A Perfectly Normal Cooking Game

A Perfectly Normal Cooking Game
https://ribyrnes.itch.io/candypink

A Perfectly Normal Cooking Game is exactly what it says on the label: a cute and pastel-colored pixel game that teaches you how to make marshmallows. You play as a pastry chef who has just been promoted to the kitchen of a company that makes pink heart-shaped confectionery. The recipe includes sugar, corn syrup, water, and a secret ingredient… love!

Just kidding! The secret ingredient definitely isn’t love. Anyone who is squeamish about gore should probably avoid this game.

A Perfectly Normal Cooking Game was made for the Two Minute Horror Jam, with “two minutes” being about how long it takes to finish the game. The experience of playing A Perfectly Normal Cooking Game actually takes about five or six minutes to properly savor, which will probably include you laughing and saying “oh no no no no no no fuck no” to yourself at least once.   

The game also has a secret ending. Along with a lot of people in the comments, I got the secret ending the first time I played the game, as the alternative was too horrible to contemplate.

There’s not much I can write about such a short game without spoiling it, so let me just say that this is a neat little story with perfect presentation that uses its medium well.

Another fun two-minute horror game on Itchio is:

Make Sure It’s Closed
https://corpsepile.itch.io/make-sure-its-closed

Make Sure It’s Closed does a fantastic job of creating a palpable sense of dread in a very short span of time, so much so that I want to recommend this game to any writer who needs an easy and effective reference for what “dread” feels like. I was so impressed that I also played the creator’s game The Open House (free on Itchio here), which is a bit longer and less immediately accessible but still a lot of fun.

One Night, Hot Springs

One Night, Hot Springs (here on Itchio) a short visual novel that takes about twenty minutes to play. It’s the free-to-download first chapter of A Year of Springs, which is available for $5 on various platforms, including Nintendo Switch. The story is about a 19-year-old girl named Haru who spends the night at a fancy onsen hotel with her childhood friend Minami and Minami’s friend Erika. Everything seems set up for a fun girls’ night out, but Haru is worried that being trans might make getting into a public bath tricky.

Minami and Erika are both a bit clueless about what it means to be transgender, but each is kind and supportive of Haru in her own way. The onsen staff are kind and supportive as well. No one particularly cares that Haru is trans, but they still go out of their way to make sure she feels comfortable, just as they would for any other guest. Haru is shy and doesn’t want to cause trouble, but a staff member assures her that plenty of people need (and deserve!) a bit of extra attention, and that trans guests aren’t actually as uncommon as one might think.   

There’s a big pink banner with a content warning for transphobia hovering over the game’s page on Itchio, which is why I didn’t take the plunge and buy the full game. I got seriously burned by The House in Fata Morgana, and I don’t want to play another visual novel about a trans character being abused or harassed. It turns out that I need not have worried, thankfully. If you’re honest to everyone about your character being trans, the ending you’ll get is called “The World Can Be Kind, Too.”

There’s an educational element to the game, and this can be something of a bummer, as the social and legal realities of being LGBTQ+ in Japan aren’t great. Still, One Night, Hot Springs is mostly about simulating the experience of spending a relaxing evening in the company of good friends at a beautiful onsen hotel. The artwork is cute yet polished and offers the player lovely visions of traditional architecture, delicious food, and screenshot-worthy outdoor vistas.

One Night, Hot Springs is just as wholesome as its artwork is adorable, and I really enjoyed the story. I was inspired to get the full game, A Year of Springs, and I’m looking forward to playing it soon.

Red Trees

Red Trees by Caramel
https://caramel.itch.io/redtrees

Red Trees is a free nonviolent adventure story game made with RPG Maker in a style that emulates the Game Boy Color. It’s about a small village that might be haunted by ghosts in the woods, and it’s adorable.

