A cracking adventure
The Switch eShop is filled to the brim with wonderful titles, and that includes a bounty of hidden gems. Some of those gems have been unearthed by fans as the years rolled on, and others are still waiting to be discovered. It’s always great to see when a hidden gem gets its moment in the spotlight, but it’s also bittersweet as it means the title launched with little to no fanfare.
Just how much time has to pass before a game can be considered a hidden gem? There’s no clear answer, but I think we can all agree that it takes more than just a handful of weeks. That means a game like Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils hasn’t become a hidden gem yet, as it just released at the tail-end of August. That said, it seems to have arrived with hardly any attention, and having wrapped the adventure recently, I cannot fully express how disappointed I am by that.
Yes, it’s hard to keep up with everything that releases on Switch any given week, but Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils more than deserves major recognition. What might look like a standard platformer that tries to cash in on Game Boy Color nostalgia is actually an expertly-crafted experience that runs far deeper than you’d expect. There’s a magic in this game that’s undeniable, and an attention to detail that impresses immensely. Without a doubt, Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils is one of my biggest gaming surprises of the year, and it’s also one of my favorites.
Colorgrave is the developer behind Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils, and they only have two games under their belt. It appears the Game Boy Color is their bread and butter, as their previous release, Prodigal, also used a GBC aesthetic. Modern-day games using retro stylings isn’t anything new, but there’s a big difference between mimicking a style and understanding it. Colorgrave may have a fondness for the GBC, but they also recognize what made games on that portable work. Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils doesn’t just look like a GBC game…it feels like one in spirit, mechanics, and even vibe.
The core gameplay concept of Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils is quite simple. You play as Belle, an acrobat accompanied by her anthropomorphic bell friend, Chime. Belle can perform all sorts of amazing feats through her partnership with Chime, as Chime can be tossed at enemies, bounced off of to vault into the air, used to activate locks, and so on. These gameplay elements are explored to great lengths as Belle jumps, dashes, and flips through stages in order to reach the goal.
Movement in Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils feels absolutely spot-on for what you’d get in the GBC day, and I say that as a compliment. There’s something about the mix of animation and momentum that feels very much of that era, meaning it’s a lot of fun to control while also feeling extremely tight. There’s never any moments where you feel like you’ve lost control of Belle, and that seems like something pretty tough to achieve when adhering to what you’d expect from a GBC title. Plus, it’s just fun to bounce your way through environments, slide under enemies, and bound over hazards.
Even better are the expanded moves you discover while playing Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils. While there’s a tutorial early on that teaches you Belle and Chime’s basic movements, there’s a handful of other abilities the game either never tells you about, or leaves for a tutorial you find later. What’s fantastic is that you’ll most likely discover some of these abilities accidentally as you work your way through the game. Belle is even more acrobatic than she first appears, as she can do a high jump, perform a dart-like vault and more. The second you figure out one of these moves by accident, you start to toy with the controls to see what else you can unearth. That’s enticing game development, and it fills the player with a sense of wonder and accomplishment that’s hard to beat.
Adding to that excitement are the levels themselves, which feel like they’re inspired by the best platforming had back in the day. There’s nothing here that feels cribbed from other games, but there’s definitely a litany of titles that were used for inspiration. Again, Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils oozes with the feeling of being a genuine GBC title from back in that day, rather than something trying to recapture that magic. It’s present in every aspect of the adventure, but level design might scream this element the loudest.
From environments to platform placement, every location you visit in Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils is an absolute blast. The way you can string together moves to fly through levels is intoxicating, as there’s almost a rhythm to it. You can see that enemies are laid out in particular areas for you to bounce off of or over, along with platforms you’re meant to speedrun through. You can of course take your time and enjoy the layouts to their fullest, but there’s definitely something special about building a cadence of inputs to float effortlessly through sections.
Level themes are great as well, as there’s some fun, fresh takes on ideas numerous platformers have employed. You’ll run through castles, caves, water-logged buildings, temples, gardens and so much more. Here is where we once again see just how talented Colorgrave is when it comes to nailing that GBC vibe.
Obviously the GBC was quite limited in color palette and sprites it could push, but those limitations still led to gorgeous games for the platform. Think of outings like Shantae, Metal Gear Solid, Toki Tori and so on. What was built out of necessity back in the day is seen by some as an art style now. Developers don’t have to adhere to NES/SNES/GB/ect. style visual limitations anymore, but there are those who find beauty in those confines. Colorgrave clearly feels that way about the GBC’s graphical capabilities, and I absolutely agree. I don’t know how much the technical limitations of the GBC were fudged in Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils, but I can say it very much looks like a game of that era, and I find what the team put together to be insanely attractive.
