"The developers did a great job of making references to days gone by while neither mocking them as entirely stupid nor setting them on a pedestal."
It wouldn't be much of a review, but I could describe Saturday Morning RPG to you in just six words: "a love letter to the '80s." If you watched cartoons and movies back then, this game is aimed squarely at you. If you aren't a child of that era, though, don't worry; the resurgence of '80s hits like Transformers and G. I. Joe in the last ten years or so has equipped you with the references you'll need to follow the jokes. Well, most of them.
Saturday Morning RPG is an episodic game that's set up like a classic Saturday morning cartoon. Each episode is a self-contained story pitting you against Commander Hood, an evil military leader who is sometimes assisted by evil robots who can change themselves into cars and jets. Yeah, you're fighting Cobra and the Decepticons, and the references are intentionally obvious. There are four episodes so far, with additional episodes planned for future release. It appears that like most Saturday morning cartoons, the series will continue until the ratings can't sustain it any longer, rather than being geared toward a specific end point the way some episodic games are.
As befits the reference material, each episode's story is fairly superficial: the bad guys have done something dastardly, and you need to stop them. However, there are sidequests in each episode that flesh out the game's world and characters significantly, so XP isn't the only reason to complete them. And even if you aren't that interested in the characters, skipping the sidequests would also mean missing out on some of the best jokes and nods at the game's source material. Even with the sidequests, the story is straightforward and far from meaty, but that's not the end of the world. As someone who grew up in the 80s (I'm 37, I'm not old), I could be biased, but I feel like the developers did a great job of making references to days gone by while neither mocking them as entirely stupid nor setting them on a pedestal.
This isn't just a nostalgia delivery service, though — it's a game. Specifically, it's a turn-based game that will feel pretty natural to most players with any RPG experience. As the main character, Marty, you walk around levels looking for people, places, and things that'll resolve your quests and fighting anybody who tries to stop you. Enemies are clearly visible on screen, and when they see you come close, they'll attack.
At the beginning of each battle, you get a few seconds to scratch the stickers on Marty's magic Trapper Keeper (it's a fancy three-ring binder, kiddies), each of which gives him a boost or weakens his enemies in the next fight if you scratch it within the time limit. The stickers never get used up, but you are given a good variety over the course of the episodes, so you'll definitely find yourself switching them out from time to time. Once in battle, you can punch an enemy, use an item, or charge up power to strengthen your next attack. It's not an active-time battle system, but each action takes time to execute, so the slower an attack is, the more turns enemies will get before Marty does whatever you asked him to do.
Marty can equip five items at a time, and each item can be used a certain number of times per battle. Most items are offensive, and stronger items tend to be usable a lower number of times, execute more slowly, or be inaccurate. Therefore, equipping a good mix of quick, weaker items and strong, slower ones is crucial. The charging mechanic uses the game's version of mana, and it's nicely balanced. It's quick and it gives your attacks a fair boost, but having a meter means that you can only use it so much before you run out. Mana recharges as you deal and take damage within a battle, and at the end of each battle, your mana and health are refilled completely.
I've maybe gone into too much detail about these mechanics, but as I look back at my time playing this game, it's the part that I'm happiest with. When I started the game, I mostly punched things, stopping to charge up before every attack because I really needed the boost if I wanted to do much damage. As I progressed through the chapters, I got better items and started facing stronger enemies, so charging every turn became less crucial, and I was able to make the choice between jumping in for a quick hit and charging up to unleash something truly devastating. That evolving strategy kept battles from getting stale over the course of the 20 hours I spent beating the four episodes, and that was key to my long-term enjoyment.
Saturday Morning RPG's graphics are an unusual mix: 3D polygonal backgrounds populated by characters who appear to be 16-bit sprites. Both styles look good enough, but never really rise up to greatness. Still, the only item I can think of to complain about is a definite nitpick: I don't really care for the sprite of Marty walking upscreen. It's not horrible, but I feel like the proportions are off a bit. On the other hand, I really like the fact that all of your attacks have a normal animation for when you simply hurt someone and a special animation and sound effect for when you knock them out. I got a chuckle from the baseball bat and the pencil every time I knocked someone out with them, so make sure to try those items when you play.
Speaking of sound; the effects are solid, but the music is downright impressive. The game's soundtrack was composed by Vince DiCola and Kenny Meriedeth, and it takes the '80s nostalgia all the way up to eleven. You may not know those gentlemen by name, but you know their work. Vince composed the music for Rocky IV and the Transformers movie, and Kenny has worked on the scores for over 200 TV shows, including 80s hits like DuckTales and Full House. That experience shows; all of the music is good, but the score for the Christmas episode is dead on, and I grinned every time I heard the quick theme song at the start of each new episode.
In general, the game controls well — it's clearly designed for a touch screen. For walking around, the game uses a virtual joystick that centers itself wherever you put your finger on the screen and keeps that center until you lift your finger. In battle, you tap icons once to select an action and once to confirm, or once on the icon and then once on the enemy you want to target. Tapping an enemy without picking an attack pops up a display of their stats. Most attacks allow/require you to tap the screen at a certain time for bonus damage. When enemies attack you, tapping the screen with the proper timing lets you reduce the damage you take and sometimes even send a projectile back to damage its source. Unfortunately, there's no visual cue that would tell you the best time for a defensive tap, and the games' descriptions, like "radical defense" or "righteous defense," don't make it clear whether you did as well as possible or not. Also, until Marty gets a hoverboard (in episode 3, I believe), his walking speed is frustratingly slow, and even the hoverboard sometimes doesn't feel very fast. Still, like my earlier complaint about Marty's sprite, this is only mildly annoying at worst.
At the beginning of this review, I gave a six word summary of what Saturday Morning RPG is. When it comes to my impression of the game, however, I only need two: "deceptively entertaining." It never really blew me away, but it did pull me in and make each of my play sessions last longer than I thought it had. The storyline didn't wow me, but I did feel some level of connection to the recurring characters, and I literally laughed out loud when I caught references like LaBeouf The Crime Dog, who tells kids to "say nonononononono to drugs,"
and who is really just an actor in a dog suit and a trenchcoat ("I'm trying to take a bite out of my college loans!"). There are a few different purchase options for Saturday Morning RPG on iTunes, and as is appropriate for a game about the '80s, the first episode's free. So hit it with your best shot, sweet child o' mine — it's not bad, and you can probably beat it.