Do you long for the days where consoles were an inoffensive shade of grey? Where controllers were attached with wires and where fixing a game was as simple as ejecting and blowing furiously up and down the cartridge chip like a sort of futuristic harmonica with no musical use whatsoever? If you miss the days where saving your game progress was a notion as laughable as people who wear Crocs, then you may enjoy the pixelated imaginings of ‘Friendship is Magic: Story of the Blanks’. A pastiche of the games of the forgotten 8-bit generation, you are given a taste of the world of ‘My Little Pony’, but with an altogether more sinister atmosphere. Delve into the woods and discover the secret behind the increasingly unusual events that take place, where the ponies are far from plastic, and the gameplay is borderline unsuitable for children.
At the outset, Applebloom the pony meets Twilight Sparkle (also a pony). Named after the most definitively abysmal series of books and resultant films to ever have existed in the history of everything, Twilight needs to deliver a package to the magician in the forest. As we all know, all the best and most fantastically eventful of adventures begin with a trip to a pixelated forest that exists solely in 8-bit. Of course, the initial tranquillity and pleasant mysteriousness of the forest is sadly not to last.
Speaking almost exclusively in riddles, Zecora, who is the recipient of the package that brought you to the forest in the first place, issues forth an ominous (yet typically vague) premonition that there are about to be some unpleasant happenings in the forest; the general feeling is that returning back to the safety of ‘pony land’ is more than advisable.
After the mysterious words from Zecora, it becomes fairly obvious that the events of the game are about to take place; he was essentially telling you that something is about to go down. He obviously knows something that we do not, so the only thing to do is to make a jaunty exit through the wonderful forest of gloriously-animated mysteriousness. You just know that some unexpected (i.e. entirely expected) events are about to unfold; after all, it wouldn’t be a very good game if the entire adventure consisted of successfully delivering a package and returning from whence you came without further incident, would it?
Alas, the inconvenience of a fallen tree that blocks your swift exit from the forest marks the beginning of the game’s events. Ghosts are said to be at fault (according to Twilight, but this notion is laughed off by Applebloom), but Applebloom hastily and inexplicably moves the tree out of the way with ease and without the necessity of physical contact with the tree itself. Sadly, there are more trees blocking the way, and so the inevitable adventure begins.
You are tasked with performing a few good deeds such as returning a distraught pony’s lost gift, solving a borderline puzzle-like predicament which involves moving a few crates here and there, finding a crank to fix the water well and discovering a key at the bottom which grants you access to a nearby house. From here, the game takes a decidedly sinister turn, looking very much like a Super Nintendo remake (or pre-make, due to the past nature of the glorious 8-bit console) of the Walking Dead, only with a more equestrian feel. The game is brought to a conclusion if you manage to zig-zag, strafe and perform the classic ‘duck and weave’ manoeuvre whilst finding your way through the now-haunted forest, with Twilight Sparkle coming to rescue you at the game’s conclusion at a stage when all hope seems lost.
The game is extremely simplistic and is pretty linear to the point of being nothing more than a glorified pony trek between location A (the start) and location B (the end), with a little bouncing back and forth between locations C and D (the middle and the nearly-end). The fact that the game wasn’t going to offer you more of a logical challenge to your cerebral hemispheres should have been obvious from the beginning; if the 8-bit graphics and Pokémon-like feel to the game weren’t clues enough, then the fact that it deals with the subject matter of ponies (both alive and undead) and contains a character named ‘Twilight Sparkle’ should have been enough to alert the ‘glaring obviousness’ detector in your head to what was unfolding in front of your eyes. I am assuming here that we all have these detectors installed as standard.
My above comments are not intended to provide a negative view of the game, however. In fact, my feels about the experience were quite the opposite of a trip down Pessimism Avenue. Firstly, I am obligated to have instant respect for any game that is made and played entirely within the confines of the very basic software capabilities of the NES (this is the Nintendo Entertainment System for those of you whose childhoods were lacking in true fun, or for anyone reading that is under the age of 18). Everything from the graphics and the MIDI-powered music to the gameplay and the retro roaming format with limited provision for interaction is in true NES style; this takes me back to what was undeniably the golden age of true gaming, and I cannot deny the wideness of my grin when I encountered this small piece of nostalgic entertainment.
The controls are as basic as the range of colours available to those developing a game in the NES style; your movement takes place as the result of you pressing the directional arrows, and the Z button allows you to interact with objects/people, scroll through conversational boxes and pretty much interact with everything in the surrounding world of Equestria.
Though Story of Blanks isn’t particularly lengthy, action packed or indeed any more difficult than making a cup of afternoon tea with accompanying pre-packaged rich-tea biscuits, there is a definite storyline, an established set of characters and a general sense of purpose to the whole thing. There is an air of mysteriousness from the very beginning, and it soon becomes clear that it isn’t going to be your typical episode of My Little Pony or one of the many cute pony creators online you can use from ponycreators.com where everything is as soft as cotton wool and the clouds are made from candy floss; something darker is on the horizon and it is your job to find out exactly what this is by interacting with your environment and acting accordingly. You will encounter gems, missing parts, lost keys and even a simple maze, which is more intellectual stimulation than would be derived from the cartoon upon which this game is based.