When it comes to games, my specialty is reviewing older, more obscure games. I’d describe these games as forgotten, but most of them never had a chance to enter the public memory in the first place. Sometimes, this exposes me to games that challenge contemporary understandings of games or that don’t neatly fit into it. Just as often, though, I play a game and it feels immediately familiar even if I’d never played it before.
Enter Moai-Kun, Konami’s puzzle game based on their eponymous sort-of mascot. This might have been the first time I’d played this specific iteration, but the broader game behind Moai-Kun is something I have quite a bit of experience with. Sutte Hakkun, Power Lode Runner, Mole Mania, and to a lesser extent, Adventures of Lolo all belong to this same family of character-driven action games that Moai-Kun is a member of. Needless to say, Moai-Kun is a welcome addition to the family. It brings the same simplistic charm its siblings are known for while still doing just enough on its own to distinguish itself from them every so slightly.
One of the ways it achieves this may lie in its simplicity. Moai-Kun is spartan, even by the genre’s standards. It wouldn’t be hard for me to explain the entire game as a series of puzzles to solve, since unlike its peers, this game doesn’t possess a deeper layer of appeal beyond solving the puzzles. You won’t find Mole Mania’s engaging use of movement, for example. The Moai head you control marches through the levels at a rigid pace, his mobility limited by physics that allow no room for interpretation. Nor does Moai-Kun have any especially interesting play mechanics like Sutte Hakkun does. There’s a headbutt, but it functions more like a tool than something you can play around with, and it doesn’t attract much attention on its own. Instead, that attention falls squarely on completing all the puzzles you’re presented with: push rocks, knock away blocks, defeat enemies, and figure out how you can create a path that lets you rescue all your friends while still making it to the exit.
However, I wouldn’t describe any of these as faults the game has. If anything, they’re vital to the game reaching its potential. Once again conforming to the standards other games have set for it, Moai-Kun is better understood not as a game, but as a toy; a series of systems whose limits I get to explore for as long as those systems hold my attention.
Part of why that understanding works better is because Konami seems to have been aware of it while they were making Moai-Kun, designing their game with this mindset in mind. They equipped themselves with a limited yet flexible toolset, but more importantly, they focused the game’s design on novelty above all else. Each level focuses on a single central theme, and the time you spend in them is very brief; often no more than a few minutes. Yet you never need any more than that, as it’s just enough time to poke and play around with the rules you’re given before they’re shuffled out in favor of something else. Each level feels both familiar and new as a result, and the game can chain stretch the joy of a fresh discovery across the entire experience without it ever feeling stale. (It might also be worth mentioning that the short amount of time I spend in each level means I don’t feel obligated to play through them.) True, it may not be particularly deep, but seeing how Konami didn’t have any aspirations for Moai-Kun to be something more than the small puzzle game it already is, I don’t see that as an important issue.
One could also understand all this from the developers’ perspective. Returning to the limited toolset point from earlier, these design constraints would have put a strong pressure on the level designers to create distinctive levels. The fact that each level has to stand on its own (they don’t bleed into each other like they would in many other games) would only strengthen that pressure. So what did they do? They rose to the challenge, of course. They approached the game with a playful spirit, implementing whatever silly idea entered their mind as they were designing the game. Maybe they wanted to make a level that was visually interesting, even if it didn’t offer a significant challenge. Maybe they wanted to emphasize a novel way of moving through this level. Or maybe they just wanted to craft a challenging puzzle. Whatever the case may be, this kind of approach to game design has appreciable benefits for Moai-Kun. Not only does it pepper the game with variety, but it also translates the developers’ playfulness into something the player can appreciate just as well (albeit in a different way).
Now I’ll admit that much of what I’ve described so far could apply equally well to the other few puzzle games I’ve been bringing up throughout this review. What separates Moai-Kun from those other games is how much less polished it is than its peers. It’s not a drastic amount, mind you; you still don’t have any real room to rebel against the rules this world operates on. However, you can rebel against whatever solution the level you’re playing intended you to take. Minor as that may sound, this small bit of resistance ends up working in the game’s favor. It takes the sense of discovery and ingenuity at the heart of the game’s appeal and carries it in directions the game never even anticipated. Control is wrested from the developers’ hands as you assert your own will over the game, whether that’s by coming up with better solutions than whatever was intended, or by brute forcing your way to the end in the dumbest way imaginable. It doesn’t matter; the result is the same either way. The game’s distanced itself from the rigidity that it might otherwise be known for (the same rigidity, I’ll remind you, that I found so dull in Adventures of Lolo).
Yet somehow, the game still feels very similar to its peers and vice versa. Moai-Kun (and I guess the larger genre of character-driven puzzle games it’s a part of) are a paradox where video games are concerned. For years, games have been trying to attract different audiences by offering something new, something they think players have never seen before. This has ironically resulted in a homogeneous market, one that, from the looks of it, is only accelerating further toward this abstract Platonic ideal of what video games should be.
Moai-Kun, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about these power struggles. By modelling itself so consciously according to generic conventions, it exposes us to novelty time and again, in spite of treading familiar ground. In fact, it’s because the game treads so much familiar ground that it’s able to achieve this. And for as much as I want to explain all this away as the result of my going back to older games after playing modern ones, old games are where I spend the majority of my time, anyway, so that explanation would fall flat. Moai-Kun’s success has little to do with the era in which it was made. It has everything to do with how it relates to the games around it.