Cool Girl Games: Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams

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Introduced to the gaming world in 1987, the Giana Sisters are among the oldest female characters in video game history–while also being among the most obscure. They made their debut on the Commodore 64 in the side-scrolling platformer The Great Giana Sisters, created by German developers Time Warp Productions. If you’re looking at the footage on-screen, then I don’t need to tell you that this game became infamous for blatantly ripping off the mechanics and visuals of Super Mario Bros., and was even hit with a cease and desist from Nintendo over the similarity. Because of this, the sequel which Time Warp were in the process of developing was retooled into a sci-fi game called Hard’n’Heavy, and The Great Giana Sisters became one of the rarest and most sought-after games on the Commodore 64.

In spite of its infamous reputation as a copycat, The Great Giana Sisters has become a cult classic over time, and is considered by many to be one of the best games on the Commodore 64. In particular, it was famous for its soundtrack composed by Chris Hulsbeck, which is widely regarded as the best that the C64 had to offer.

Considering its tumultuous legal reputation, it’s hardly surprising that the Giana Sisters IP went dormant after the release of the original game and stayed that way for twenty-two years. However, in the climate of constant nostalgia remakes which has proliferated culture over the past decade, it’s also not surprising that the Giana Sisters IP was eventually revitalized in 2009.

Like many of Mario’s former imitators and rivals, the Giana Sisters eventually made their way onto Nintendo consoles with the release of Giana Sisters DS from Spellbound Entertainment–a studio created by Armin Gessert, the programmer of the original Giana Sisters game.

Whereas the plot of the original Giana Sisters was about a girl named Giana fighting through the world of her dreams to save her sister, who would later wake her up at the end of the game; the dream-exploring Giana of this game takes to her adventure alone. Like the original Giana, she can transform into a punk-rock version of herself by picking up power-ups, but it’s not clear how the “sisters” aspect is relevant to this game.

Similar to the original, Giana Sisters DS is a somewhat slow, patient, and simplistic 2D platformer with slightly clunky controls. Its artwork looks fantastic and no longer blatantly cribs from Mario Bros., but the game overall isn’t very exciting, and would probably have meant the end of the IP all over again by way of low critical and commercial attention. Armin Gessert died of a heart attack only five months after the game’s release, and Spellbound Entertainment went out of business in 2012. However, that same year, its members would reform under the new company Black Forest Games, and would try their hands at a Giana Sisters remake once more.

Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams was funded via Kickstarter due to the company’s inability to find a publisher willing to fund the project without cutting a lot of what they wanted to do with it. After its successful campaign, the game was released on Steam late in 2012, then made its way onto the PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii U online markets in 2013, and even onto the PS4 and Xbox One markets in 2014.

Of course, as interesting as the Giana Sisters franchise history might be, it wouldn’t be worth talking about if not for the fact that Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is one of my outright favorite 2D platformers.

Like many of the old-school, nostalgia-inspired 2D platformers which have made indie development popular over the past half-decade, such as Super Meat Boy, Shovel Knight, and Wings of Vi, Twisted Dreams is all about challenging levels, tight controls, and fast gameplay. Players are constantly challenged with new twists on the core mechanics, while the frequent checkpoints and infinite lives facilitate rapidly respawning and facing challenges again and again until you’re good enough to master them.

Unlike most of its contemporaries, however, Twisted Dreams eschews 2D pixel art in favor of full 3D environments and models. This style was chosen in order to facilitate the game’s most noteworthy mechanic, which is the constant switching between two entirely different atmospheres.

In this game, the Giana Sisters have been split up and placed into two different versions of the same world. Cute Giana has been sent to a dark and scary world, while punk Giana inhabits a bright and inviting version of the same location. The player can switch between these two at any time, and doing so changes not only all of the backgrounds and models, but also the soundtrack of the level.

For Twisted Dreams, Black Forest Games rehired Chris Hulsbeck, the famous composer of the original game, and had him write a new soundtrack which riffs on the style of the original; and which plays in the background of Cute Giana’s levels. They then hired the Swedish chiptune metal band Machinae Supremacy to cover all of Hulsbeck’s songs, which is how Punk Giana’s soundtrack came to be. Switching between worlds seamlessly changes the soundtrack to fit the character; an effect which was more than a little mindblowing the first few times that I heard it.

More impressive than the fact that the game completely changes atmosphere constantly at the press of the button, is the fact that none of this is distracting from the core mechanics. The transitions between worlds are so seamless that I usually didn’t notice it happening at all when I was zoned in on trying to complete a certain task.

The mechanical purpose of these transitions is that each of the girls has a different power which only they can use. Cute Giana has a twirling move, which allows her to glide slowly through the air, whereas Punk Giana has a charging fireball move, which can also function like Sonic the Hedgehog’s homing attack. Both of these powers feel very satisfying to use, and alternating between them in unique and interesting ways is the core of what makes this game fun.

Twisted Dreams manages to consistently introduce new mechanics, as well as new and inventive uses for the mechanics that it already has, across every single level of the game; and does a brilliant job of pacing its levels by putting smaller, more easily completed challenges in-between its tougher ones, so that the player never feels like they’re just being railed by hardcore challenges one after another.

