You Have to Win the Game Review: I Suck at It

[notification type=”alert-warning” close=”true” ]Banner: Screenshot from the Spicy mode of “You Have to Win the Game” by Minor Key Games.[/notification]

Try not to get too jealous when I say I think I tied for 42nd place in a university Melee tournament with about 7 other people. Being a pro like me requires a lot of practice and patience, so the lay-player should be simply content to bring us more experienced folks a glass of water upon request and occasionally play video games. Fortunately, nobody is perfect; even though I may be a demi-god there are (a few) genres which always manage to get the best of me.

Game genres I suck at

  • Action Adventure Is it possible to be bad at these? They’re not competitive and the only real outcomes are either getting from point A to point B or giving up.
  • Otome When I’m not scoring the “you died alone because you were too generally nice to everybody” ending, it’s the one where you elope with the hidden lesbian love interest without fail.
  • Neopets Nope.
  • Fighters I thought I was pretty good at fighting games, but I had a boyfriend sophomore year who was one of those 50-move-combo sorts of people that makes one feel like a piece of cheese.
  • First-Person Shooters Same boyfriend. Rocket launcher. Soldier only. Final Destination. He probably inherited his skill from his mother, who plays competitively.
  • Virtual Worlds I may be able to succeed at these, but doesn’t that make me a loser in the end, really?
  • Racing Not good enough to win an extra free round at the arcade… :(
  • Life SIM Rest in peace, virtual families.
  • Facebook Yikes.
  • Tower Defense Yikes yikes.

Game genres I am grate at:

  • Hack n’ Slash Alright, kind of my genre, because it caters to the interest of hitting things until they die.
  • Puzzle Pointing and clicking are my major and minor, respectively.
  • Fuck.

Of course exempt from this list is the platformer, the black sheep of the indie game family provided you are looking at things from my perspective (this is called a beta press, you see). If you’ve ever seen me attempt a platformer, it is a grueling and arduous process accompanied by a series of choice expletives, desperate wailing and gnashing of the teeth, all five stages of grief, and a sudden onslaught of artificial British accents. You know the ones. Game accents. Those you acquire when you are so done with playing a game that you invite your dissociative multi-cultural personality to take over for you, the results being nothing short of sad and desperate insanity. I am so bad at platformers I sill don’t know how to spell Doctor While Wile Wawee Free Willy Wily.

Unfortunately in the kookity universe of indie freeware, platformers are the bread and butter. Just kidding, indie devs can’t afford bread and butter, so instead we’ll call them the unpaid rent and utility bills. I have been tricked into playing a great number of these and goaded into finishing most of them, on the thinning hope that there will be some incredible artistic breakthrough towards the end that will forever alter my perspective as a gamer. Very many of these fail to deliver on that account.


Genre: Platformer Engine: Custom (C++) Developer: Minor Key Games

One such culprit is the free Steam title, “You Have to Win the Game,” a DECEPTIVELY CUTE AND QUIRKY piece by developer J. Kyle Pittman about a boy trying to find a “magic word” and escape the confines of pixel parkour. Here’s how my attempt went, accompanied by recommendations for platformers for non-platforming people. Spoilers ahead, though I really only recommend playing the game if you’ve read the spoilers.

YHtWtG was not the most frustrating game I’ve encountered. It took about 4 hours, but I completed the normal campaign 100%, losing only an excess of 1000 lives in the process! That being said, it has its fair share of bullshit. Before you acquire the useful upgrades for navigation, much of the playtime is spent accidentally running into checkpoint bells or falling down one-way cliffs and having to repeat the same difficult puzzles again on account of taking a wrong turn. Coupled with the developer’s efforts to make this game an exploration platformer in the vein of “Knytt” and “K.O.L.M.,” you have a recipe for lots of undesirable backtracking through the first four areas.


