I often stop and wonder what the video game industry would look like if it hadn’t evolved past animal mascots. What if Naughty Dog had continued to pump out games like Crash Bandicoot instead of moving on to the cinematic world of Uncharted? What if Blinx the Timesweeper became Microsoft’s flagship hero instead of Master Chief? It’s a fun little thought experiment that leaves me picturing how franchises like Spyro the Dragon would have evolved to fit the industry’s ever-changing trends.
I get to see a little bit of that alternate history play out in Shoulders of Giants. The sophomore release from developer Moving Pictures Interactive immediately reads as a throwback to the golden age of mascots. It’s an action game that lets players control both a sword-wielding robot and a gun-toting frog that rides on its shoulders. Your brain might immediately go to Banjo-Kazooie or Ratchet and Clank when reading that premise, which very much feels like the intent. Its design philosophy is in conversation with iconic games like that, looking at them through modern gaming sensibilities.
Shoulders of Giants isn’t a standard 3D platformer, but rather a roguelite — emphasis on lite. The dynamic duo is tasked with cutting down aliens by jumping between planets, completing a few objectives on each, and facing off with an end boss. Successfully completing a planet (which act as bite-sized rogue runs) generates heat, creating the game’s overarching progression goal. Failing a planet will cause a loss of heat, giving the game a risk-reward flow as players choose which planet — all of which vary in difficulty — they want to tackle next. In-between runs, players bounce back to a hub where they can trade experience for permanent skills, craft weapons, and customize their loadout.
The basic flow can be repetitive, as most missions just have players tracking down a few alien structures in a small open-area and destroying them to bring a bit of life back to the land. However, its ultimate charm comes from its retro influences, as it sports a creative approach to two-character combat. When pressing the basic attack button, the camera centers on the robot in third-person as it slashes aliens. Press L2 on a controller, however, and the camera zooms over the frog’s shoulder as it fires its gun with R2. It’s a clever visual trick that’s executed as smoothly as it needs to be. So much of my satisfaction here comes from that juggling act, as I manage the enemies both close and at range with well-timed perspective swaps.
That melding of ideas makes me feel like I’m playing a classic PlayStation game that’s been influenced by modern trends. It’s what I’d imagine it would look like if Sony took Jak and Daxter and translated their skillset to fit the roguelike wave. That approach isn’t new for Moving Pictures. Its debut game, Apple Arcade launch title Dodo Peak, played like a modern reimagining of Q*bert where players controlled a dodo collecting its eggs scattered around small, boxy levels. Its best mode would take its cube-hopping gameplay and recontextualize it by turning it into an endless runner. That fusion of old and new carries over to Shoulders of Giants, which brings delightful mascot gimmickry to the roguelite genre.
The one area where that dynamic feels most successful is its special abilities. Like most roguelikes, players can get upgrades during runs to create a “build.” In particular, abilities are scattered throughout levels, which are mapped to a controller’s face buttons and have short cooldowns. Most of these are playfully goofy, calling back to the creative gun designs of Ratchet and Clank. From a decoy frog that dances to distract enemies to a pack of garbage trucks that can plow through enemies, each power is a silly surprise that created some surprising combat depth once I began to mix and match them.
The two-character control scheme allows players to get the most out of that idea too, as both the robot and frog can hold three abilities each (the latter’s are activated by pressing face buttons while holding L2). Those rogue sensibilities and mascot-era creativity come together to form a fun combat system for players who enjoy a little experimentation with their action.
Like a lot of the older games present in its DNA, Shoulders of Giants isn’t without some rough edges. Its UI feels like a first draft, there are some odd camera hitches here and there, and its selection of abilities feels a little thin at present. Though its not the deepest or most polished roguelite, its eccentric charm goes a long way here, making it feel like a long-forgotten PS1 franchise returning from a long hiatus (perhaps there’s some familial frog relationship to Jumping Flash! here). If you want to return to simpler times before the days of tortured protagonists or blockbuster ambition, Shoulders of Giants is a blast from the past that doesn’t sacrifice the present.