Where Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils definitely strays considerably from the GBC’s tech specs is the soundtrack, yet it’s still rooted in what that platform could do. Pretty much every song in Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils has some sort of chiptune element to it. Most tunes use ‘instruments’ you’d expect to hear from a GBC game, meaning it’s quite rudimentary. Once again, Colorgrave believes that sound to have merit today, and I’m certainly a sucker for it. Of course, using the same sounds from retro games doesn’t mean your music is good. There need to be strong compositions powering those tunes, and those are definitely in abundance here.
The composers behind Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils have done an excellent job of offering tracks with a GBC base that also expand beyond what was possible back in the day. Plenty of songs include real guitars, drums, and other instruments, and hearing those mixed with chiptune elements makes for something superb. These songs are extremely catchy and will get stuck in your head; a fact I learned as I was constantly humming/singing along while playing through the game. There are even some songs that made me tear up when I heard them, as I found them to not just emulate that classic GBC sound, but evolve upon it for some stunning stuff. There are so, so many great songs here, and there’s two in particular that truly blew me away, but I feel sharing details on them would ruin the experience for everyone. I only hope that you’ll know which tracks they are when you hear them, and they’ll fill you with the same sense of joy.
If everything I’ve mentioned so far was all that Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils offered, I would be perfectly happy. I’d still sing the game’s praises and be absolutely annoying about getting others to try it. The thing is, Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils has much more to offer, and to a very surprising degree. I thought I knew what I was in for when I first fired up the game, but this adventure is much more than meets the eye. I promise you, Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils over-delivers in some massive ways.
If you want to play Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils as a straightforward platformer, you certainly can. The game even mentions as much, saying you can plow through the levels and enjoy, but there’s also some exploration should you choose to take it on. I’m all for exploration, so I was down to wander around the world map and see what else there is to offer. Honestly, Colorgrave has shown an incredible amount of restraint, along with respect for the player by not selling the game hard on what it really is. For those who want something deep and full of mystery, Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils is very much that.
The amount of secret content, lore, story beats and exploration Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils has to offer was a serious shock to me. I figured I would see everything this game had in an hour or two at most, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils is packed to the gills with all sorts of tantalizing mysteries, and each one will pull you in even deeper. If you want to see and do everything there is to experience in Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils, you’ll have to set aside a considerable amount of time.
Every stage in Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils is filled with collectible items. Some are obvious as to what they do, while others won’t make any sense. There are hidden doors all over the place, collectible swords that aren’t explained at first, secret locations that require special conditions to unlock, and so on. You want a deep, dark story that becomes more enthralling with every discovery? How about unlockable portions of the map that give you a slate of new levels to enjoy? Maybe you’d like to crack the code on a language that seems indecipherable at first? Perhaps you’d enjoy some super-secret map locations that require you to walk through walls to find them? Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils has all of that in spades.
You start to understand the true scale of Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils once you visit one of the game’s towns, which again, are almost completely optional. There’s a rich cast of characters here that paint a story packed with intrigue, and each little bit will help bring things into focus. There are bookshelves overflowing with literature that better explain the world’s history, along with its people and places. There’s so much just waiting for you to dive in on, and once one little piece of the bigger mystery sinks its claws in you, it’s hard not to get completely sucked in.
Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils is a mind-blowing journey on so many levels. It’s a pitch-perfect platformer that perfectly encapsulates what the GBC could offer. It knocked me off my feet with the depth of its content. It literally moved me to tears with its soundtrack. The love from Colorgrave is on full display here, as is their skill for crafting impressive software. While I may not have known anything about Colorgrave before Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils, I’m locked in as a lifelong fan now. For me, these guys have shown that they can stand toe-to-toe with the likes of WayForward and Yacht Club.
I can only hope that Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils becomes a hidden gem…but truthfully, that would also annoy me. I think this game deserves all the attention it can get and then some. I understand that games that look/sound/play like this have their limitations in terms of reach and audience, but something like Shovel Knight shows that that audience is considerably bigger than people think. Strip away the retro visuals and chiptune-inspired soundtrack and you still have an incredibly impressive platformer that hides so much more under the surface. This isn’t just a love letter to gaming days gone by, it’s a love letter to gaming in general.
Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils is easily one of the year’s best, and it very much deserves to be a part of the bigger conversation.