Elevator Action Deluxe has made me scream with rage more than anything since Super Meat Boy. In Super Meat Boy, my screams were tempered somewhat as the annoyance was short-lived, the action fast, and the levels smartly designed. Here, my screams were exacerbated by the knowledge that I would never be able to track down the level designers and force-feed them their own feet.
Does that sound harsh? Then I apologise, but this game doles out the sort of raw frustration that makes the Saw films look less like the cinematic equivalent of flogging a dead mule, and more like a goldmine of ideas.
Ostensibly, Elevator Action Deluxe is a remake/update of a 1983 arcade classic (unsurprisingly named Elevator Action) in which players took control of a secret agent with a terrifying quiff. Back then, the goal was to descend a tower block via elevators and escalators, entering red doors to steal secrets. Enemies would come out of other doors and chase you by using those same elevators and escalators; whether you fought back or simply stayed away was up to you.
Elevator Action Deluxe takes this base and attempts to spice it up with all sorts of level layouts, new enemies, and new mechanics. As a result it moves away from its predecessor’s emphasis on quick thinking and becomes, instead, a puzzle game. You need to navigate the obstacles and enemies on each level, make your way to each red door, and escape – all within a tight time limit. And yes, you still have a terrifying quiff.
Fair enough. Except that it’s not fair enough, because this is a puzzle game with level design that goes beyond irritating, an emphasis on wasting the player’s time, and a heavy reliance on both luck and trial and error. It’s the sort of game that makes you feel like the developers are laughing at you every time you die – a frequent occurrence thanks to unresponsive and sticky controls, and the aforementioned sadistic level design.
The new mechanics are promising, at least. There are retractable floors and walls controlled by switches and levers that need to be moved into position to create paths; you can hide in blue doors to duck enemies or escape gunfire (and these can be slammed open to knock out anyone outside); there are destructible walls; there are extra weapons; there are explosive barrels for the kicking. There’s even a little bit of stealth aside from the blue doors – lights can be shot out creating dark patches in which you can’t be spotted, and this can be rather important considering one foe raises the alarm when he sees you.
To encourage replayability, you’re also ranked on each of the game’s 50-odd levels. Completion gets you a bronze medal, finishing with a certain score (reduced for each death) gets you a silver, while getting that score and fulfilling another criteria – like not being spotted, or not taking any damage – gets you a gold. I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool masochist so I haven’t got gold on every level, but so far golds have rewarded me with pictures of arcade machines. Thanks, game.
All of the fun that these elements could generate is drained away, along with my will to live, by the way that they’re implemented; Elevator Action Deluxe uses the fine line between just-one-more-go difficulty and pure aggravation as the starting point for a 100 metre dash. One later mission is simple enough: reach the exit by climbing down a zipline. Snipers and rocket soldiers are placed at various floors along the way, though, so careful movement is a must. Snipers reload after every three shots; the trick is to wait until they reload, then sneak through the gap in the gunfire.
Except it’s not that simple. One of the snipers might fire a little later than the others. One will probably duck, creating a second tier of fire. If you’re really unlucky, this may create a wave of bullets that you can’t get through for a good long while. Repeat, several times, with rocket soldiers getting in on the act – and if you get hit once, you fall to your death and start all over again. Did I mention that the gold criterion is to finish the level in 45 seconds? Good luck. Seriously.
This is far from the worst offender. Other levels might ambush you with a load of enemies in the final corridor. If this kills you and you respawn somewhere an elevator has just left, you’re going to be stood around waiting for 15 seconds before it comes back. I mentioned that most levels have a tight time limit, right? Right.
There are hateful enemies that pop out of doors, place short-fused bombs, giggle, and then vanish. There are the levels that require you to leap from elevator, to fast-moving crusher, to elevator, requiring the three to be lined up properly – which doesn’t happen often – and requiring perfection with the hideously unresponsive controls. If you die, waste a minute getting back to it, finally succeed, then get ambushed on the home stretch and run out of time? Bad luck. Enjoy the irritatingly cheery piano jingle that plays on death and get ready to do it all again.
Elevator Action Deluxe seems to hate the player. It’s hard to get across how atrocious the controls are in text, but “stiff and unresponsive” sums it up rather well; making precise jumps is an abject nightmare, and if you’re trying to hurriedly duck into a doorway to escape something instantly lethal – a bomb, say, or one of the instant-kill enemies – you’re in trouble. Elevators move slowly so there’s plenty of waiting around… and watching time tick away while you’re hanging around is agonising. Hell, even the animations are sluggish; if you try to flick a switch a split-second before it’s in the “ready” position, you get a two-second animation of your gormless moron of an agent shrugging and shaking his head. Hope nothing dangerous was after you!
The idea is presumably to find an ideal “racing line” for each level, but it takes so long to do anything (and even longer to get it right) that I can’t imagine who would want to replay each of these levels again and again until the controls and random elements align. More likely, you’ll scrape through each level and never want to do it again. More likely still, you’ll just play something else.
If you’re more sociopath than masochist then there’s also a local-only multiplayer mode. This can be played co-operatively on the campaign levels, or competitively in specially designed arenas. It’s decent enough with good friends – but then pretty much everything is, and this is unlikely to hold your attention for long.
There are two things that really break my heart. The first is that there really is a good game buried somewhere in this; there are plenty of good ideas, and a few levels are actually genuinely enjoyable. The seventh set of levels have you chased around by an invulnerable foe who moves faster than you and can only be stunned. Narrowly escaping his clutches (by, say, ducking into a door and then slamming it into his face) is great – when the controls co-operate.
The other is that Elevator Action already has an excellent sequel/update. Elevator Action Returns, released in 1994, was a gorgeous-looking frenzy of exciting gunplay with three playable characters, boss fights, varied environments, and a load of different weapons. Instead of that, we get a slow-moving, drab-looking, and endlessly infuriating puzzle game. One step forward, two steps back…