The game is divided into three sections: the village’s residential area, its business center to the north, and the forest to the south. In order to progress from one area to another, you embark on an extended trading quest. For example, someone asks you to find their cat. To convince the cat to follow you, you need to feed it fish. In order to procure a fish, you need to give a can of worms to the person fishing at the local pond. The trading sequence isn’t strictly linear, but it’s not so complicated that you’d get lost or frustrated.

Red Trees isn’t a horror game by any means, but it gives me strong Omori vibes. (Although, having made that comparison, I should say that Red Trees was originally released in 2016, four years before Omori.) The music is relaxing, the character portraits are super cute, and the writing is wholesome with a touch of light humor reminiscent of Tumblr circa 2015. I especially love the menu screen’s character log, which collects short profiles of everyone you’ve met. The item portraits and descriptions are lovely as well.

Red Trees takes about an hour to complete, but this is mainly because of the game’s spatial layout. Your character can’t run, and the town is so spacious that it takes time to walk from place to place. This never becomes frustrating, but you may want to download the game so you can save your progress, step away, and come back later. Red Trees is extremely charming, and the experience of playing it is much more enjoyable if you take your time instead of rushing to finish it.

If you’re going to download Red Trees, you have the option of paying $2 to get an extra file folder of illustrations and a PDF booklet with annotated concept and development art. I highly recommend this extra material, but I’d also recommend not checking it out until you finish the game, as it spoils the ending. In fact, the bonus content functions almost like a separate postgame story, and it’s just as sweet and adorable as the game itself.

Deep Forest

Deep Forest by Small is Beautiful
https://small.itch.io/deep-forest

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.

A Time for Giving

A Time for Giving by CobGoblin
https://cobgoblin.itch.io/a-time-for-giving

A Time for Giving is a free Game Boy “dark cottagecore” horror game about being a human sacrifice. It takes five to ten minutes to play, and it’s divided into three main areas: your protagonist’s cozy family cabin, an isolated village preparing for its winter festival, and the haunted snow-covered woods. The overworld graphics remind me of the cute rounded style of A Link to the Past, and the character artwork that appears during the dialog screens is delightfully eerie and upsetting. The dialog is well-written and communicates the themes of the game without pulling any punches.

A Time for Giving was created for a winter solstice-themed game jam, and the creator apologizes that there’s no sound because they ran out of time. I’m of the opinion that the lack of music is actually quite lovely, as it creates an environment reminiscent of a silent forest blanketed by snow so heavy that it muffles all sound.

A Time for Giving is very short and very simple, but the writing and visual style are exactly what I want from a handmade Game Boy game. It’s also a perfect combination of nostalgia and “what the fuck did I just play,” which is a major component of what makes these games so fun.

I played A Time for Giving a few times and made varying choices in an attempt to get a different ending, but alas. I wonder if there’s a way for this poor kid to make it out of the forest…?

Waking Nightmare

Waking Nightmare by Polyducks
https://polyducks.itch.io/waking-nightmare

Waking Nightmare is a free homebrew Game Boy horror game in which you navigate a short and simple maze. Every dead end presents you with a nightmare scenario and the notification that you’ve woken up, thus restarting the maze. The game moves very quickly, and each dead end is creative and worth the trouble of discovering. The game also marks every dead end that you’ve already seen twice in order to minimize frustration.

When you make it through the maze, you’re presented with a series of dialog choices that determine one of three endings. The maze layout doesn’t change, so it’s easy to finish the game and see all three endings in about fifteen minutes. The maze screens look like something a kid would build on a graphing calculator, and the gritty lo-fi pixel art is great, especially for the three closing screens. Apparently this is all text art, or “textmode” art, which the creator explains on their website (here). This website is just as interesting as the game itself, and I recommend checking it out if you’re interested in internet art history.

I was never a big fan of first-person maze games, but I’m glad I gave Waking Nightmare a chance. It’s visually distinctive, it makes excellent use of its medium, and the music will definitely get stuck in your head.

A Dark Winter Wander

A Dark Winter Wander by Red Skald
https://redskald.itch.io/a-dark-winter-wander

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.