Bowling is one of the few activities that holds a universal appeal; young or old, talented or terrible, it remains a fun game for all, regardless of a player’s skill level. The inclusion of bowling in Wii Sports was a large factor in the console’s success, with the system still used in retirement homes to this day. Death Alley, created for the 44th Ludlum Dare game jam by developer SeaDads, is a creative take on the bowling concept, utilising an unusual control scheme and adorable visuals.
Lil’ Jimmy has found himself in the underworld. Death, always one to honour a wager for a soul, has offered to grant Jimmy’s deepest desire if he is able to beat Death’s high score in bowling. Many might wish for riches, or to see a departed family member, but Jimmy is a simple boy: he desires the latest ‘Killhaver‘ game to make his brother jealous. Should he play well, all of Jimmy’s dreams will come true, but too many gutter balls will doom him to wander the bowling alley of the dead forever.
Controls are simple, but require great precision in Death Alley. Jimmy can be moved left or right with the arrow keys, and the power of the shot is controlled with the space bar. Unlike many other bowling games, where the angle of the shot is determined by rotating the character, the angle is instead determined by the timing of hitting the spacebar. Hit to the left of the yellow ‘ideal’ zone, and the ball will drift left. Likewise, hitting to the right will hook the ball right. Adding a wrinkle to the mix is increasing the power of the shot. After the initial power target, the same bar pops up again, with a faster moving cursor and smaller yellow section. This action repeats up to six times, depending on the accuracy of the player. Hitting multiple yellow bars in a row will make the ball launch much faster, but the more times the button is hit, the easier one will make a mistake and send the ball careening into the gutter, leading to a balance of risk versus reward when choosing the speed of the ball. The pile of various zombie limbs standing in for pins are rather firmly rooted to the floor, so sticking to safe shots will never get Jimmy far.
The system works well but takes a while to get the hang of. I never got enough points to earn Jimmy’s desired video game, but each attempt I made was a little bit better than the last. An interesting inclusion might be to have a variety of pins and balls on offer, allowing the player to experiment with different combinations; this would also be a great way to implement a difficulty system, with some pins and balls easier to use than others.
Death Alley has a striking art style, featuring flat colourful sprites in a three dimensional world, reminiscent of Paper Mario‘s aesthetic. Everything in the world, from the little devils lining the lane to the chandeliers, bobs to the beat of the music: a high energy chiptune mix akin to Castlevania on caffeine. Such a strong sense of place is unexpected in a bowling game, but extremely welcome. I would be keen to find out more about this world, a cheerful afterlife in which Death gives everyone a sporting chance.
Death Alley thoroughly charmed me. I like that the game utilises a unique control scheme for bowling, without overcomplicating the idea. The game is extremely approachable, and the aesthetic is just fantastic. Developer SeaDads is quite prolific, having tackled a variety of game jams over the years. More of its quirky projects can be found on the itch.io page here.
Next week, we will be taking a look at Dungeon of Exile, a first person dungeon crawler, which can be found on itch.io here. Discussions are happening in the the Discord server, or you can email me if you prefer.