Where the levels in Twisted Dreams really open up, however, is in the gem collecting. Every level in Twisted Dreams contains several hundred gems, which require the player to make more precise jumps and movements than what they might normally try to do. A lot of the game’s challenges become multidimensional through the collection of gems, and gems are even used at times to clue the player into the most effective method for overcoming a challenge.

While it’s possible to breeze through each of the game’s levels in less than five minutes apiece (notwithstanding however many times you might end up dying), every level contains a wealth of secret challenges, which require the player to explore them in-depth in order to find. Not only are these secret challenges some of the most interesting and difficult parts of the game, but I’d go so far as to say that there may be more secret content in each level then there is regular content. If you really want to get the most out of every level in this game, you’ll explore them as thoroughly as possible until you’ve found every last gem. Many of these secret areas also contain giant gems, which unlock new pieces of concept art in the game’s gallery, incentivising exploration even further. All of this, combined with the tight, fun to play controls, gives the game an incredible amount of replay value.

It would be wrong of me to suggest that Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is a perfect game. As cool as the aesthetic is with the whole switching-worlds mechanic, the character models are pretty janky looking, and some of the backgrounds are so needlessly detailed that it can occasionally be hard to pick out gems and enemies against it. There also is not a lot of variety in the backgrounds and soundtracks, mostly juggling between forests, caves, and castles, and the music that comes with them. Judging the distance on Punk Giana’s fireball can be pretty difficult, especially when trying to land on small platforms, and I sometimes felt like my deaths were not entirely my fault. However, after watching videos of other players on higher difficulty modes, I’m willing to take the majority of the blame.

The boss fights, meanwhile, are a much bigger issue. There are three mandatory boss fights in Twisted Dreams, and each of them is a huge pain in the ass. Besides being quite difficult, they all require the player to do a lot of waiting around in-between attacks before they reveal their weak point, which makes it incredibly frustrating to start the battle from the beginning over and over again. The final boss is particularly egregious about this, to the point that I ended up rage-quitting before I could beat him.

Nevertheless, what drove me all the way to the end of Twisted Dreams was the sheer satisfaction of its core mechanics, and the awesome level design that kept me coming back to some levels over and over again until I’d tracked down every last gem. A lot of the enemy and platform placement in this game is also clearly built to facilitate speedrunning, so that better players can make it through the levels with exponentially more speed, without punishing slower players for not knowing their way around the levels like other, more flow-based games tend to.

Completing the game will unlock Hardcore Mode, in which the player is only given one life per level; and completing that unlocks Uber-Hardcore Mode, in which the player must complete the entire game without dying once. I’ve watched a playthrough video of someone completing Uber-Hardcore mode in just over an hour, and it was every bit as harrowing, exciting, and astounding as you’d hope a platformer speedrun to be.

In addition to the main game, Black Forest have continued to update Twisted Dreams with more content over the past three years. They released special Halloween and Christmas levels for both 2012 and 2013, along with other bonus levels, and even an all-new multiplayer mode. In 2013, they released a five-dollar mini-game called Rise of the Owlverlord, with new game modes, music, and seven new levels, and have since launched into the development of a direct sequel, which they’ve been talking about on their devblog.

Reading through a lot of Black Forest Games’ public posts about Twisted Dreams, I was struck by the way that the developers refer to both of the Giana variants simply as, “Giana.” In spite of the opening cutscene which shows the two girls being separated into different worlds, it seems that Giana may actually be just one person with two distinct personalities.

It’s kind of fascinating to consider the idea that both of the Giana Sisters may be inhabiting the same body, which would make more sense with the game’s mechanics than the idea that they are actually separate. After all, we’re really controlling just one character through one adventure–it’s only the way that we perceive the character, and the way that the character perceives the world around them, that changes.

Moreover, unlike many characters who might be tormented by the dissonance between their personalities, the Giana Sisters seem to share a close bond, to the point of going out of their way to protect one-another. If both of these characters are inhabiting the same body, then what is the nature of their separation? Which of their worlds is real, and what are they really conquering in order to be reunited? Does Giana ordinarily experience the world through both of these outlooks simultaneously; and therefore, by being separated, can now only switch between them one at a time? Or is each existence completely unique within Giana’s mind, in such a way that even if her body contains both of them, the separation prevents them from being able to communicate?

Do Giana’s cute and punk sides represent two different entities inside of one body, or two halves of the same person? Does their separation represent an outside force’s attempt to destroy one of Giana’s personality traits, and does her journey to reclaim it represent a desire to uphold the duality of her nature? Who exactly is Giana? Who are the Giana Sisters?

It’s hard to say really. All I know is that they’ve become the stars of one damn fine 2D platformer. The entirety of Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams and the expansion are available for eighteen bucks on Steam, Good Old Games, and every halfway-modern console; and with the amount of enjoyment that I got out of my ten-plus hours playing just the original game on normal difficulty, I would recommend it highly to any fans of the genre.

Let me know what you thought of this game, or of the Giana Sisters franchise as a whole, in the comments below; and be sure to stick around on my channel for more Cool Girl Games in the future. If you’d like to support my content, then consider donating via patreon or paypal, or just by sharing this video around. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one.

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