Thursday, July 6, 2017

Homebrew of the Month: Stay Frosty 2

Stay Frosty 2
Developer:  Darrell Spice Jr.

I warned you last month that I was stacking the deck, so you’re going to have to bear with me for a few paragraphs as I gush about Stay Frosty 2, what is probably the single best platforming game for the VCS.

I missed the original Stay Frosty, which was only released as part of the Stella’s Stocking  holiday cart back in 2007.  I’ve never been big on Christmas themed games and a whole cart full of them just wasn’t calling to me at the time.  Then, one fateful day in the Atariage High Score Club, Stay Frosty 2 came up in the rotation, I had a brief chance to play it and fell instantly in love.  This is a ridiculously good, addictive platform/puzzle game.

What’s All This Then?

Stay Frosty 2 is built on a very simple premise that’s as old as Christmas itself: living fireballs have kidnapped Santa Claus and his helpers and it’s up to you, a man made completely of snow, to extinguish their evil plans and rescue your friends.  To accomplish this task you must survive 128 grueling levels of deadly fireballs and the hot, hot sun. All you have to do to complete each level is put out all of the fireballs.  You can do this simply by running over them and melting on them, or by pelting them with snowballs you make from your own body.  Basically you have to die a little bit each time you defeat the enemy.  Horrifying I know, but heroism doesn’t come cheap.  Luckily, you can find a wide variety of power-ups in each level to keep you going.  Ice blocks and chests can replenish your snow supply, corn cob pipes can turn you to solid ice to slow your melting, brooms give you the double jump and carrot noses allow you to lob snowballs.  Don’t worry, you’ll start each level fully packed and ready for the next challenge.

And challenge is what this game is built on.  There are no gimme levels in Stay Frosty 2.  You’ll have to plan your attack carefully to put out each fire while conserving your frostiness and getting the right power-ups to achieve victory.  In addition to the power-ups there are also level gimmicks that will either aid or impede your progress.  Buckets of coal will illuminate dark levels, but they will also cause any fireballs you encounter to flare up.  Sticks will open up new passages to inaccessible areas and moving walls will be both a help and a hinderance as they constantly change the play field.  And that’s just a sampling of what’s in store for you as you dig into this winter wonderland.

How’s It Play?

Beautifully.  The physics in this game are surprisingly smart.  When you are whole, you’ll glide across the floor with ease then, as you melt, your movement becomes more slippery, but you’ll also be able to cross gaps with greater ease.  When you throw fireballs, the speed at which you are moving as well as the direction will dictate the trajectory and velocity with which the ball is launched.  This is essential for mastering some puzzles where the only way to extinguish the fireballs is with well thrown snowballs.  The only aspect of controlling Frosty that might take a minute to master is the double jump.  Unlike in some games where you can initiate the second jump just before you land, in Stay Frosty 2, you’ll need to execute your double jump at or before the apex of the original jump.  This may cause some early double jump deaths until you get the hang of it, but once you do, you’ll be bounding all over the place like a pro.
Level 13, one of the most insidious firebird levels I have encountered.
More important than controls, however, is the level design.  Stay Frosty 2 is smart.  Chances are good it’s smarter than you.  It’s certainly smarter than me.  The game is designed with 32 unique levels, but those levels repeat thrice for a total of 128 total levels.  Each time you complete the 32 unique levels you rescue a helper and start over at level 1 with less time to complete each level.  This is insane.  I have played this game for many, many hours (far more than the paltry 2 I have set forth as the requirement for this feature) and the best I can do is level 19, the first time around.  Level design is where Stay Frosty 2 really shines.  You’ll not find more challenging, and yet engaging platforming levels in another VCS game.  The closest I have found is Hunchy II (another sequel homebrew game which originated from a multi-cart).  Some levels are pretty straightforward, just put out the fires.  Others require you to plot out a course to avoid hazards, conserve snow, and take out the fireballs in the right order.  The trickiest levels for me are the firebird levels.  These levels require you to obtain the carrot nose power-up (so you can throw snowballs) and then navigate a screen full of firebirds who will not only melt your body super quickly, but will also steal your carrot so you have to lose time and snow back-tracking to pick it up again.  In a game where time is of the essence, these inconveniences are oft fatal.  If you can successfully avoid the firebirds, you still have to figure out how to target the fireballs and take them out.  Stay Frosty 2 has levels that require all of your gaming prowess, smarts, dexterity, and reflexes.  And it somehow never gets old or frustrating.  At least not for me.  I’m always ready for one more go.

Whistles and Bells

Stay Frosty 2 has lots of little details that provide the perfect polish to what is already an incredible game.  The game features a soundtrack of classic Christmas tunes to keep you in the spirit, OR if you are like me and it’s June and Christmas music threatens to drive you utterly mad, you can turn the music off with the right DIFFICULTY switch.  There’s only so much “The Holly and The Ivy” I can be asked to take.
It also features the ability to pause the action using the TV TYPE switch in case you need a second to regain your senses or just use the loo.
The game comes with a beautifully designed manual by the always impressive David Exton.
And if you look closely you’ll even notice some minute details that prove this game was made with great care and attention:  is that evil sun watching you as you move about the screen???

Final Assessment

I told you this was a love letter to Darrell Spice Jr. and his incredible game.  And I stand by my statement:  Stay Frosty 2 is the best platforming game you can have for your Atari 2600.  In my mind it’s pretty much perfection on all fronts: pick-up-and-playabilty, crisp, clean graphics, challenging and engaging levels with endless replayability, and well designed music.  There are a lot of great homebrews out there, but this one gets everything right.

Tips and Tricks

I wish I had more advice to give you on this one:

Bonus points: Remember that you get bonus points for collecting all of the ice blocks and exiting the level.  The points are based on your size, so on levels you have mastery over, save up as many ice blocks as you can to collect on your way out.  This will help accumulate extra lives more quickly.

Secrets!  This game holds a lot of secrets.  Once you feel comfortable with the early levels, start taking some risks and look for them.  Here’s a hint about the first one I found, entirely by accident: Look under the tree on Christmas morning.

He’s a Might Good Leaper:  Frosty’s jump distance is very very good.  Learning the reaches of his jumps and what you can do with a double jump will serve you well in higher levels where it’s not always clear how to get to certain platforms.  Jumping around ledges and smart falling will be crucial to later puzzles.

Order Up!  On what I call Order of Operation levels, there is a definite sequence to taking out fireballs and collecting ice blocks and chests.  Pay attention to the location and frequency of ice blocks and remember the snowflakes do not cause ice chests to respawn.  This will help you determine what to pick up when.  

Bad Gas:  The manual advises you to avoid gas cans whenever possible because they cause all of the fireballs to reignite.  I have yet to encounter a level yet where I could avoid the gas cans.  So plan on implementing them into your strategy.  Figure out how to get to the gas as quickly as possible and don’t waste snow melting fireballs needlessly, then work the solution.

So there you have it!  Hot fun in the summer time with Stay Frosty 2.  If you don’t already have it, go get it, and you can thank me later.  Easily one of the best homebrews ever created for the Atari 2600.
Join me next month as I buy a homebrew game for the bonus game included on the cart and then see what I can make of the main game as well.  That’s right, it’s Phantom II/Pirate