"They said Spaceman might live forever. Then he swam in a lava lake."
One of the very first iOS games I played religiously was The Incident, a delightful 8-bit "climber" from Panic designer Neven Mrgan and developer Matt Comi, who together make up the indie game company Big Bucket Software. The game blended great mechanics (jump and move to avoid the falling things!) with a flair for the ridiculous (those falling things? They're random objects from all over the world). I loved it so much that I even made a short-lived Tumblr that celebrated the different things that brutally crushed your poor character, Frank.
Well, those jerks have done it again: Big Bucket's new game, Stagehand, blends everything I love about never-ending runners with the pair's unique and wacky tongue-in-cheek commentary on retro pixel-art games — and it has a cheery, banjo-filled soundtrack that will worm into your ears and haunt your dreams. (In a good way, I promise.)
What makes Stagehand so delightful? Mechanics, whimsy, and frustration. Yes, like The Incident before it, Big Bucket's latest game rewards you for death: This time, instead of screenshot-friendly trophies, you'll get an animated GIF of your untimely demise — and, if you share said GIF with a friend, you'll also get a social-friendly obituary along with it. Almost makes up for you throwing your character off a cliff with an over-buoyant platform.
That's where the game's other delightful wrinkle — and Stagehand's "reverse platformer" namesake — comes in to play. Unlike every other endless runner in the App Store, you have nothing to do with controlling the characters themselves: Frank (and his eventual cohorts, unlocked via high scores) will run as far as his little pixelated legs will take him, and automatically jump up or down over small ledges and gaps.
Instead, you help Frank and his cohorts (or torture them, if you're feeling particularly sadistic) by controlling the scenery. With the exception of spiky obstacles, brick ledges, and bonus coins, every bit of Stagehand's main background is movable. Bounce your character off a platform by throwing it up into the air. Save them from certain death by fiery lava by lowering a ledge. Swipe a giant purple banner from their path to clear the way forward. But make sure you do so before the left edge of the screen catches up with your character — or they're toast.
After you wrap your head around the initial insanity of the mechanics, it very quickly becomes one of those head-scratching "why did no one ever think to build this before?" moments. Stagehand feels right at home in the 1980s pixel-art game universe, but it's also stunning in its modernity and darkened sense of humor. Though they're very different games, it's hard not to compare Stagehand to Braid in this respect: Both introduce mechanics that seem obvious in retrospect, but at the same time feel right at home in the world they've built.
Big Bucket's whimsy, however, is what truly elevates Stagehand from being a gimmick to a hair-pulling masterpiece: Cabel Sasser's excellent score (A plea: Play this with headphones on for the full experience) jangles around in your brain and helps give the world true character; it also keeps any darkness from surrounding ridiculous cartoon deaths.
Those shareable GIFs, too, are a brilliant stroke on Big Bucket's part: I've been sharing them — and their 140-character "obitiuaries" — since I started beta testing the game back in November, and they never cease to amuse. The game's automatically-generated scenery is constantly changing, ensuring that every one of your character's eventual deaths will come just a bit differently.
It's gorgeous. It's funny. And it will drive you crazy as you try to figure out how to beat your friends. (Or distract you into a lake of lava as you realize you're about to beat one.) What's not to like?
Stagehand is coming to the App Store today, so keep an eye out on Big Bucket's website!