tier games for 15 years before releasing a brand new Giana Sisters game for the Nintendo DS. Unfortunately Gessert died of a heart attack that same year, and in 2012 Spellbound went into administration.
From the ashes of that company though came Black Forest Games, a group whose first order of business was to hit up Kickstarter and fund a brand new Giana Sisters game for the modern age.
See while side-scrolling arcade platformers with an emphasis on precision, tight control and interesting character abilities was plagiarism in 1987, and a drop in the ocean on DS in 2009, today it’s something many players are dying to return to after the inflation of Hollywood AAA games and the perceived dumbing-down of Nintendo’s own 2D platformers.
After a successful Kickstarter campaign and a release last year, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams — billed by Black Forest as the spiritual ‘grandchild’ to the original Great Giana Sisters — is now arriving on Nintendo’s Wii U.
For whatever reason the situation as a whole appeals to me a great deal: Two incredibly similar games, one pure and one tainted, clash in 1987 and the latter is cast down. The former walks on lanes paved with gold for a quarter century while the lesser takes the grungier, harder road of small-scale development, surviving until presently it finds itself in a world where Mario’s crown has lost its lustre a little in the eyes of the faithful and the shifted paradigm means Giana Sisters can find a place literally one tile over from New Super Mario Bros U.
It’s a dramatisation of the actual events, sure (and a trivialisation of the amazing accomplishments of Nintendo over the past two decades), but it nevertheless allows for some interesting questions.
For example you could ask: to what degree does Twisted Dreams give us a window into a Mushroom Kingdom that never was, a Mario platforming series developed in an alternate universe in which Nintendo’s priorities and development strategy are quite different? Having not been subject to the 3D revolution and the broadening of gaming into a mainstream activity, can a new interpretation of the ideals of 1987 platforming show us something Nintendo’s missed?
To be clear, I don’t think Twisted Dreams is aiming to ‘be’ Mario in any sense, especially in the sense that the original Giana did, and it stands up as a great game on its own merits alone. Be that as it may it’s a clear extension of the ideas and gameplay of the original Giana Sisters, and that gameplay is pure Mario, so the contrast between this game and the current state of Super Mario 2D platformers is still an interesting one.
Twisted Dreams is a purely single-player game and does not utilise power-up items in the traditional sense. Straight away these decisions indicated that the new Giana is taking a different approach to necessary staples – for example the need to keep gameplay fresh with different abilities.
In Twisted Dreams you play as only one girl, but at any time you can switch her persona between a cutesy and punk version of herself. Doing so not only gives you access to a different set of abilities, but shifts the world around you entirely. Change into Cute Giana and you can spin-jump, while the world becomes hellish, trees melt into rib cages, fluffy birds become hideous demons. Switch back to Punk Giana and you can dash, meanwhile the sky reverts to its sunny self, gothic castles become happy houses and you’re treated to a hard-rock version of the current theme song.
It isn’t the most original system, but the dichotomy afforded to the Mario-esque design by a schizophrenic protagonist is so much more satisfying and modern than switching one powerup for the other or even having two completely distinct players having to take turns interacting with the environment.
The system is handled in such a way that it avoids having you feel like an all-powerful being though, as management of the two personas is key. For example if you jump as Punk Giana and then spin-jump to make a certain platform you need to counteract any effects of the world switch, be that a gem that can only be collected by Punk Giana or a gate that will only let Cute Giana through.
As fresh as this method of gating abilities is compared to Mario, however, there is the inevitable trade-off of clunkiness. Running through Twisted Dreams is never as smooth or fluid as running through NSMBU, and that’s largely due to the increased emphasis on stage design that challenges your ability to smartly manage your two personas.
In terms of visual style, both series have clearly taken a lot of influence from their 8-bit source material, but while NSMBU easily wins out in terms of a clean, bright look, Twisted Dreams’ environments are just so much less sterile, and somehow distinctly Mushroom Kingdom.
The Punk Giana version of the woodland area in particular looks as though it could have been taken from the imagination of someone visualising the original Super Mario Bros (or Great Giana Sisters) as they played — the weird mushrooms in the background, the dusty bricks and twisty vines cluttering the path forward — and yet the look is markedly different from any 2D Mario game since NES days.
Technically of course, in terms of optimisation and stability, Twisted Dreams certainly doesn’t live up to the quality of a first-party Nintendo game. But considering the comparative resources of the teams involved, Black Forest has done a very nice job of updating the original Giana game while clearly taking influence from platforming peers like Trine, something Nintendo would make a point of never doing.
In the end the differences between where Giana Sisters and Super Mario Bros have found themselves makes for a perfect expression of what I feel is somewhat of a paradox for those of us becoming a little bit tired of the New Super Mario Bros series. Twisted Dreams is full of new ideas and daring takes on old ideas, and it’s not afraid to throw out a lot of what made its inspiration fun to play. While many wish Nintendo would take that attitude just a bit when considering the next move of their own 2D franchise, it’s my opinion that with every element Twisted Dreams adds to the classic run-and-jump formula, it’s also taking something away.
Giana’s kept something with her from the 80s which Mario left behind: a desire to produce an experience that forces people to think about platforming a new way. But where Twisted Dreams wants to be fresh like Super Mario Bros was back in the day, current-day Mario is refusing to let anything get in the way of the pure, precise, clean gameplay experience that game provided. To a certain extent, there’s a very real limit to what you could do to Super Mario’s surrounding elements – powerups, control, stage design — before the core run-and-jump gameplay becomes eroded, and Twisted Dreams demonstrates that you really do have to choose one or the other.
It’s for this reason I’m mostly glad that Nintendo plays it so conservatively when it comes to Mario platformers in a 2D style. But it’s also for this reason I’m very glad the Giana Sisters brand is back up and running, and I can continue to think of it as platforming royalty’s grungier, kitschier, gorgeous illegitimate grandchild.