Xbox Live's Indie channel is a weird and wonderful place. If Xbox Live Arcade is a vacation paradise for the 30-something gamer to bask in the faded glory of their adolescent adventures, XBLIG is a dirty, dusty, unkempt flea market, where indie developers have set up booths that solicit you for attention. Like a flea market, their mysterious and often vaguely described wares run the gamut from fine (if tarnished) antiques worth far more than their asking price to the most offensively amiss bootlegs you'll ever see. This isn't a bell-curve, though. As someone who's mined for gold in the XBLIG channel for far longer than they should have, let me tell you that the ratio of good games to bad games is utterly, utterly depressing.
So why do I, like a battered but financially dependent housewife, keep coming back to such a horrible and unstable place? Games like Kaleidoscope, that's why.
Kaleidoscope was developed by a small "team" headed by Matthew Stenback, who programmed the game whilst his two compatriots, Sang Han and Mattias Gerdt, gave the game its distinct look and sound, respectively. Together, they are known as Morsel. Like many of the most impressive games on XBLIG, Kaleidoscope made its debut at XNA's Dream.Build.Play competition booth at PAX (where successful titles such as The Dishwasher have emerged from). While it didn't win (it lost to the still unreleased Dust: An Elysian Tail), its charming aesthetic turned quite a few heads. And yes, Kaleidscope's most eminent quality is its aesthetic, there's no denying that. But beyond that lies what is simply one of the greatest games you'll ever spend less than $5 on.
Kaleidoscope is preceded by a brief prologue that sets up its derivative (but functional) story. The colorful world of Kaleidscope is one day assaulted by the tearing of its causal fabric as black holes open up across the land, sucking up all the colors and Kaleidoscope's walking inkwell people with it. Only one spunky little inkwell is left: Tint, and it's now Tint's task to restore color to Kaleidoscope and reunite with his family.
Kaleidoscope is divided into four "worlds", each with its own theme and accompanying aesthetic, and each of these worlds is divided into three stages. Within these stages, you (as Tint) perform the usual tasks of running right and left along a two-dimensional plane, stomping on enemies and collecting points. The platforming lexicon is distilled to its purest form here, no doubt. But what really makes Kaleidoscope wonderful isn't the core gameplay, but how nuances make that core gameplay feel much more complete than a lot of its hapdash and hackneyed contemporaries.
Apart from being able to double-jump off the bat, Tint has three abilities that consume his Pigment Gauges: three circular, colored gauges that form the only HUD Kaleidoscope has. These abilities correspond to the matching colored buttons on the 360 controller: pressing (and holding) X consumes Blue Pigment, allowing Tint to run; pressing Y consumes Yellow Pigment, allowing Tint to inflate and float down from a jump or fall much more slowly; and pressing B consumes Red Pigment, creating a barrier around Tint that protects him from enemy attacks. These abilities exhaust their respective Pigment Gauges quite rapidly, but spread throughout each stage are Pigments that refill those gauges. Collecting these Pigments also adds color to the grayed world, imbuing the scenery with incredible palettes and also adding complexity to the initially base stage music (which I'll get to later).
Standing in Tint's way are various hazards and obstacles he'll have to use the aforementioned abilities to overcome. These manifest most commonly in the form of Murmurs, once peaceful creatures that have become corrupted by the same invasive forces that sapped Kaleidoscope of its color. Murmurs walk back and forth in Goomba fashion, but certain types use more complex methods to stop Tint. Jumping on them returns them to their normal, peaceful selves. Other impediments include giant golems, which are harmless but must be toppled to proceed, seed-spitting flowers and the ever-present spikes.
This cutesy drama of life and death plays out on stages that are non-linear, and this is what really sets Kaleidoscope apart from other games in its particular idiom of oldschool platforming. You see, Kaleidoscope's stages (with the exception of the last three) don't have a beginning or an end. The goal isn't to reach goal point, rather, to collect special Pigment Crystals, three of which are located in each stage. Each stage branches off at some point into multiple paths, some more obscure than others, and each of those offshoots lead to one of the Pigment Crystals, the collecting of which effectively ends the stage. In essence, this makes Kaleidoscope a little incongruous to the ideal of the 2D platformer, as its goals more closely resemble those of 3D platformers like Super Mario 64.
Of course, not content to be the same game from start to finish, even the nature of Kaleidoscope's already original sense of progression changes in each of the four areas is subject to change: in the first set of stages, taking place in bright, flourishing afternoon springtime, Tint must get past the aforementioned golems by using small stones matching the golem's color; in the second set, which take place in a somber, autumn evening setting, Tint must ride wind funnels to higher destinations; in the third, eerie, silhouetted nighttime setting, the formerly singular Pigment Crystals are each broken up into three pieces that are hidden in lanterns that litter the stages; and finally, in the last set of stages that have a charming 8-bit theme to them, non-linearity is done away with as Tint seeks to seal the black holes once and for all. This variety, which is much more than what a lot of much longer games are complacent with, makes Kaleidoscope a fresh experience every few steps.
But Kaleidoscope doesn't just rely on its sense of perpetual novelty to keep you captivated, as its aesthetics, which you can plainly see, are a very big part of what makes it so wonderful. While it may share a few vague similarities with flash games and might occasionally be sprinkled with moments of Patapon and Loco Roco, you'll never play another game that looks quite like Kaleidoscope. And if even that fails to impress you, the music certainly won't. Mattias Gerdt has created one of the greatest soundtracks you'll hear on the XBLIG channel. Where so many "revival" platformers of its ilk are fine with the reverent but tiresome chip-tune, Kaleidoscope is not, and instead opts for a whimsical, varied and triumphant set of pieces incorporating various electronic sub-genres, pieces that increase in potency and poignancy as you collect Pigments in the stages and color the world around you. Gerdt's work is so impressive that OCRemix's own djpretzel not only hosted the entire soundtrack on the site, but even composed the ending theme for the game.
Now, in spite of all this, somehow Kaleidoscope still isn't perfect. This can most likely be attributed to the size of the development team and lack of proper QA, as the brunt of the game's problems are born from bad programming. Kaleidoscope can be glitchy, the lion's share of glitches involving spikes, which at times kill you when you're nowhere near them and other times you can safely land in the middle of an entire field of spikes without dying and walk through them to safety (fortunately, the latter seems to happen more often than the former). Also, sometimes getting killed will spontaneously transport you to a checkpoint further in the stage rather than to the previous one. But a more terminal problem is the fact that Kaleidoscope is ultimately pretty short and pretty easy. In all honesty, though, I'm not sure I'd want Kaleidoscope to be longer or harder than it is, as my experience with it left me desiring nothing more from the game, and for 240 Microsoft Points, you'd have a hell of time trying to find a more satisfying experience for your money.
So, in short, I love Kaleidoscope. You and a lot of other gamers might not and probably won't, and the vast majority of gamers at large will simply ignore it, because it's an indie game and it doesn't involve zombies. But again, for 240 Microsoft Points, is it worth risking never having experienced it? Or at the very least, try the demo.
Morsel is officially defunct. Kaleidoscope was the team's only game, and creator Matthew Stenback has gone on to join an upstart game company headed by Kaleidoscope's visual designer, Sang Han. My only hope that wherever their careers may take them, they bring a little bit of Kaleidoscope with them.