Anybody who has ever played a Sega Genesis knows about Sega's old mascot Sonic the Hedgehog. An incredibly fast hedgehog, his games were all about finishing levels as fast as possible and with the highest score. In a way, RunMan: Race Around the World is the spiritual successor to that formula, but does away with all of the trappings the blue hedgehog has become associated with and focuses on the sheer fun, which is something that Sonic lost sight of a long time ago. It's a stellar donationware title that was four years in the making, and those with a love for classic platforming should not miss it.
RunMan was developed by Matt Thorson, who made a stellar game called MoneySieze, and Tom Sennett, who is known for his addicting gameplay and simplistic, almost child-like graphics. The combination of the two resulted in RunMan, which incorporates the more challenge-heavy elements of Thornson's work alongside Sennett's sense of simplicity and fun. It's easily one of the best, if not THE best, indie games this year, and the pedigree definitely shows in the work.
RunMan takes place in a world filled with anthropomorpic versions of just about everything. Bushes makes little kitty faces, fire blocks are angry as all hell, and even submarines have eyes and a mouth. It's a glimpse into what a kindergardener's sketchbook might look like, and it's fantasic. The colors are bright and cheerful, the geometry is very well done, and it runs well even at a blistering speed. The sound is stellar too, and uses all sorts of public domain music and effects. We're betting you have never played a platformer to 1920s folk music, but I'm sure you'll find that it fits RunMan almost too well.
RunMan, as one would expect, is based around running. Specifically, you must reach the end of each course as fast as possible while scoring points from popped balloons, defeated enemies, and score multipliers. You can finish each level and move on to the next, but there's also a medals system in place for those that want to really get serious about playing. There are three medals you can get per stage, and they are based on a mixture of score and time. While you do not require them to beat the game, earning medals does unlock new characters to play as, each of which has differing attributes. All of this comes together to make RunMan feel less like a platformer and more like a puzzle game. You really have to find the best path through each area in order to get decent scores and medals, and you absolutely must have the reflexes necessary to pull it off.
RunMan's focus on speed comes from the titular character's ability to dash indefinitely. Dashing makes you invulnerable to most enemies, breaks grey blocks, increases your momentum meter (which gives you a multiplier to your score every time you cross a checkpoint), and enables you to bounce off of wallas like a pinball. You can also dive into the ground if you must, and there is always a hang-glider for those mid-air sections. It's hard to imagine another game that gives you this sort of flexibility and power in your character's movement.
In-between levels is a linear world select, much like Super Mario World. The games is broken into 6 sections, each of which has a boss fight to complete before you can continue to the next. Unlike the rest of the stages, which can be completed at your pace and they still continue the game, the boss fights are exercises in difficulty and reflexes. If you mess up once and the boss hits you, you die and must restrat the level all over again. This makes the boss fights sort of step-by-step progressions through the level, restarting each time you fail. Even though the difficulty ramps up considerably for the bosses, it still doesn't feel out of place. Rather, it's more of a challenge in the classic way.
For replayability, RunMan incorporates the aforementioned medals as well as separate tracking for score and time. If you want to show off or even test yourself against your own times, you can save a ghost to your computer that can be used with any copy of RunMan anywhere. Some of the best runs for each level are available online, and it's a great way to improve your skill at the game while engaging in a little indirect competition.
There are a few problems with RunMan, but they are mostly negligible. The control scheme is sometimes too responsive or unintuitive, leading to some mistakes such as dash in the wrong direction. On computers with an average memory card, the game might slow down but the timer still ticks at the same rate. There's also a lack of leaderboards for best time, score, and best combined, which would have been a great addition to an already amazing game. Regardless, these faults are so minor that one can't judge the game for having them.
This is probably the only time in a Freeware Friday that you will ever hear this, but here it is: you need to buy RunMan: Race Around the World. Sure, it's free, but Matt and Tim accept donations, and this is an amazing game that deserves every penny that you might throw at it. Donating means more games like this, and with an emphasis of fast platforming and a quirky atmosphere, it's definitely the type of game we need to see more often. You can download the game from the official site, and the donation link is at the bottom of the page. You can check out more of Tom Sennet's and Matt Thorson's games at their respective sites.
For another look at freeware games, take a peek at Joystiq's Free Game Club weekly feature!