Release date: August 24, 2023
Side-scrolling platformers are a classic genre – in fact, for many players they’re the first kind of game ever picked up. As a child in the 90s, my introduction to video games was a classic NES Mario title, and upon booting up Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils, I had a wave of nostalgia wash over me, reminding me of what games looked like when I was small. The intro sets up the back story just like what I was used to, and seeing character portraits and pixelated text felt like a blast from the past. The chiptune soundtrack made me crack a smile immediately. Diving a little deeper, I wanted to know if Curse Crackers was more than just an homage to bygone times, or if it could stand by games of the modern age.
From the beginning, you’re given a deep backstory of a dragon god and seven unruly daughters, but the start of your journey is ignited by a mean-spirited lass by the name of Bonnie swooping down with her evil flap-flap to abscond with your boyfriend. You play as Belle, a cute long-haired gal with a jingly companion named Chime. Chime is absolutely integral to the utility of Curse Crackers, and though the game does offer a tutorial at the very beginning, you won’t come out of it knowing what all you can do to use Chime and Belle’s abilities to their fullest potential.
Belle can run, jump, and throw Chime at enemies to knock them off screen. Chime will tend to keep bouncing around, but you can summon him back with a quick whistle. Jumping on top of some enemies directly is also a viable way to take them out. Chime can be used as a way to extend your jump by throwing him downward and bouncing into the air. Additionally, Belle can do a combination of running, sliding, and then jumping to clear further stretches – this isn’t really explained in the tutorial, but taking your time to get used to the controls is a must in order to tackle all the content that Curse Crackers has to offer. Once you’re running, jumping, and bouncing off your buddy easily, you’ll be ready to explore. If the controls remind you a bit of games like Mega Man or Castlevania, you’re definitely not alone.
Upon taking control of Belle, you’ll be thrust onto a world map. Reminiscent of my days playing Super Mario Bros. 3 on the NES, the first thing I noticed was that levels and points of interest were depicted for me to explore. Different, though, was the ability to freely choose where I wanted to go. Not being confined to tackling things in a particular order, the first thing I went to look at was the cart in the upper right of the map where a cute little dog seemed to be hanging out. The dog was quite large when zoning into the area. Even more interestingly, I found upon closer inspection that I could pet said dog. Far from my first point of interest, I did find that this area was apparently a shop and that there were items on the cart that I could purchase. I was still merely a peasant in terms of wallet contents at that point, though, and I left empty-handed but a little wiser.
Aesthetically, Curse Crackers seems to be somewhere between the Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance in terms of design. Each character is minimalistic and seems to have a monochromatic theme, as do enemies and items you’ll encounter in your travels. Levels are fairly big, and thankfully if you miss something like a rose or other collectible the first run, you’re able to easily pop back in and grab the item and leave the level without being penalized for not completing it, saving a lot of time for those who feel like grabbing everything for a 100% completion run. After a while, enemies all seem to be the same little skeleton guys over and over, but with them being easy to dispatch and numerous, I found myself comparing them to Mario’s many Goombas – just little annoying guys that could be taken out with ease. A little road bump, if you will.
Speaking of collectibles, I learned quickly that there were a lot of items to collect, and I don’t say this lightly. Finishing the main story is entirely possible while only having 20-30% of the game’s actual completion down. A lot of the content you can experience is entirely optional. In fact, you can completely miss entire chunks of world-building lore by just focusing on clearing levels and defeating each zone’s bosses. There is an entire town where books can be read, and many incredibly written NPCs with dialogue that finally connect the story between the dragon you saw at the beginning and Belle’s journey. While you can simply button mash through the game, Curse Crackers is entirely worth paying attention to. As is customary in many titles with a lot of collectible items, you can also unlock things in the game. Around 40 different color choices are available to unlock for Belle and Chime, allowing you to select whichever color scheme you think looks best for the pair.
The gameplay loop is incredibly satisfying. Each zone has a handful of levels, a mid boss, and a final boss. Boss fights aren’t super hard, but the difficulty does increase as the journey continues. Having to utilize Chime to hit buttons, switches, and jump up to different areas makes exploration a lot of fun. There are a lot of hidden rooms and items, which means you may end up missing things and coming back for them later depending on how much collecting matters to you. You can go for fast completion (this game is entirely speed run friendly) or take your time and check out every nook and cranny. However you decide to approach it is entirely up to you. While levels are clearly marked on the map, different ruins and shops and towns can be completely overlooked and you can miss out on several secrets like special levels if you’re not careful.
Shops in particular become pretty integral in late game. Making sure to save your coins for just the right stuff may help you out in a pinch. Interestingly, Belle only has a single inventory slot, so if you already have an item in your possession you won’t want to purchase anything unless you’re sure it’s okay to overwrite what you already have. You’ll definitely be visiting the local bakery a lot, it’s proprietor Claire will set Chime up with cool snacks that act as power-ups and prove themselves rather useful in different situations. Make sure to experiment with different items and their effects!
As I brought my playthrough to a close, the last (and very unsettling) boss stood before me. After several deaths, the story wrapped up and I felt a little deflated. The world building was incredible overall, but the end of the main scenario seemed a little lackluster after all of the build up. While I was a little disappointed, I didn’t really let it get me down. There was still a good 65% of the game I hadn’t completed after all and I’d definitely be discovering more secrets in subsequent explorations of the game’s levels. Ending aside, I’d had a lot of fun. I did wish, though, for a bit more from this world. Hopefully this isn’t the only adventure that we’ll get with this world and these characters.
For an incredibly budget friendly game, Curse Crackers really got the jump on me. I loved the game’s art direction and music, and really felt like I was playing a retro game. While some quality of life features like a bigger inventory or a fast travel function would really help to make the game more modern, what I experienced was honestly hidden-gem-levels of fun. With an astoundingly vast amount of content for it’s price point, Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils is an excellent platforming adventure. Although it may not be perfect in its accessibility, it does have gameplay that isn’t too difficult but curves appropriately. But oh, you will die.
Curse Crackers: For Whom the Belle Toils copy provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.