I was massively hyped for Desert Child when I first caught wind of the game. When my editor sent me the E3 trailer months ago, I looked aimlessly around for a makeshift bib because I was worried about drooling on my laptop keys. Showcasing lo-fi hip hop beats with backpacker rhymes, and floppy disk era graphics of hip characters sporting Adidas sneakers and side-kicked hats, I felt like this indie title was practically built for my sensibilities. In between shots of hip-looking NPCs spouting one-liners and shots of the neo-Australia-but-actually-on-Mars environment, the trailer of Desert Child showcases side-scrolling speeder bike levels comprised of bright lights and pixelated explosions. I couldn’t quite grasp what the main objective or genre Desert Child is, but I knew that I wanted to play a game this fresh and clean.
The first 30 minutes of Desert Child live up to overwrought expectations. You play as an emerging speeder bike driver, who has left the comforts of Earth to compete in the cut throat speeder bike racing circuit on the planet of Mars. The game exudes a rare level of authenticity in its game design. All my life I’ve played games where skateboarders do handstands in the background next to cracked walls with graffiti, but there’s just something about Desert Child’s presentation that makes these images edgy.
The core of the game is the two-dimensional racing levels, and at the beginning of the game you are asked to choose between one of four weapon-types on your bike. The levels are stylish-yet-simplistic, with the primary enemy being floating televisions firing at your bike. Bullets and fuel are limited, so you actually have to be strategic with your resources to propel yourself to the finish line. The racing is fun, initially, but the fixed screen design emphasizes shooting the obstacles so much that you almost forget that you are trying to beat another speeder across the finish line. However, while the locales of the levels change, the gameplay doesn’t differ that noticeably, and I found my enjoyment dwindling within the first half hour of my game time.
Between races, your character can walk on a fixed route from shop to shop around the city, where you can buy food, repair your speeder, buy power cells, and even shop for the riveting singles that comprise Desert Child’s soundtrack. The game tries to throw you some variation. For example, you can fix a race or steal parts from other speeder bikes parked on the street. These diversions are minor though, and add to the sense of a lack of depth in gameplay. One interesting feature is that you can collect parts and assemble them on your bike—placing the parts on the bike looks similar to stowing items in Resident Evil’s inventory, and a challenge is to find space for multiple parts to maximize your bike’s performance. These small features make it seem like Desert Child could have almost been a fully fleshed out thing, but as it stands, it is essentially a mini-game with a really sexy package.
The disappointing part to me is that Desert Child is exactly the type of video game I want to root for, but I was sadly underwhelmed by a property that seemed more promising. The game was developed by a one-man studio, Oscar Brittain, and the bio of his website reads: “My name is Oscar, I’m a game maker from Australia. I spend my time making stupid video games and putting it all on youtube <sic>. Sometimes, I make games that are not stupid, but this is just an accident.” Well, whether he set out to or not, I think that Oscar made a really smart game with Desert Child, with music to hum to and a graphic style that takes you back to hippest part of your past. It just turns out that it is not very fun.