Every game can be fun, but not every game is fun. Case in point is Binary Madness' Niji, an otherwise excellent vertical platformer dulled by lackluster, overcomplicated gameplay. The basic premise is that Niji, a beautifully illustrated fantail fish, must save his friend Masu from an evil thunder cloud. In general terms, the gameplay is not unlike that of Monsters (Probably) Stole My Princess, another vertical platformer which has players racing to the top chasing after a kidnapped friend. Unfortunately, instead of utilizing the kind of simple mechanics which made the PSN port a short but enjoyable game, Niji's developer instead chose to clutter things up with poor pacing and gameplay which makes it tough for him to get off the ground.
Niji is a fish, so while his game is branded a platformer, there are only a couple of actual platforms found in the game. The vast majority of the time has the player sending Niji up the currents of the waterfalls created from sad clouds. Tapping the A-button makes Niji swim up the water streams as well as double jump in mid-air. Niji can also flip with the B-button, necessary to restore Niji's ability to swim. Yes, this is the first item where the developers failed Niji, by placing limits on a platformer character's ability to move from "platform" to "platform." Nevermind that Niji is a fish who should have no impediment on swimming in the first place, but this decision is counter-intuitive to the goals and instructions of the game itself. Niji must swim up as fast as he can to save his friend, but binary madness has handcuffed its poor fish to just approximately two seconds of swimming ability before it has to recharge to swim again. A blue meter in the top-left corner is depleted every time the fish swims or jumps, and it's ridiculous to see these wide, lengthy water tracks early on prove deadly since Niji tires out so quickly. Before any real hazards begin to emerge, the shackles of poorly designed gameplay already are doing Niji in.
The trick is to want to save Masu but at a more leisurely pace. Niji's swim meter, short as it is, does replenish itself when Niji is at rest. Unfortunately, in a fast vertical scrolling game, such moments don't come easily, but it's still imperative that players relax on the A-button swim mashing to allow some rejuvenation to occur. Likewise, though the plot and mechanics would otherwise indicate to race up the longer streams when they appear, especially for the score bonus granted when swimming up them, it helps to veer off the sides to squeeze in a flip or three to regain the ability to swim when exiting the waterfall. Tricks, simple flips Niji can dish out to add some flair to his rescue operation, will completely restore the swim meter, but the trick button brings Niji's advancement to a halt, allowing the rapidly scrolling plane to catch up with the fish if these flips are not planned out in advance to ensure Niji has some room to recover and get back on track. Niji desperately needs eight-way movement, because limiting the tricks, established by the gameplay as vital for advancement, to simple horizontal movements should not be as harmful as they are in practice. The player should be able to angle a jump and do a flip diagonally and vertically while advancing the fish and avoiding the huge disruption in flow which occurs when trying to flip in the game's current state.
The game's controls will prove to be a challenge for most players even before the game starts throwing in obstacles for Niji to dodge. Lightning barriers will force Niji to weave his way through the deadly corridors, often with little chance to see what's coming and react accordingly thanks to the limitations placed on his ability to move about the screen. Of course, it doesn't help when said lightning barricades often entirely box in any and all paths for advancement and force the player to cough up a life as Niji gets shocked and plummets to his death. There are a few instances where the player will encounter a lightning barrier which extends from wall to wall with seemingly no way to advance beyond it safely unless the player has had the good fortune to trigger a rainbow cloud to bypass the otherwise impassable roadblock. If Niji quickly makes contact with seven sad clouds, he can be whisked away some distance by a friendly cloud donning aviator goggles and leaving behind a rainbow trail. While this bonus is likely to be seen during normal gameplay, planning for it in advance to bypass such unfair obstacles is highly unlikely, requiring memorization and patience on the player's part which only will come after repeated playthroughs. It's fine and desirable for a game to require some level of skill to bypass tougher challenges ahead, but Niji's weak gameplay and level design will definitely test one's limits since success is neither intuitive nor fun as the game is currently designed.
It's a terrible shame, too, as Niji is a gorgeous game. I love how the narrative and action take place upon an ever unraveling scroll, and the artwork is colorful and detailed, making for a very pretty experience. The Japanese sound and music isn't memorable but suit the game, and Niji does offer a nice value for the low price. There's a four-player mode which is basically the same as the endless mode as each player seeks to be the last one still alive and swimming along a theoretically neverending track. Players do not collide with one another, but it is easy to lose track as the fish sprites overlap and the swift pace of the action can make it tough to stay in the game, especially when getting dropped into the field of play following a death (it can feel a bit like being Tails in Sonic 2 when pursuing the leader). While the local multi-player option is still nice to have, the endless mode is exactly what I'd want to see from a game such as Niji -- it's just unfortunate that Niji itself isn't appealing enough to want to play it at length. Too many cheapshots and cumbersome game mechanics leave a game which should be an excellent, immediate purchase simply something to consider trying. Niji doesn't need a full gameplay overall, just some tweaks to let players focus more on enjoying the ride and less about looking away to check out the HUD to see of their fish can swim, a question no one should ever have to ask or wonder about.