It’s a tale as old as time: girl meets alien warlord; alien warlord comes crashing through her bedroom wall; he steals her cat and maybe her heart. Then the girl grabs a laser rifle and heads out to get her cat back. Functionally, as a setup for a videogame, this mightn’t be all that different to ‘your princess is in another castle’, but paired with a bright art style that looks like it’s been scrawled onto your monitor in pastels, it’s exactly the kind of thing that makes me do the heart eyes.
So, yeah, it was pretty much love at first sight with Super Crush KO. It reminded me of Steven Universe and Scott Pilgrim and Sayonara Wild Hearts and that one feature-length music video where a woman dances her way across New York for the duration of Girl Talk’s mash-up album All Day. (If you take nothing else from this review, go and check out that video—it’s a masterpiece. (opens in new tab)) But this was a surface-level attraction, based on appearance and assumption, the kind that quickly fades. Sorry to say, this isn’t going to be a love story.
Peel back the impeccable presentation, and underneath you’ll find a pretty straightforward 2D brawler. Armed with the aforementioned laser gun and a selection of punches, kicks and dashes, you move left to right, clearing screen after screen of robotic nasties. And there’s nothing wrong with that! Some of my best friends are straightforward 2D brawlers. But Super Crush KO’s action lacks a certain zest. As gorgeous as the art is, in motion it’s never quite as smooth as you’d hope. Your character feels a little like one of those paper dolls you made as a kid, putting split pins in the joints so you could jiggle its limbs.
There’s no real sense of heft to the action. Enemies just kind of linger there, politely waiting to explode while you repeatedly hammer the punch button. You can stand harmlessly on top of one another, your sprite overlapping theirs, until an attack pattern causes them to flash red, knocking you backwards with all the force of an updraft catching a shopping bag. A misjudged uppercut will send you sailing past your intended target and into clear baby-blue sky, where a carefully cued follow-up punch leaves you fluttering in the breeze as your combo multiplier trickles away.
Super Crush KO is one of those action games that’s always marking your performance. Its UI is dominated by a big fat letter grade that sits at the top the screen looking judgemental. And this is the aspect of the game I’m most torn about.
On one hand, it’s the engine that powers Super Crush KO. It’s seemingly possible to stitch entire levels into a single elongated combo, taking advantage of the special moves that send your character dashing forwards and the range of your laser rifle to ensure there’s never a moment of dead air. The challenge here isn’t so much beating the aliens as it is maintaining a keepy-uppy of successful hits and dodges, lest your ‘A’ grade be replaced with a dreaded ‘D’.
On the other, I’m not sure how well this actually fits with every other part of the game. Some of this, admittedly, might be personal bias—I’m the one who gives out scores around here, thank you very much, and that’s the way I like it—but the constant reminder of your current grade means that every moment you’re not landing a punch feels like a failure. It’s not that a bright colourful exterior can’t conceal sharp teeth (just look at Cuphead) but more that its simple combat system never earns the inevitable knot of stress in the pit of my stomach that accompanies a ticking combo timer.
I didn't need to engage my brain much when playing. I quickly found myself reaching for headphones (the music, sadly, never rises above ‘serviceable’) and the game just became a way to keep my hands and eyes busy while I fixed my attention on a podcast. And after a while, even my eyes stopped registering Super Crush KO’s ample charm.
Even the prettiest game, if it never grows or changes, can get stale quickly. Take Sayonara Wild Hearts as a counter example—one of the games that came to mind in my first flutter of infatuation with Super Crush. It’s got a remarkable aesthetic, but it flings a new idea at you every few seconds. In Super Crush KO, once you’ve unlocked all your moves—which occurs around the end of the second level—you’re doing and seeing pretty much the same stuff until the credits roll.
There’s one major exception to this rule: the cutscenes, done in the style of a comic page, where each click reveals a new panel or adds an element of animation. They’re always a treat, and honestly the main reason to keep playing, but also there are a mighty five of them to see. The pool of enemies and level obstacles keeps growing, but they never do much to push you outside of your comfort zone, or bring any visual surprises.
And so eyes inevitably wander, seeking a pretty new thing to crush on instead. Look, I’m not proud of it, but I’m already eyeing up this indie game that’s just wandered into my Steam recommendations, with style up to here and aesthetics for hours. This time, I’m sure, it’s got to be true love.