In addition to the regular play mode, there is an extra difficulty setting which seems to serve largely to pepper the original universe with extra spikes called Spicy Mode (more like SPIKEY MODE, am I right!?); and for each of these, two optional restrictions of either completing the game using 9 lives or only 1 — each of which, upon successful completion, awards a Steam achievement! Wow, a Steam achievement.

That is a cruel and unusual thing to offer completionists. As if gathering 100% of the money pouches scattered across the landscape wasn’t enough, you now have to navigate the puzzles flawlessly. As a point of reference, every obstacle is a 1-hit KO. There are prawns and wizards that fire bullets at you. There are walls of spikes, wall-jumping around walls of spikes, floors of spikes, checkpoints that spawn you in the open air above said floors of spikes, and do you like timing puzzles, because boy are there lots of those too.


“But that’s the point of achievements!” cries the jury. “They’re meant to be a rewarding challenge!” I would again like to refer to my own numbers above. You can estimate your experience using mine as an absolute maximum, but a maximum that is entirely possible. (I’ve seen a few other first runthrough times ranging around 180 minutes, but at its essence it can be completed in under 10. That’s another achievement, by the way.) As of this time of writing, while 93.2% achieved at least one death, just under a fifth of Steam players with the game have actually gotten all four powerups, and only a measly 4.6% have beaten the game (no collectibles) with any number of lives. Managing this with just one requires a level of rigorous practice worthy of titles like IWBTG, but in a casual freeware love letter to the DOS era? It seems a little sadistic.

I still fail to wrap my mind around the game’s final puzzle. And I like puzzles! I understand there have been two major editions of the game, so I can’t speak for the original ARC solution — but the current secret word, “SUPER” was not at all hinted to me by the series of glyphs scrawled across rooms seemingly at random.


I was presented with the task of determining a magic word (typing “please” and “abra kadabra” did not seem to satisfy this riddle) and a skeuomorphic “magic symbol,” which originally was meant to represent a tilde used to access the dev console, but in the new version seems to depict a 3, a W, an E, or an M. There are several red herrings, like an infinity symbol and something that looks again like a rotated M but pointy this time — all again seemingly arbitrary — until finally encountering the desired 3 in a room titled “Clarity Comes In Waves.” Whose clarity? The protagonist’s? I can assure you it’s not mine, because I still have no idea why the number 3 is competing with a sideways M and an infinity symbol.

And while the 3 is almost impossible not to find during a basic playthrough, you are highly likely to miss the secret-but-not-the-right-secret secret word, which requires — you guessed it — absurd amounts of backtracking. I missed it, and I was one of the 2.1% that actually bothered to comb over all the maps a second/third/fourth/eighth time, in a desperate and futile search for missed money bags.

don't die lel

Don’t die lel

It turns out the hint word is VXSHU! Of course! VXSHU! It’s written in blood and next to a skeleton! VXSHU must be the deity behind all these lousy brainteasers! I’ve been thrown so much cryptic nonsense at this point that I’m willing to accept anything. Oh, and did I mention these clues aren’t in linear order, like, say, placed to be seen only as you progress through getting the power-ups? If all the stars are right, you might not even know it’s a secret word you’re looking for, because the room displaying that prompt is not necessary to finish the basic plot, containing only a bag that’s inaccessible without the late-game upgrades.


Here are the clues so far:

  • -3. But rotate it, I guess?
  • VXSHU, Patron Deity of Shitty Puzzles.
  • Something about cats.
  • Seriously, what’s with the cat motif? It doesn’t end up being relevant to the answer.
  • Skeletons.
  • Totally not infinity.
  • A kinda crunchy-lookin’ letter M my brother says is shaped like a penis.

Did you guess SUPER? I did too. God, these Steam achievements practically hand themselves out nowadays. Step it up, guys.

