One day, a perfectly normal bipedal pig goes out for a walk. Squealing contentedly and terrifying butterflies, she hops up a hillside... and meets with tragedy. A camoflaged hole in the earth drops her into an underground cavern, its exit beyond the reach of a simple pig's leap. Even a pig who is starring in a platform game. Her solution is to spontaneously sprout a pair of feathery bird wings and fly her way out. The only problem is, with fat wings outspread, she is too wide to leave the way she came in. So it's into the abyss, full of lava pools and spikey ceilings, to find another escape route. All through the cavern alternate pathways beckon, but her fragile new limbs keep her from exploring. She is stuck with the decision she made, wherever it leads her. She's taken her own path, an unlikely hero, traveling with powerful but sensitive wings.
When Pigs Fly is the first Flash game from developer, critic, pixel artist, and sometime provocateur Anna Anthropy, also known as Dessgeega or Auntie Pixelante. You may know her as the author of Calamity Annie and Tombed. This first dip into the browser game pool is a well-constructed offbeat platform game with classical stylings, but be warned: it is hard enough to give you fits.
Control your porky avatar with the keyboard. The [left] and [right] arrow keys move you horizontally, but you can't walk, only fly. Hold the [space] bar to rise and release it to fall (you can also use [shift] or [Z]). Spend the first few screens getting used to the quirks of the physics. You have a bit of momentum in the air, and you'll want to practice not smacking into the walls before the many, many stalactites arrive. Your other important control, depending on the quality of your speakers and your tolerance for Daphny David's heart-warming, brain-shredding sound effects, is the [S] key that turns off the squealing. [M] mutes the game entirely.
The pig can stand comfortably on solid ground or even bump her head on a flat ceiling without dying, but her wings are the most fragile creation in the history of the universe. Tap a wall with a wingtip, and you instantly crash to the center of the Earth, shrieking in pain. It's like the new wings are made of pure nerve endings, or maybe they just were never intended for use in a pig-to-wall impact situation. Lucky for you, there's a checkpoint on each screen, so you can immediately tackle the same obstacle again. If you need to quit, or ragequit, your progress is saved on every screen, so you have the option next time to take up right where you left off.
The path through the game is linear, and your first try might last between 10 and 25 minutes, depending on your retro platformer skill. Maybe more. At the end, you unlock a few new options, including Time Attack, a single-life sudden death mode, and a challenge to negotiate the cave backwards. If you have an account at Newgrounds, you can also earn some medals.
Analysis: There's no getting around it: this is a tough one. Though its learning curve is smooth, even expertly polished, When Pigs Fly assumes you have a certain level of hand-eye co-ordination and patience. If you're over 800 coins on MoneySeize or you charged through Don't Look Back in five minutes, this is a walk in the park with a basket of strawberries. But some of you are just going to hate it.
It's not the level design's fault. When Pigs Fly is built on classic NES-era design principles, which just means that it teaches you how to play as you go, without any coddling. You learn how to tap the flight button to hover at a certain height, how to smoothly negotiate a U-bend, how to use the head bounce to avoid excessive hovering. Each new screenful of obstacles pushes you just a little bit further. The only quarrel I have is that the collision box on the stalactites is larger than you'd expect, just so much that they don't have to physically touch you to kill you.
There are several incentives to push through the adversity. Amon26's infectious soundtrack helps. The tiled pixel graphics give a subtle sense of depth to this flat world, and a couple of nice visual flourishes reward you for reaching certain checkpoints. There could be even more of that sort of thing, and I wouldn't complain. But just moving the pig around is interesting. Because the wings are so much more vulnerable than the body, even circumventing a single floating block requires skill, and an innocent staircase becomes a jagged nightmare.
What does it for me is the unpretentious story, which adds a layer of meaning to the game without ever calling attention to itself. Anyone who has ever been stuck in a rut has wished for wings to pull them free, whether they take the form of a new job opportunity, a new relationship, or just a brave new approach to a problem. Each set of wings comes with its own brand of suffering, but ultimately, you learn to fly. Okay, so I made that a little pretentious. It's also a game about a flying pig who dies a lot.