While the east-west divide is still very obviously a thing in certain parts of gaming — with RPGs being the most commonly cited example — elsewhere we really are seeing the lines blur considerably. These days, it’s not at all uncommon to come across a game with a very Japanese look and feel to it, only to discover it was actually the work of a western developer.
Californian developer WayForward is often at the forefront of such ventures; the company’s most well-known series Shantae is heavily inspired by Castlevania and Japanese 32-bit 2D platform games, for example, and Konami even trusted the team with making the fourth numbered installment in the Contra series back in 2007.
Vitamin Connection sees WayForward taking things in a distinctly different direction, though. Rather than attempting to make a modern game with a retro feel as with many of their other titles, Vitamin Connection instead pays homage to some of the most creative minds in Japanese gaming — including the wonderful people from Sony Japan Studio who gave us titles such as LocoRoco and Patapon back in the PSP days, Katamari creator Keita Takahashi and Smilebit’s sterling work on the Jet Set Radio series for Sega. Hell, to emphasise the latter case, there’s even a song by bis in Vitamin Connection’s score; the last time I heard them screeching away in their inimitable pop-punk style was on Jet Set Radio Future’s soundtrack.
In Vitamin Connection, you (and optionally, a friend) take on the role of the microscopic Vita-Boy and Mina-Girl as they are inserted into the mouths of various sick people. Once safely inside the patient’s gooey bits, it’s up to you to steer their capsule ship safely through the “caverns” ahead, blasting various microbes out of the way and manipulating the environment in order to proceed.
Initially, this all seems very simple: if you’re playing in single-player, the left stick controls the ship, while the right stick fires a beam out in any direction. It doesn’t take long for things to get more complicated, though; twisting passages make it necessary for you to rotate the ship with the shoulder buttons, stringy bits across the corridors must be “pierced” by the correctly coloured side of the capsule ship, and certain obstacles rotate in sync with the ship’s orientation.
Vitamin Connection isn’t linear, either; in a (perhaps unintentional) homage to Synapse Software’s 1983 Atari 8-bit and Commodore 64 title Zeppelin by Cathryn Mataga, every so often you’ll come across junctions in the tunnels that require you to pick a route in order to proceed.
Initially, you’ll only have a vague idea which directions you’ll need to go in order to reach the “vital locations” required to clear the stage, but if you want to see everything the game has to offer, exploration is essential anyway. Five stars are hidden throughout each stage, and locating them all unlocks a selection of secret levels alongside the six main stages. Thankfully, there is an in-game map, so you can easily see which ways you haven’t been yet.
Once you reach a vital location, you’ll generally have an amusing (and well-acted) dialogue sequence with one of the villains of the piece — during which both Vita-Boy and Mina-Girl remain resolutely silent — before being thrust into some sort of mini-game challenge. These are varied and interesting, including rhythm-based dance challenges, a take on the “buzz wire” dexterity challenge, a reaction-based game where you need to grab lumps of mucus while avoiding baddies, and stages strongly reminiscent of Eighting’s Kuru Kuru Kururin where you must navigate a constantly rotating ship through a series of increasingly perilous caverns.
All of this is a lot of fun in single player, but if you want to make Vitamin Connection even more challenging, you can, as previously noted, bring a friend along for the ride. If you choose to do this, the game takes on an asymmetrical feel — in the main game, whoever holds the left Joy-Con is responsible for moving the ship, while the player on the right Joy-Con controls the ship’s rotation and firing.
Later in the game, when the ship is outfitted with a claw to grab things, both players will need to be fully in sync — the left player activates the claw and aims it with their Joy-Con, while the right player is responsible for actually closing the claw to grab things.
And, of course, all the mini-games require both players to be on top of their responsibilities at all times, too. The dancing game, for example, sees the left player concentrating on the directional “steps” and “claps”, while the right player tilts the ship at the appropriate time. This is one of the few instances where cooperative play actually makes things a little easier than the single-player mode; when playing solo, watching both sides of the screen for cues at the same time can be challenging!
It’s not too hard to muddle your way through each of Vitamin Connection’s six main levels and the “New Game Pro” mode that unlocks thereafter. This is a relief, since each stage can take up to an hour to complete, particularly if you don’t know where you’re going — but some additional longevity is provided by the game’s combo system, which challenges you to take out as many enemies and infected spots in a row as you can without being shot or colliding with any walls or obstacles; your best result for each stage is recorded in your save file.
The game’s deliberate pacing makes it seem like this will be a breeze, but it’s quite a bit harder than you might expect, particularly when you’re having to thing about multiple things at the same time. When faced with stringy membranes, enemies and blocks you need to move out of the way with the claw, which do you tackle first? Decide quickly, because they’re all approaching!
Vitamin Connection isn’t really a game about score-chasing or longevity, though; it’s a game about just enjoying the experience while you’re playing. And oh boy, what an experience. Taking heavy cues from the aforementioned creators and their work, Vitamin Connection features a delightfully happy-go-lucky feel thanks to its simple but highly expressive visuals and its absolutely fantastic soundtrack — with many tracks offering interactive elements according to the actions you’re taking.
Each level cycles around several different tracks, with occasional radio-style “jingles” in between them — often in Japanese, for some reason. This gives the game a nicely chilled out vibe, like you’re cruising through your patient’s bowels while happily listening to the hottest new tracks on the radio; this aspect of Vitamin Connection is where the Jet Set Radio influence is most apparent, though there was less interacting with people’s intestines in Sega’s title.
It’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security by the delightful musical accompaniment to the action, but the game never forgets to give you a rude awakening with a challenging section every so often. It never gets overwhelming or relentless, but it does vary the pace often enough to ensure that you can never quite sit back and relax completely. It’s a good balance; it means the game doesn’t become a passive experience where you just listen to the smooth tunes and glide along — something which would easily bore many of today’s gamers — but at the same time it never gets so intense that you can’t enjoy the presentation, either.
In short, Vitamin Connection is a game that anyone who mourns the passing of Sony’s Japan Studio owes it to themselves to play. It may not have had the direct involvement of the creative minds behind titles like LocoRoco, but it feels like it did — and I can think of no higher compliment to pay a title like this. It’s a game that wants nothing more than to make you feel good and for you to enjoy yourself — and taking the time to savour that sort of thing is something we should all make sure we’re doing in today’s busy and chaotic age.
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