There are so many paths you can go down as a retro platformer. You can cash-in and hope that nostalgia brings enough punters to buy your game. There’s gimmicks and innovation, which might give you enough height to stand out. Or you can aim for the hardcore, and make a game so niche that only speed-runners will fall in love with you. What we love about Kaze and the Wild Masks is that it doesn’t desperately scrabble around for an audience, or dream up unique-selling-points. It just buys good materials, tightens everything up to the nth degree, and presents an extremely polished platformer.
Kaze really is a greatest hits of 2D platforming; more specifically, the platformers you’d see on the Sega Mega Drive or third-party Nintendo games of the mid-90s. Let’s line up the cartridges: we’d say this is 50% the Donkey Kong Country series, with its love for barrel-propelling, steep difficulty and collectibles. Then there’s 20% Kid Chameleon, in the way that you don masks to gain animal aspects, careening around the levels as tigers, sharks and frilled lizards. The remaining 30% is a mish-mash of Sonic the Hedgehog (squint and the Forgotten Grove could be Green Hill Zone); the weight and feel of Rayman, as well as the hovering mechanic; and some Zool. Note that we’re invoking the good 90s platformers: there’s not a whiff of Bubsy in here.
It took us a while to pinpoint why we were enjoying Kaze and the Wild Masks so much. As mentioned, there isn’t anything new on offer here, so understanding why it’s grasping at the handle of Cuphead in terms of quality isn’t immediately clear. But if we were to pinpoint it now, it’s that Kaze and the Wild Masks is built for speedrunning, and that has a knock-on effect of improving the game for everyone else.
Regardless of the difficulty of a given level – and boy, does it get difficult – it’s possible to reach the end of a stage in minutes. That’s because every enemy and jump has been precisely positioned and, presumably, playtested more times than you’d care to count, to ensure that you can enter a state of flow, bouncing, spinning and floating on a kind of ‘racing line’. At its best, Kaze and the Wild Masks can feel like you’re playing a rhythm action game, as you restart from checkpoints and gain a form of muscle memory that gets you to the end (level 2-4, ‘Tiger Popsicle’ is etched in my memory). It’s particularly clear on levels where you get to don the frilled lizard mask, when you constantly barrel forward and jump, rush or swan-dive. When you are in these zen-like states, Kaze feels incredible.
But by designing for speedrunners (who will absolutely lap this game up at Games Done Quick) the impact can be felt by more common-or-garden players. Kaze rewards confidence, and with that mindset you can approach any sequence. Plus, you feel amazing, like you’re the second coming of Billy Mitchell, and someone should be watching you with a Guinness World Record clipboard. Obviously, as is the case with many games that get this right, Kaze and the Wild Masks is just making you feel nifty with some smoke and mirrors, and – as it happens – some extremely tight mechanics.
We had virtually no moments where we blamed Kaze and the Wild Masks for a death. That’s rare in gaming, and it’s down to the responsiveness of the controls. You’re also given all the tools you need for getting yourself out of a scrape. There’s a bounce attack for when you’ve anticipated an enemy, and a spin attack for when you’ve been ambushed by one. You have the traditional double-jump but also a hover (the animations mostly use Kaze’s ears and are adorable), so you can balls-up a jump and still have a decent chance of recovering. Collision detection is generous, and we’d regularly swing too closely to an enemy, but be given a little wink by the game and told to keep going.
That’s not to say that Kaze and the Wild Masks is easy. Woah, woah, absolutely not. In fact, it probably needs a warning, as everything about Kaze’s character and art-style points to a family-friendly affair, when this is only for the patient and skillful. My six-year old didn’t get past the first level, and the difficulty sits at a constant from the second world onwards. Even that’s a remarkable achievement, as hovering in the space between ‘stuff it, that’s impossible’ and ‘I’m getting the hang of this’ for its twenty-odd levels is impressive. We felt constantly drawn onward because the solution was never unclear, and we’d always managed to overcome a similar road-bump in previous levels. We had this.
For anyone finding the challenge too steep, there’s a Casual Mode. It feels like an oversight that you can’t switch in and out of Casual, and instead have to set up an entirely new save, but it’s welcome for anyone who wants to keep a few more hairs by the end. You’ll be able to take two hits before dying, and an option to skip the level will pop up if you’re hitting walls. There’s a new intermediary checkpoint between the official checkpoints too, although we offer a warning that these crutches won’t help you much in the boss battles, where checkpointing is non-existent.
The levels in Kaze and the Wild Masks are far from revolutionary, but they’re taut and expect a lot from you, as well as being rich with collectibles. You’ll need to collect the four letters KAZE to get the first award for a level, while there are also two Rayman Origins-like Bonus Stages that require you to kill creatures, grab gems or do some other task within a tight timeframe to get an amulet-half. Get them both and that’s another objective of the level complete. Plus there’s a score threshold and – once you have completed a level – a time trial opens up, practically hitching up a skirt to invite speedrunners in.
Each level tends to give a new mechanic a test-run. There’s not the freewheeling creativity of a Nintendo platformer here, but it does mean that Kaze pushes your abilities versus the new mechanic to its absolute limit. You’ll also occasionally get to try on the Wild Masks of the title; perhaps not as often as you’d expect, actually, as they only turn up every few levels and you’ll only get one per level. A frilled lizard has you charging through an environment without the ability to stop; a tiger can surge and climb walls; a shark gets you swimming at speed; and an eagle gets you flying with repeated taps of the A button. While there’s only a small number, they’re wildly different and they let the levels do the showy stuff.
There are ‘buts’, although not many. As a package, Kaze and the Wild Masks is possibly a little too spartan, certainly for £24.99, with a runtime that stretches to ten hours if you’re hunting for collectibles. There’s no option for multiple players to get involved, nor are there inbuilt features that could take advantage of the speedrunning, and we couldn’t help feeling that there was wiggle room for more masks and a touch less familiarity. There’s absolutely nothing here that’s not been done elsewhere, although elsewhere probably did it worse. And by bringing very little new to the table, Kaze can lack a little personality as a result. With no story to speak of, that lack of personality can hurt.
Ultimately, though, it’s up to you whether you care. Sure, it’s attention-grabbing to do something new, and innovation does get reviewers hot around the collar. But, most of the time, we just want a good thing done well, and Kaze and the Wild Masks does its 2D platforming extremely well. While Kaze and the Wild Masks on Xbox wears the masks of various platformers, like Donkey Kong Country and Rayman, they’re all polished to a mighty sheen.