It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes a game a cult classic, but usually there’s some combination of an original concept and low availability. That was the case with the 2003 PS2 release Magic Pengel, and the cult that sprang up around that game was ecstatic to hear that a pseudo-sequel, Graffiti Kingdom, was in the works. Fans of Pengel will be delighted, but the rest of us might be left scratching our heads and wondering just what this is all about.
Graffiti Kingdom’s hook is the same unique feature that made Pengel so endearing to fans: you can actually draw creatures, which come to life in fully realized 3D. By controlling Prince Pixel the player can transform into these creations, called doodles, to fight other doodles and bosses. It’s an ingenious and effective game mechanic, but it’s not something that will appeal to everyone. Obsessive art students will appreciate this; Limp Bizkit fans won’t.
You probably want to know why Prince Pixel is fighting with doodles, even though the story is weak and wholly unnecessary. While exploring the kingdom one day, Pixel accidentally discovers a magical paintbrush wand that can bring drawings to life. He plays with it and, again accidentally, releases an evil demon who has been trapped for years. Upon release, the demon constructs an evil castle since that’s what demons do, trapping all of the humans in Pixel’s kingdom, making them slaves to the demon’s doodle army. Of course, Pixel is the only one who escapes, because otherwise there wouldn’t be a game.
The rest of Graffiti Kingdom involves running from room to room, dispatching doodles and solving simple puzzles. The phrase “RPG elements” is erroneously overused, as in “The ability to grow bigger and shoot fireballs adds some RPG elements to Super Mario Bros.,” but Graffiti Kingdom does feel like an action platformer with a few RPG touches. Picking up coins dropped by defeated doodles increases Pixel’s experience level, in turn adding options and abilities for drawing your own more complex design.
It’s entirely possible to spend just as much time drawing new doodles as playing through the game. This is partially because it’s a really inventive concept and partially because it can be incredibly frustrating and time consuming. Just think how well drawing pictures in a computer paint program turns out, then complicate it by adding a 3D layout, connecting points, object roles, colors, and more — and all with the Dualshock controller instead of a mouse. While it’s amazingly engrossing to design doodles from scratch and watch them in action, the process is very involved, with copious amounts of trial and error (mostly error) before things turn out right.
Thankfully, it’s not absolutely necessary to create your own doodles. It’s also possible to transform into enemy doodles, and in fact the entire game could be finished using only those pre-made creatures. It would be missing the point, but it can be done. Enemy doodles can also be edited, so if those like Ashlee Simpson who can’t come up with any good ideas on their own want to play, they can experiment with the already existing figures.
Graffiti Kingdom is hard to pin down visually. Most objects are fairly simple with low polygon counts in small and sparse environments, but everything is covered with an easy-to-miss canvas texture. The result, if you look closely, is a feeling of actually being in a painted world, and it’s commendable. This isn’t going to impress most players though, who will instead notice the simplicity and problems like slowdown when lots of doodles are on screen at once. The audio isn’t much better; while the dialogue is fully voiced, the scripting is terrible. At times it feels like watching a really bad anime with poor dubbing, which probably isn’t an unfair comparison. The music is mostly forgettable except for the background during drawing, which you won’t be able to forget without a lobotomy.
There are plenty of bonuses and secrets, adding to the replay value of this otherwise short game. Pixel collects the doodles in each area, a concept which Pokemon must be earning royalties on, and there are also secret doodles found in hard to reach places. Often this means coming back with a doodle having a specific talent, such as flight or the ability to freeze water, which may only be available later in the game. Areas that were inaccessible early in the game can be similarly reached with later abilities gained through leveling, so the game opens up as it progresses. These extras are a boon to those who find the core gameplay interesting, but won’t mean much to anyone else.
Graffiti Kingdom has its share of flaws. Challenge is practically nonexistent, and while there’s a lot to do by sketching and using different doodles, most of the game can be completed with one decent creation. This doesn’t prepare players for the one or two bosses they’ll find extremely difficult, after which it reverts back into a cakewalk. The entire game seems to suffer from an identity crisis, with a simplistic action game that’s easy and appropriate for children wrapped around a customization aspect that requires a Bachelor’s degree to get decent results from. The drawing mode is honestly so difficult that it’s easier and often better to make simple, blocky doodles that are actually functional rather than designing elegant models that work as well as a Ferrari in a blizzard. When it’s nearly impossible to draw a circle, why bother?
The assumption must be that fans will overlook these problems and love Graffiti Kingdom because it allows an unprecedented level of personal freedom. They probably will, and it’s one good reason to check out this game, another being the fact that it’s only $30. The RPG/platform adventure almost feels like a hastily put together sample to get players used to creating doodles, which is really the main focus. Those who enjoy this will find hours of play experimenting with new and unique designs in versus and boss battle modes, but the casual gamer will likely find it too involved, too narrow, and just too weird to give it a shot. And maybe that’s what really makes a cult classic.