More bullshit: It is necessary to lose the game in order to win the game, and you have to win the game! If you want to find all the collectible pouches, you’ve gotta enter a one-way door to the “Lose” orb that throws you back to start and takes all your upgrades away. Do I look like I’m kidding? Does this look like the face of a man who is kidding you? o_O The door is labeled LOSE, so it’s one thing to simply waltz in there only to be met with a well-deserved gameover, but it’s another when you have to enter that door to complete the collection objective of the game. While you do, of course, maintain your completion percentage between rounds, it’s necessary to go through the exact same series of puzzles, bosses, and baddies twice in a row to get a single bag. Bring, bring, the 90’s called; they want their artificial lengthening back.


What YHtWtG achieves in its charming presentation and — again — “Knytt”-like environments is slowly sabotaged by that ever-insidious ham-fisted attempted at a “Loved” kind of storyline, which seeks to unify any number of irrelevant stimuli under the watchful gaze of some unknown malificent deity (who is not VXSHU). This one comes in the flavor of blood-colored text in a font that vaguely resembles Disney, so perhaps it’s a comment on the smothering influence of big corporations and so on, but more than anything this feels like a very bland entry into the “retro dystopia” fad. You are a boy in a green hat and there are trees and caves and giant mushrooms and angry crabs. I got a more satisfying ending out of my seven minutes spent playing “Metrojd.”

A developer blurb in the credits menu reveals Win the Game was more or less an attempt to recreate that simpler era of gaming, but in practice it seems more a strange and narrow channel through which to invoke some solemn 8bit introspection (“What if WE’RE the monsters?!”). But in the words of a wise man that is not just me parodying Sigmund Freud, sometimes a platformer is just a platformer.


But enough negative talk! Let’s move onto the bright sides! Granted the leniency of 1000+ lives, the game’s puzzles are engaging and manageable and a few other words with g’s in them. Exploration platformers are refreshing in their own right simply by not enforcing an increasingly difficult series of levels you quietly wish would end. Instead, you wish they would end loudly! The aesthetic is surprisingly the biggest selling point as it indeed takes the vintage look a step further by displaying the game on a customizable virtual monitor and, given the aforementioned author’s foreward, this seems to be a choice of sentimental value rather than a cosmetic one.

The bosses (and those goddamn prawns) were based on dodging patterns of bullets, which is always more fun than a series of buzz saws, lava pits, and spiky dudes. Movement is fairly satisfactory once all the abilities are unlocked, and by that I mean you will have an easier time wall-jumping here than in Transformice (it’s only 2 keys instead of 3!), unless you choose to embark on Spicy mode, in which case, fuck wall-jumping.

In this vein, “You Have to Win the Game” achieves a balance between being too squishy and apologizing to the neighbors for the computer that just flew through their window; you can give yourself a well-deserved booyah once you have thwarted the efforts of your foes (which may include buzz saws, lava pits, and spiky dudes, perhaps all at once), because you are not too exhausted to simply lay down and cry having finally finished the game.

So would I recommend it? If you’re a seasoned platform gamer for some reason still reading this about 2000 words in, a lot of the more difficult puzzles are seriously below the belt, so I’d opt instead for a title I’d be able to offer but for the fact I do not actively seek out platformers. For less experienced/tolerant players, it’s not a bad investment of time (I’m actually going back to try the Spicy mode, please shoot me), though be warned you may join the ranks of angry Steam reviewers claiming the game is too hard to continue.

Before you go, here are a few tricks of the trade I’ve picked up on my journey of hating platformers:

  1. Any blase descriptors of the gameplay including but not limited to slightly challenging, difficult, a bit hard, or this one’s a toughie! indicate you should close out of the page immediately and run away very fast.
  2. Go for platformers that double in another genre, like horror or insane.
  3. Alternatively don’t play or finish any platformers for optimal results.

And in case you’re skimming for links and missed it:

Never, ever, under any circumstances play a game that starts with a P and rhymes with “clause ahead” or a W and rhymes with “sithin a deep forest.” That is all.



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