I wish somebody would let Jonathan Whiting make an actual Zelda dungeon. I’m pretty sure the Oxford-based game designer would be up to the task. For Ludum Dare 22, he produced the creepy, claustrophobicmazes of Craequ, after all, which turned a fairly standard muddle of blocks and teleporters into some truly brilliant puzzles. Now, for Ludum Dare 23 – the theme was Tiny Worlds, incidentally – he’s come up with Nina Nueve, which he even describes as “a Zelda game trapped in a 9×9 box.”
Nina Nueve is a wonderful meeting of economy and imagination: a single room that’s constantly redrawing itself based on your actions, as you move between the ever-shifting exit panels that are marked with big pink arrows. This is one of those games, as Jonathan Blow might put it, with a “bit of education to it”: each new environment wordlessly teaches you the latest mechanics you’ll need to understand in order to move on to the next.
So your first lesson is that reaching an arrow will generally rebuild the walls around you. Then, you’re given translucent barriers to play with, some of which can be rendered passable if you defeat a series of slimy enemies. Next, you’ll need to learn to avoid those enemies, too, and after that, you’ll have to start tricking them into zapping themselves on electrical barriers, in a manner that’s faintly reminiscent of Berzerk.
That’s just the start, but Nina Nueve’s best puzzles shouldn’t be ruined in advance. Like Zelda, it’s an intricate, coherent series of spatial challenges dripping with atmosphere, and, like Zelda, it’s also a bit of a masterclass in communication and difficulty curve management. (Unlike Zelda, of course, it’s also set to some Vince Guaraldi-styled piano jazz, which works with the disco colour scheme to set it apart from the beige menace of Craequ.)
Ludum Dare’s a major part of the gaming landscape these days, and with stuff of this quality being produced, it’s getting better and better with each competition. Every time it runs, I can’t wait to pick through the results and see what some of the most interesting designers around have come up with. If Nina Nueve’s anything to go by, there’s something brilliantly energising about the limitations imposed by a weekend game jam. This, I think, is Whiting’s best work yet – and that makes me all the more excited for LD 24.