I grew up with 3D platformers. Since my family mainly owned Nintendo consoles, I played a lot of them — from the genre-defined greats like Super Mario 64 to the abominable Blues Brothers 2000. When I first spotted Frogun on Steam a while back, the game recalled some of those titles for me — a cute, lo-fi 3D platformer with a grappling hook mechanic? Yes please! And while Frogun has some things to recommend it, ultimately it fails to reach the heights of even some of the middling 3D platformers of the mid-90s.
Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: Frogun wears its influences on its sleeve. From the game’s font choices and nonsense sounds for its dialogue, reminiscent of Banjo-Kazooie, to its Yoshi-esque titular mechanic, it’s deliberately recalling early 3D platformers. The problem with doing that, though, is that players are apt to compare the game to those titles. And in this case, the comparison isn’t terribly flattering.
Frogun starts simply enough — you play as Ren, a little girl equipped with a gun that is also a frog with the ability to grab and launch enemies and objects and pull you to distant areas. The game’s maze-like levels and low emphasis on jumping remind me of the Bomberman games for the Nintendo 64, and the first few areas play out simply enough. You simply progress through the areas, avoiding traps and enemies and making your way to the exit. There’s a collect-a-thon element here, with a number of different objects spread throughout the stages for Ren to collect, and that — rather than simply making it to the end — is frequently the real challenge.
So far, so good. There’s a couple of problems, though. First, the Frogun mechanic is pretty limited. In a game like Chameleon Twist, the player could use their character’s long tongue to both grab a ton of enemies at once and swing vertically or horizontally on poles to reach new areas. Here, the Frogun fires straight forward, and all it can do is grab enemies or pull you to walls that are just out of reach. There’s not much need to grab enemies or objects throughout, for instance to spit them into distant switches, which seems like the most obvious use of such a mechanic.
The second big problem is the level design. Frogun‘s stages are usually narrow, floating paths with plenty of opportunity to fall off the edge. This only drains you health a little bit rather than making you restart the level outright, but it pairs with one particular type of stage to create a massive, game-breaking issue.
Every once in a while, Frogun switches things up and makes you race against another character. That’s fine, and adds an element of urgency to the normally pretty laid-back levels, which is a nice change of pace. But touching your adversary here, like other enemies in the game, deals contact damage and stuns you. That would be ok if you were racing through wide-open levels. But again, Frogun‘s stages feel like narrow catwalks. And since you’re trying to beat your rival to the end of the area, you’re going to run into him. A lot. The second of these race stages was such a huge frustration spike that I put down the game.
Now, Frogun does some stuff right: it looks great, it nails the collect-a-thon element for those who are into that kind of thing, and it has a great lead character design. But it suffers from the comparisons it invites to the classics and even the not-so-classics. That’s one pitfall of retro-inspired game development — when you lean on fond memories of other games, sometimes you’re just going to end up making players wish they were playing those titles instead.