Super Mario Galaxy without the plumber or the polish.
It should be noted up front that I am a huge fan of Super Mario Galaxy, and, perhaps more importantly, I am also a huge fan of Super Mario Galaxy 2. I'm no detractor of video games that take a previously established set of game mechanics and serve them up a second time with more content. The "expansion pack" nature of the Super Mario Galaxy sequel was totally fine in my book. So to me, the pre-release observations I had read that Flip's Twisted World is standing on the shoulders of Super Mario Galaxy were glowing recommendations of quality platforming and level design, rather than worrying omens of derivative gameplay. However, it's become clear upon playing the final product that such comparisons were superficial at best. Majesco's Flip's Twisted World is a colorful, fairly attractive 3D platformer built around the premise that gravity doesn't always have to pull in one direction, but the similarities between it and the Super Mario Galaxy games end there.
Flip's Twisted World has you playing as Flip, a mischievous sorcerer's apprentice who finds himself trapped inside one of his master's books, Myst-style. The universe inside the book was created as a training area for wizards, which explains the floaty, twisty nature of the level design. Most areas consist of large strings of floating platforms that face every which way, and navigating them requires your primary skill: the ability to rotate the entire world around you. You can rotate the world in 90 degree increments in each cardinal direction, causing you to fall towards the new "down," where, hopefully, there's a platform to catch you. What this basically amounts to is the ability to walk on walls and ceilings.
Planning your rotations so as not to fall into the void is key. Though there are no lives in this game; falling into nothingness simply sends you back to the beginning of the room or to the nearest checkpoint, which is rarely frustrating. When you initiate a rotation by holding the Wii Remote's B button, a glowing arrow appears above your head that points toward the direction the world is going to rotate, and you can influence the direction of that arrow either by tilting the Wii Remote (which often works poorly) or by tilting the analog stick (which works wonderfully.) If you decide to give this game a try, using the analog stick is an absolute must to avoid going bonkers - it's so much more precise than Wii Remote tilting. If you keep this in mind, the tilting controls work well overall.
The glowing arrow that shows you how you are about to rotate the world is color-coded to indicate whether you will make a successful landing; if it's blue, you're good to go, but if it's orange, you're going to fall into the void or you're going to hit a platform that's too far away and incur enough falling damage to die. This color coding is immensely helpful for getting through levels, though it's not always 100 percent accurate as sometimes the arrow is fooled by distant or narrow platforms. It's always best to be sure you have a solid, sizable platform to fall onto before you activate that rotation.
Level design usually consists of running from one end of a platform to the other, seeing an endless pit in front of you and a wall to your left or right, rotating the world to fall onto that wall, and continuing to the end of THAT platform, wash rinse and repeat. The game's environmental puzzles can occasionally be more interesting than that, such as one really nice "ah ha" moment in a boss fight against a group of monkeys, but those moments are too few and far between.
In contrast to the fairly straightforward rotation controls, combat in Flip's Twisted World is a mess. Flip faces off against various cute enemies throughout the game, but most of them act the same - they move toward you until they hit you, and you get damaged. Flip's primary attack is a giant book that he can swing at enemies, but the attack is slow and clunky, and it's very difficult to land a hit on an enemy without him hitting you first. To make matters worse, all of Flip's attacks are controlled by shaking the Wii Remote, which adds a layer of imprecision and fuzziness to the already slow attacks. Combat is an absolute chore in this game, and most rooms have several enemies and the game often requires you to kill them, so it simply can't be ignored. As you progress through the game, you pick up more attacks in the form of abilities unlocked in the magical training cube that you start the game with, and some of these abilities make combat a lot more tolerable, particularly a water cannon attack that lets you hit enemies from a distance. But these are all still controlled via waggle, and it never feels clean or precise.
One other useful combat ability is a Mario-style butt stomp, which thankfully doesn't rely on shaking the remote, but it still feels wonky since collision detection between your character and enemies often feels strangely buggy and fuzzy, so it's hard to know if your stomp will land or not. This brings me to the next major problem with this game: the bugginess.
Bugs are prevalent throughout all of Flip's Twisted World. I was able to regularly trigger a death animation simply by standing too close to the edge of a platform, even though there was a platform only a few feet below. Standing on moving platforms often results in your character jerkily moving upwards, out of sync with the platform itself. Collision detection is poor overall. I've occasionally been sent to the beginning of rooms for no apparent reason The first boss of the game got stuck in a corner and couldn't get out. All of these things stack up to make playing through Flip's Twisted World an exercise in frustration.
Beyond the pure bugs, there is also a general lack of polish in the game, particularly in the area of sound design. There are many, many things in the game that should make some sort of sound but don't, from flipping switches to falling drawbridges to enemy attacks to NPC movements in cut scenes. It's like they simply forgot to finish the sound design before shipping the game. Missing that many sound effects really makes you appreciate the ability of good sound design to draw you into a game; when that stuff is missing, it really stands out. Another example of the general lack of polish is in the cut scene that occurs whenever you defeat a boss at the end of one of the game's worlds. A victory cut scene is triggered in which your character jumps in the air while the camera rotates around him, and victory music plays, but the cut scene stops and fades to black right in the middle of the musical phrase without a satisfactory ending. Imagine grabbing a star in Super Mario Galaxy, and when the level end fanfare music starts playing, it abruptly ends before reaching the final hits. It just doesn't feel right.
Another major annoyance is the way the game treats death - if you die by falling into an endless void, you respawn at the last checkpoint, and your progress in the area remains intact, but if you die by taking too much damage in combat or by falling onto a distant surface, you are sent back to the beginning of the room and lose your progress there. Sometimes the rooms are quite large, and the discrepancy between these two modes of dying is severely noticeable.
On a more positive note, Flip's Twisted World is mostly a very nice looking game. The lighting effects are attractive, the worlds are colorful and usually fairly detailed, and the character model for Flip is cute and cleverly designed. Most of the enemies are less interesting looking, and the polygon counts are generally somewhat low, but the game's visuals have a lot of charm. In addition to the visuals, the game's music is a high point. There are a variety of musical styles present throughout the game, from jazz to orchestral, and it's often pretty hummable and interesting.
It's clear that Flip's Twisted World aims to not only evoke comparisons to high quality 3D platformers like Super Mario Galaxy, but also high-concept puzzle platformers such as Braid, And Yet It Moves, and A Boy and His Blob. However, the unimaginative level design, overall bugginess, and general lack of polish really stop it from achieving those goals. The graphics and music pull most of the weight here, and the simple level design would encourage me to recommend the game for younger players were it not for the frustratingly difficult combat. Perhaps if this game had spent some more time in the oven, it would have emerged a lot more fully baked.