Lonely Mountains Downhill

Week of 25 May 2020

Perhaps my favourite game on the Mega Drive is Micro Machines: Turbo Tournament '96. It was manic fun, bite-sized and at times unforgiving. The very best part of it was that the cartridge itself included two (unapproved by Sega) extra controller ports, allowing four people to play at once. I would take my Mega Drive to family friends in Wales and four of would try and keep their tiny cars on the screen and avoid as-yet-unseen obstacles.

There's a lot about mountain-bike-trailing game Lonely Mountains: Downhill (which I'll call LMD) that reminds me of the Micros Machines games, although in many ways it couldn't be further away. Micro Machines was all bright colours, silly humour and fierce competitive play. LMD's world is one of natural hues and pastels, with any humour ever so slight and absolutely not a soul in the world to compete with. In fact the titular loneliness is there in the game; all you hear as you cycle is the wind blowing, your wheels on the ground and the painful result of each collision.

And yet...this is very much a successor. The controls are simple. The (just not quite) top-down view similarly restricting. Even when you're practised the courses it's still easy to miss a jump, bash into a boulder or wobble off a narrow bridge. Falling for the fourth time off the same bridge certainly brought back ill-fated trips across chopping boards in Micro Machines' Ferry Fiasco. And, for all the seeming playing-it-straight of the game, some courses do verge on the ridiculous, with sudden drops chained together and trips across narrow rock formations.

It's in these moments of trying again for the fifth time that I'm most reminded of the games I see as inspiration for LMD. I've mentioned Micro Machines, but anyone who's repeated the same level tens of times in Celeste or Super Meat Boy knows that this works for two reasons: the controls feel right; and the reason you failed feels like your fault and not the game's. The checkpoints are just that bit too far apart to make you briefly furious when you fall off after a decent stretch of cycling, but not so far apart for you to give up.

For some this game will perhaps be another racing game all about shaving tenths of a second off lap times, but I think the title and setting push you somewhere else. This is about the visceral sense of control that you get when on a bike; that any mistake could be dramatic and painful, and also the freedom this brings. There's no music because you're not in someone else's world - you have the freedom of your bike and can do as you please. Yes you can race on the clearest route and push for better times, but you can also wobble along slowly and look for different routes. Most of the course unlocks are about completing with not-too-many crashes, not about fast times.

This is a game that celebrates that independence and isolation, but it isn't in my mind making a comment about something deeper and more troubled. It is reminding us again that with plenty of games with long input lag and overcomplicated controls it's nice to play something responsive and with simple mechanics where your choices immediately matter. There is fun to be had in practising and learning a course, and there is fun to be had in just hoping for the best and narrowly avoiding veering into a ravine. It's a game that's happy in its skin to be a game, to have moments of ridiculousness and something my children find hysterical to watch me play. Give it a go.

Developer: Megagon
Platform: PC, XBox, PS4, Switch
Price paid: Included in XBox One Gamepass


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