De Mambo Review
From the makers of absolutely nothing comes this debut title from small British development team; The Dangerous Kitchen. This group of animation students have a shared obsession with Super Smash Bros. and carved their inspiration from Masahiro Sakurai’s all-star brawler to construct something of their own that would rely on a single attack button to send your opponent flying off into oblivion.
Many tireless nights spent in a Premier Inn lobby and, with the help of over £15,000 worth of Kickstarter donations, De Mambo was finally born. The question, however, is whether this first meal from the Chefs at The Dangerous Kitchen is a gourmet offering? Or is it dodgy street slop fried in gutter oil?
So what is De Mambo, and what do you actually do when playing it? Well, if you have seen the trailer for the game you would be forgiven for being none the wiser after watching it. Not because it’s a bad trailer, but because of the chaos that unfolds before your eyes as coloured orbs are sent flying toward each other and bouncing all over the place like a fight scene from a badly drawn anime.
The core element here is to knock your opponent out of the screen over the 25 unlockable arenas of choice. You don’t take damage when hit. Instead, you’re sent flying into walls breaking cracks into them until cavities open up to allow a chance to volley your opponents through them to score a K.O.
You are restricted to your direction of movement and a single button that executes three different attacks depending on how long you hold it for. Tapping the attack button allows you to jab your opponent. Holding it down for a short time grants you a slash attack. Hold it for a little longer and the face on the little orb starts shaking its head to lend a visual cue that it’s ready to fire a four-way projectile. Hold it too long though and you go up in smoke, paralysing you for a short time and leaving you vulnerable to getting smashed across the screen.
You possess the ability to triple jump as well as dash with the directional pad or Left Stick, giving you a broad freedom of movement. In some cases, the screen may fill with water allowing you to take full control of where you want to be without the need to jump.
Despite the simplicity of the controls, it can take some time to gel with the way they handle. Movement can feel oversensitive as any more than a slight touch to the left or right can send your little orb flying in that direction, leaving the impression that you don’t have full control of your avatar. This is most evident in the solo challenges of which I couldn’t help but pine for more Super Meat Boy precision, but I do also believe that the design was by choice. You do eventually get used to the sensitivity after a while with a bit of perseverance.
It’s clearly evident that the foundations lie in multiplayer. Up to four players can smash it out until the last orb standing. This leads to the chaotic fun that’s represented in the trailer that will have you moving all over the place to either avoid or time that crucial hit while finding your footing on the remaining blocks that still stand.
There’s also a mechanic where fallen players have a chance to gain a life back by riding along rails around the perimeter of the screen aiming to eat a contending rival to redeem your vitality. If a match lasts longer than the game intends, a VHS style tracking visual similar to those dodgy tapes you would find in your dad’s sock draw back in the day would surface – slowly making each block disappear to crank up the tension.
It feels very much a mash-up of Super Smash Bros., Block Breaker (or Alleyway for the Game Boy enthusiasts) and Pinball. These three tried and tested ingredients can serve nicely with a group of mates. Unfortunately though, if you don’t have any mates available you are unable to play De Mambo as it was originally intended to be played. This is because you can’t play against the CPU, or even add CPU to fill the multiplayer gaps in two-player.
This would have been a welcome addition but, instead, becomes a massive flaw making the game’s most fundamental feature the most useless. Unfortunately, there isn’t an online versus mode either. This is because the devs just didn’t receive enough funding to add the feature. Whether they do in the future will probably depend on how well it sells.
Playing this mode with just two people can be a fun experience but can also drag out a bit. It can take a long time to destroy the environment to open up the edges of the screen leading to most of your matches ending with the VHS tracking visual present which usually arrives far too soon. This makes your hard work of breaking blocks feel redundant because they just start to disappear anyway, leading to 8 out of 10 of matches ending with falling to your doom rather than actually getting knocked out of the screen.
This issue is pushed further due to how hard it can be to actually land a good hit. The jab is very quick but very weak making it almost useless. The slash attack seems the only real practical move that has any real bite making it the closest action to a Super Smash Bros. smash attack, but trying to land it mid jump can be harder work than it needs to be. Even the projectiles move slowly without any real impact.
Maybe the frames of animation are too short or the hit box is too small. Either way, your attacks just don’t keep up with the pace of movement. This also leads me to think that although the idea of using the same button to perform each attack is interesting in theory, instead, most of the time is spent missing a jumping charge slash that you try to time correctly.
I couldn’t help but feel that having dedicated attack buttons that execute on command that you could power charge would have been a better option. Or even a damage percentage counter present like Super Smash Bros. to measure some sense of progression. I’m sure with plenty of practice it can be nailed. I just find it hard to believe that most casual players would have the patience to actually want to master it.
There doesn’t seem to be a way to adjust match setting and conditions from what I can find. Having the option to weaken blocks or extend match times would have been appreciated. There is also no option to split the Joy-Con into two separate controllers unless you go into the Nintendo Switch System Settings to change the Grip Order. It does, however, present many options for controlling the game with different varieties including single handed. Which is a fantastic feature for those with certain disabilities that may usually run into this sort of barrier when playing games.
The other multiplayer feature is Survival. You can also play this single-player. This mode is pretty much Space Invaders but utilising the De Mambo arsenal of attacks to eradicate the enemy. You aim to protect your platform of monitors from the intruders over separate waves. You can also gain your triple jump back after a successful hit to reach the higher enemies – taking out multiple foes at a time. This is a fun little time waster but you’re unlikely to get any longevity out of it.
The Solo Mode has you climbing a tower of screens, each with an objective with a time limit. Objectives include tasks such as reaching the goal, survival, destroy and boss battle among others. You aim to beat each tower with a bag full of lives in a frantic WarioWare style setting. The towers become taller and more difficult as you progress making every life that remains precious. There is some great level design to be found here as you start to sweat every time you lose a life.
This mode is also where I found the over sensitive controls to feel clumsy. Simple platforming can be more of a chore than it needs to be at times but when you do get an understanding of movement it becomes less of an issue. I did find the Solo Mode the most enjoyable though, and it’s the only mode that has any weight to it when you don’t have anybody else to play with.
The graphics are passable for the type of game it’s trying to be. The game goes for an old school pixel art style that fits in line with the budget they had to play with and seeing two orbs spin attacks clashing is a nice visual touch. The ability to change the colour of your orb to your suiting in the settings is helpful as you can easily lose you position on the screen, mainly due to how small they are. Having bigger sprites or camera zooming in and out could have probably helped to deal with this, especially in a four player battle. The sound and music feel as though they have been ripped from a Commodore 64. There are a few decent jingles here and there but nothing you will be humming afterwards.
I really wanted to like De Mambo. It’s oozing with great ideas and potential. Add that to a mix of inspiration from several beloved genres and you should get a dish that tastes of a classic indie title. However, it does seem that the chefs at The Dangerous Kitchen wrote a recipe down with a certain ingredient and stubbornly tried to force it to work in hope of a new flavour. A trait that even legendary developers can sometimes fall victim to.
There’s is still plenty of room for De Mambo to improve and evolve. The game’s Kickstarter page does show some interesting modes and features that are not present in the final build. Whether these have been scrapped or set to be added in the future only time will tell, but as it stands, for now, the game is far from a terrible first attempt from the team. However, it does smell much better than it actually tastes. Maybe a bit of salt and pepper is needed to enhance the flavour.