Trash Panic: Causing Much Mayhem, Dropping Drama!!

August 21st, 2009

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I tighten some of my main ideas in a follow-up here.

I detest Twitter as an alternative to blogging. Well at least my preferred shade of blogging. 140 characters can in no way replace a strong editorial, critique or exposé, yet it works wonders for live-blogging and random link sharing. Previously, web enthusiasts discovered media through social bookmarking (digg is perhaps the prime example here) but now such articles are emitted socially as part of this wider collection of utterances, cobbled together in profiles and placed under this service called Twitter.

Despite my objections to the service in some regards, Twitter gets to the point and hence allowed me to easily share my summative conclusions about the PSN title Trash Panic before I’d even come to write this article. Here’s what I tweeted:

The problem with Trash Panic’s single player is that it demands precision in an inherently precision-lacking game
10:13 PM Aug 16th from web

Still, it’s ultra compulsive just to play for kicks.
10:13 PM Aug 16th from web

Here’s the elaboration:

Trash Panic is a neat little Playstation Network title which you can acquire for under $9. It’s one of those PSN titles which is truly a unique gem. Unlike the other titles which people lump into this esteemed category of PSN rarities (ie. Pixeljunk Eden and Flower) Trash Panic hasn’t been blessed with the same enthusiast-driven attention. Still Trash Panic retains a lustrous individuality and charm. That is, it’s a truer fit of the term than the other titles often exhibited.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of Trash Panic is the way it wraps a very real issue into the fabric of the gameplay. In a nutshell, Trash Panic is an eco-friendly waste management puzzler, sharing much commonality with Tetris. As the video below (captured using the in-game tools) depicts, a conveyor belt delivers a stream of junk which must be placed in the blue rubbish bin. Your goal is to squeeze as much junk into the trash can until the conveyor belt runs X distance. Overflow of three unbroken items concludes the game and you’ll have to start the round over, reaching the end of the line sends you through to the next level. Space can be opened up in several ways which leads into the central theme of environmental management.

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Destroying objects in an environmentally-friendly manner such as breaking them against one another or using a decomposition ball with water to degrade items will yield a higher eco rating. Preserving items for the Mottainai characters (those bizarre black creatures wandering around the set) also adds to the eco rating. I guess they’re an endangered species or something. On the other hand though, fire, mixed with explosives or a little oil, is easily the most effective method of rubbish removal, burning off piles of waste with relative ease. Of course, such disregard to the environment will only increase your ego points. Pass or fail a stage, the level concludes by tallying the two scores against each other to create a final alphabetic rank, with the skew obviously favouring environmentally-friendly action.

Depending on the skill level chosen, a boss item may appear near the end of each stage, demanding the player break the item within a 10 second time limit. These often appear at the worst of times with only a couple of useful resources on the conveyor belt available making the process extremely superficial. Furthermore, beyond providing you with a lack of heavy objects, the game always seems to throw the worst items at you in these predicaments. Items such as bouncy balls which easily fly out of the can are frustrating to deal with when you’re simply trying to beat the boss and hence the stage. The boss feature is a real kerfuffle.

Getting to the point of my Twitter comments, Trash Panic by design is intrinsically variable. That is each object does not represent a fixed number of units (as in say Tetris) and properties of weight, physics, flammability and infectionability are themselves often sporadic in nature. This makes Trash Panic unpredictable and a real riot to play. The levels are more or less constant with the same items falling in the predictably same order, yet how the events unfold per round is always unique. As I discussed in the Wolfenstein post, games often require an inconstant variable (or two) to act as diversifiers to the predictability of the core design. Trash Panic is full of them which acts as both a quality and detriment.

