If an alien nation were to arrive upon our blue pearl and attempt to profile civilization on the basis of Flash games found online (obviously they don't use Apple machines, unlike the hapless lot from Independence Day...), they will find a species that has no common ground when it comes to difficulty. Or put more succinctly: some like it hot. Or in the case of Casual Gameplay Design Competition #9 entry and arcade avoidance game Jay Needs Friends, some like the room on fire.
I don't blame Jay for not having friends. The people he hangs out with are lazy louts who wouldn't move a finger without Jay needing to drag them from pillar to post. And then they still lumber along as if they were walking with the motivation and determination of a snoozing cat. Throughout all of this loafing Jay is under pressure to get at least eight of his friends to a specific location before the clock runs out. That his friends congregate around lethal red walls and obstacles that keep sliding back and forth along passageways only exacerbates things.
Billed as an old-school top-down action game, Lost-Ride Studios' entry to CGDC 9 is simple: move the main character around the level with the [arrow] keys and tag other characters, causing them to follow you. Then navigate, with friends in tow, a gauntlet of lethal obstacles towards a designated spot where you deposit your entourage. The aim is to hit the friend quota before the clock runs out; an inevitably temporarily stalled by time bonus pickups, or hampered by time penalties. A classic look, as if you might have encountered Jay Needs Friends on an Amiga or Apple II, compliments the simplicity of this game design, but also hides how tough this game can be.
Analysis: Jay Needs Friends is not easy. Once you tag a character, they follow you at varied speeds, but always slower than you. This causes a string of people dangling behind you as you make a break towards freedom. But since the levels are full of lethal barriers that need circumventing, moving in curves causes your followers to lazily lilt towards your general direction. It's like dragging a tin tied to a string behind you and running around the corner: the tin will smack into the wall before pitching around the corner. If that wall happens to destroy cans, that means the can is now an ex-can. No pining for the fjords.
This is the situation that quickly develops in Jay Needs Friends; red walls are lethal to you and your friends, so you can't touch them. At the same time you are fighting the clock. And since stationary walls are just not on, there are plenty of moving walls as well, many requiring pretty exact timing if you don't want half your mates reduced to pixel dust. Combined with the clumsy stop-start movement you need to employ to make sure your idiot buddies don't simply run into a wall, it becomes a serious challenge of dexterity and path-finding.
All of this works well, providing you want a very difficult game. Moving walls that shift at highly variable speeds and blocking the path is not unusual. Running out of time is not unusual. Seeing your hangers-on squished thanks to moving a second too soon or late is not unusual. Meeting your end by veering into one of these deadly barriers is not unusual. And encountering all of this by the fourth level (out of eighteen) is not unusual.
At first I was tempted to attack Jay Needs Friends' controls, always the first thing under scrutiny in a game that really lays it on thick. But these are pretty slick. Nor can I blame the level design: these can all be beaten, but expect them to go down swinging... and only after they gave you a good bruising. But despite these revelations I cannot let the developers off the hook entirely. The difficulty curve is the inverse of an Olympic ski jump ramp; after level four the gloves are off. By level six the gloves have been pawned for brass knuckles. Finding games of this insane caliber is not unusual, but when entering a competition where your standing is determined by reader votes a more gradual slide towards the ambitious later levels would have been smart. A sink-or-swim difficulty might gradually gather up approval on hardcore bastions like Kongregate or Newgrounds, but it's also a big shortcoming when trying to lure in a wider audience. The problem with Jay Needs Friends is not that it's hard, but that it's hardly ever easy. That you also need to employ a lot of patience and a penchant for trial-and-error explains why Jay Needs Friends didn't get to the top of the podium.
This is a pity, since it does what it set out to do and I believe that if Jay Needs Friends (or an appropriate clone) lands on some of the Flash hubs that house the hardcore difficulty aficionados, it will be a big hit. There are a few design issues as well; your followers are sometimes just a bit too slow or comfy to entirely blame your own lethargic actions, while the area where you deposit your friends also houses the count-down timer; on the larger, scrolling levels this causes the clock to move out of your sight. But these are blemishes, not flaws, and not invulnerable to a bit more polish. As it stands, Jay Needs Friends is a challenging but noteworthy title that will test your reflexes and make you wonder if these are really the sort of friends Jay needs at all.