Tricky Kick is not a new game. Tricky Kick is not a notable game. And yet Tricky Kick is the only game I’ve played in almost a week, spending a few hours on it every night after dinner, after watching a movie, after going to an Atlanta United game. Tricky Kick has become my regular companion, the nightcap I leisurely enjoy at the end of every day, and a reminder of why I’m doing this job in the first place.
Tricky Kick is an obscure Turbografx-16 puzzle game from 1990.
I fell back into Tricky Kick honestly. One night I got drunk and wanted to play Devil’s Crush. Nobody who’s ever played Devil’s Crush or tasted bourbon and Red Rock Ginger Ale would fault me for any part of that sentence. Despite my endless appetite for Satanic video pinball, I eventually felt the need to move on to something else. And since the Turbografx-16 was already plugged into my TV (a 4K deal, and let me tell you, you can see every K when you’re playing Turbografx on it), I grabbed a handful of games off one of the three stacks of Turbografx titles on my bookshelf. Between the shooters and platformers and whatever the hell J.J. and Jeff is sat a copy of Tricky Kick, a game that I hadn’t played in several years, and a game that I may now never escape.
If you haven’t played Tricky Kick before, which is probably true of 99.9% of the people who have ever read an article at Paste, it’s a fairly simple sliding block puzzler with a few structural elements that make it unique. Every single-screen puzzle is littered with blocks that resemble various animals and characters. When I kick one of those blocks it slides across the screen until it hits the wall or another block that’s in its way; if it hits another block of the same pattern, both disappear. The puzzle is solved when all the blocks are gone; a five-minute time limit presents a hard stopping point, and a reset button ends a game but immediately restarts at the beginning of the same puzzle. There are only two other mechanics eventually introduced into the puzzles: a four-sided spring block that sends any block that’s kicked into it ricocheting backwards, and arrows on the ground that force any block that touch them to slide in that direction. Other than that the rules established in the very first puzzle are pretty much all I had to worry about throughout the 60 puzzles in the game.
Those 60 puzzles aren’t a straight line. They’re split up in groups of 10 that each feature a different protagonist and a unique setting. The six characters have their own intro and final cutscenes which bookend their 10 puzzles with the barest framework of a story. In one an elf is trying to rescue a fairy, in another an Ultraman-style hero is fighting off massive monsters invading the city. They’re clichés and stereotypes with barebones storylines that are mostly just a pretext for whatever kind of background art was chosen for each track of puzzles. When I’m stumped on a puzzle for one character, I’ll jump to the next one on the list, solving their puzzles until I’m stumped again and then moving on to the next.
Yes, I just spent 318 words describing an unknown 1990 Turbografx puzzle game. Yes, it’s still 2019.
Tricky Kick is a very hard game. The difficulty doesn’t spike, or at least only spikes once: if the first puzzle is the lobby of a building, the second level is the penthouse, and it pretty much stays at that level throughout. And the earlier levels of the other characters aren’t necessarily any easier than the later ones. I’ve spent over an hour on a single screen, using the full five minutes again and again to map out where blocks need to go in order to crack the code and find the one right path to a solution. A single misstep can ruin an entire strategy, especially if I don’t realize it was a mistake and fail to hit the undo button in time. (It only undoes the most recent move, and only within a few seconds of doing it.)
That difficulty is what keeps me playing. Realizing the proper solution to one of these puzzles is far more satisfying than trying to earn coins in Mortal Kombat 11, or making it through a loading screen in Days Gone, or doing well in any other new game I’ve played in months. Tricky Kick is old and forgotten and reveals some of the newest games of today for the player-unfriendly busywork that they are.
You can dismiss this as another old guy pining for the ease and comfort of his youth. That’s totally understandable. But my reaction would be exactly the same if Tricky Kick was a brand new release and not what it is, an old game that I never actually played until I was already in my 30s. It’s an archaic piece of work that almost nobody owns the equipment to play today and that most modern players would reject on sight, with muddy graphics, poorly translated cutscenes and a single song that trills repetitively through every stage, but it’s still probably the best game I’ve played so far in 2019. It’s definitely the most entertaining game I’ve played, and the one that has spent the most time running through my head and refusing to be ignored.
It makes some sense that the games world would always be obsessed with the newest and most advanced. Technology is about progress, after all, and not about getting hung up on what might’ve been cutting edge 30 years ago. Although Tricky Kick wasn’t close to being cutting edge even when it was released, which is probably why I don’t remember reading much about it at the height of my middle school Turbografx fandom. That focus on what’s new, and the need people feel to be a part of whatever conversation is currently happening in games, no matter how much it costs to own the latest technology and software, might be healthy for the industry’s bottom line, but it’s not good for games as an art form. A game like Days Gone brings nothing new or interesting to the conversation, whereas Mortal Kombat 11’s biggest change to the ancient Kombat formula is saddling it with microtransactions and multiple unnecessary currencies. There’s nothing to say about either that’s inherently more interesting or worthwhile than talking about Tricky Kick, no matter what year it is.
I’m not done with Tricky Kick yet. I’ve finished all the puzzles for three characters, but still have 14 stages left. That’s 14 out of 60. Last night I completed two puzzles in about 90 minutes, going back and forth, over and over, kicking the alligator blocks and lion blocks in one direction and then another after hitting that reset button. That’s more than I’ve played of Days Gone in a week, and a longer session than any I’ve had in Mortal Kombat 11 in that same span. Not only do I not feel like I’ve missed out on anything, but I can’t stop thinking about these puzzles and how I’m going to wrap up the ones that are still waiting for me.
The newest games aren’t always the best. The so-called classics aren’t the whole sum of gaming history. Tricky Kick is the right game for right now, at least for me, and there’s probably a Tricky Kick out there for you, too.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.