As said in the tweet, the problem that arises is that as progression mounts, Trash Panic demands a level of precision which is difficult to grasp. The game effectively gives you woolen gloves and then asks you to shift a pile of slippery stones. (Sorry, that’s the best analogy I could come up with.) Beyond the first 2 stages, balancing the amount of water/oil in your can with the distribution of matches and decomposition balls is crucial for winning. If a decomposition ball is left for too long or absorbs oil then it disappears, squashing the opportunity to remove that critical build up of waste. (It should be noted that oil rises to the surface of any water in the can, hence you don’t want to break any oil drums open before receiving a decomposition ball etc.) But then again fire must also been managed as well. Closing the lid of the bin traps in heat, increasing the temperature, yet lowering the amount of oxygen required to fuel the fire (the indicators are to the left of the screen). Juggling these variables can at times be a little daunting to manage. With both cases, it’s very easy to accidentally make a wrong move and hence miss out on the opportunity to remove waste, increasing your burgeoning stockpile of rubbish. Further, the success of either method is mostly out of the player’s hands, once the fire or decomposition begin their work it’s more or less a random luck as ot how much waste is removed, going back to the woolen gloves analogy.

Since the distribution of objects (from my understanding) appears to be the similar – if not the same – each round, this creates a linear set of expectations as to when you use which device to clear waste. For example, a level may begin with toilets and jugs full of water, promptly followed by a decomposition ball; implying that you build up water and then use the ball to clear the wastage. Fair enough. From level 4 onwards, the set of expectations begins to overlap as oil drums and matches are interjected between water and absorb balls. This forces the player to untangle the distribution (relying heavily on the reserved item system, ala Tetris DS) and piece it together again as best they see fit. As I said at the start of the year regarding Zuma; the difficulty of certain games can rise enough to plateau a new series of mechanics and play styles. Those mechanics and the resulting play styles are the essence of the game. In Trash Panic, it’s that aforementioned construction of events which certifies this as a puzzle game, more so than the surface level likeness to Tetris.

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This pressure placed on the player primarily makes itself distinct on the normal “Main Dish” difficulty. Although addicted to the point of thumb blisters, level four of Main Dish is about as much as I could muster – and I tried pretty damn hard! You see, the criticisms mentioned wouldn’t be a problem if the game didn’t set the difficulty benchmark so high, preemptively forcing players to utilize such hard-ball playing tactics. This makes playing Trash Panic in a casual, non-completist manner the most enjoyable approach. The difficulty bar is frankly raised too high, too early, so jamming around on the easier settings, or even just continuously retrying stages is itself rather fun. Trying to force actual progress isn’t. It’s this major point of contention that I feel has relegated Trash Panic to the second tier of PSN elites, as the steep difficulty seems to be a deterrence for many.

This implication digs into the heart of Trash Panic. The premise of the game is about rubbish disposal and the package as a whole embodies the respective connotations. Trash Panic is in love with the mismatch and the gaudy. The music is a vigorous clash of dance and classical interluded with irresistible lines of dialogue and an overall taste for the Japanese. (Trash Panic was made by Japanese indie developers by the way). The graphics are quirky and bizarre, epitomized by the zany Mottainai creatures. The mechanics are sweet and sour with a bitter after taste. Progression begins lightly, giving you enough head space to be amused by the charm. It then uncomfortably ascends, turning previously optional strategies and mechanics into the basic requirements of play. Then it all becomes too much and a feeling of betrayal strike once you realize how demanding yet slippery the game is.

It’s a fruity concoction, and there’s a genuine creative spark streaming throughout the game which should justify the >$10 purchase. It’s all the minor sparkles, such as the clever objects, the quirky humour, the ability to shake the can with the six-axis or the way the bin (and trash) increase in size between levels — while the screen proportion remains the same — with the final level having you smashing bridges and islands against each other. On top of this the YouTube support is neat and there are some nice syncs to online scoreboards too. Games such as Trash Panic represent the area of games I’d like to further explore: games that simply detach themselves from conventions.

Additional Readings

Sound Current: ‘Mega-Alpha’s Indispensable Soundtrack to Trash Panic’