Deep Forest by Small is Beautiful
Deep Forest is a free GB Studio adventure game that takes about 45 minutes to play. There’s no combat, and the game is driven by puzzle-solving and exploration. You play as a forest witch tasked with helping three trees that have become mysteriously cursed. To purify a tree, you must first find it by exploring the forest. You then enter its nightmare, which functions as a dungeon. Once the tree’s curse is lifted, its thorny roots vanish, thereby allowing you to explore more of the forest.
This is the basic gameplay cycle of the Legend of Zelda series, and the simple puzzles of Deep Forest remind me of certain segments of Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages wherein you:
(1) Use an animal to procure a seed.
(2) Find a patch of soil to plant the seed,
(3) which sprouts into a vine
(4) that allows you to climb a cliff.
If this similarity is intentional, it’s a lovely homage to the debut work of Hidemaro Fujibayashi, who went on to become the director of Breath of the Wild. In addition, I had a nice “Legend of Zelda” moment when I found a secret in Deep Forest. I was delighted when I realized that you can water the single square of roots in front of an otherwise unremarkable cave in order to discover a hidden spring. This moment of discovery lit a spark of excitement that reminded me of exploring Hyrule for the first time.
In terms of its visual style, Deep Forest is reminiscent of the Game Boy games that were released in the West under the “Final Fantasy” logo, which include the first Secret of Mana game and the first three games in the SaGa series. This style feels extremely nostalgic, and it’s cool to see it used to depict a thriving forest.
Deep Forest is fairly linear, and the gameplay mechanics are beautifully intuitive. I would have loved this game as a kid, and I’m extremely fond of it as an adult. It’s exactly the perfect length, and I enjoyed the exploration elements and wholesome story. As a unexpected bonus, the interactive postgame credits sequence is beautiful and genuinely feels like a reward for playing.
Opossum Country by Ben Jelter
Opossum Country is a free ten-minute lo-fi horror game about a rural pizza delivery driver who finds himself stranded in an isolated trailer park where something isn’t quite right. If you’re worried that the game is poking fun at the sort of low-income and mentally unbalanced of people who might live in a trailer park, there’s definitely an element of that, but the story goes in a direction that I wasn’t expecting. In the end, the moral of Opossum Country is that you shouldn’t jump to conclusions about a community you don’t understand. I mean, if the game can be said to have a moral. Which it arguably doesn’t. Regardless, the ending is fantastic.
Ben Jelter also made another free ten-minute Game Boy game called The Last Employee, which definitely has a moral: fuck capitalism. This being the case, I’m guessing that Opossum Country was created from a place of deep sympathy for people on the margins of society. This narrative viewpoint is refreshing in its unapologetic portrayal of difference, but Jelter’s sympathy for these characters doesn’t stop the game from being creepy as fuck. The overworld pixel graphics are creative and unsettling, as are the more detailed character portraits.
Opossum Country was made with a program called GB Studio. Not only is it free, but there are also a ton of pay-what-you-want graphics asset packs floating around Itchio, as well as collections of free-to-use chiptunes music that’s compatible with the Game Boy engine. I also found a few pixel art resources for Clip Studio Paint in the form of brushes, templates, and filters. I’m not sure that “just anyone” can make a game as unique and interesting as Opossum Country, but it’s nice to know that there’s nothing stopping you from trying.
A Dark Winter Wander by Red Skald
A Dark Winter Wander is a free horror-themed narrative adventure game created with GB Studio, a game creator that replicates the look and feel of retro handheld games. The game’s story is about a girl chasing her sister through a (mostly linear) maze of underground tunnels filled with monsters. Although it’s deliberately unclear what’s going on, I think the protagonist’s sister might have an eating disorder, while she herself is depressed. This isn’t important to the gameplay, but those elements are there from the beginning of the game if you’re sensitive and need to watch out for them.
In any case, you see your sister run off into the woods and decide to go after her. While chasing her, you fall into a hole filled with monsters. You talk to the monsters instead of fighting them, and the game is entirely driven by exploration and dialog. This invites a comparison to Undertale, but all of the monsters in A Dark Winter Wander absolutely wish you harm. The creature designs are great, and the lo-fi sound and graphics contribute to the unsettling atmosphere.
If you don’t follow your sister into the woods, you can actually finish the game in about ten minutes and watch a depressing indie game ending. I did this inadvertently, and it was a downer. I then reset the game, did what it wanted me to do, and played for about an hour. Exploring the monster tunnels is a lot of fun, and you can easily spend more than an hour poking around if you’re interested in seeing everything this game has to offer. The creator has offered free downloads, and I’d recommend downloading a Game Boy emulator so that you can play the game offline and create save states.
The unskippable cut scenes at the beginning of the game feel unnecessarily long, and the writing is a bit clunky at times. I also find the lack of specificity regarding what’s going on with the narrator’s family frustrating. You probably already know if a text-heavy Game Boy horror game that’s a metaphor for depression is for you, so I won’t try to sell it. Still, A Dark Winter Wander is one of the most interesting and engaging GB Studio projects that I’ve found on Itchio, and it’s inspired me to check out more work in this weird little subgenre.