Right round like a helerin, baby

Eighting’s singularly spinny series started life as the eye-catchingly unusual launch GBA game Kuru Kuru Kururin (Japan/EU only), followed up the year after with another exclusive for Nintendo’s not-SNES handheld, Kururin Paradise (Japan only, this time). Kururin Squash! whirled into existence in 2004, the first console entry in the series and to date the final Kururin for anything at all, outside of a few cameo appearances in various Smash Bros..

Just like the portable games in the series, Squash!’s core concept revolves (hah! …sorry) around safely guiding the helerin – that’s the perpetually spinning baton-ship-thing piloted by the titular blue duck-person – through winding passages and past dangerous objects to reach the stage’s goal. The part you move is the static centre of the ship, the blades spinning around them a sort of ever present hazard. You can at any moment choose to speed up your helerin if you need to quickly twirl through a long passage or past a spiky ball, or make the blades spin faster (never slower) at the push of a button, helping you to match the rotation of a large obstacle or better align yourself for an incoming curve. Three mistakes are all that stand between your gyrating ambitions and a hair-pulling restart (or five mistakes, if you’ve bought a particular single-use consumable from the shop on the world map screen), with your life meter’s hearts replenished in full if you’re able to make it to one of the safe zones/”Oh thank goodness I can breathe again” rest stops found throughout each stage.

It sounds simple because it is, and like all good puzzle games this simplicity is Squash!’s strength. The only thing you ever need to do is reach the end of the stage – it’s the tight environments, whirly things, actual enemies, moving hazards, and plain old blasts of fire between there and here that make it complicated.

Even essential help comes with a bit of a sting in its tail. Take springs, for example: Touching one of these causes your helerin rotate in the opposite direction. Sometimes this contact is an essential navigational tool, sometimes it spells instant disaster – sometimes it can be a bit of both, depending on how you handle the slight bounce that occurs as you boing away. The same straightforward duality applies equally to the “gimmick” helerin the game thrusts upon you for select courses; such as the way the paddle-type machine allows you to duck under any dangers bobbing about on the water’s surface – only to potentially cause you to dive into the slightly obscured hazards waiting below.

And if that’s somehow not enough of a challenge, Kururin Squash! also offers players the opportunity to chase ever-faster clear times. Can you navigate the stage quickly enough to claim the top spot on the leaderboard – and if you can do that, can you then master that narrow shortcut you saw but didn’t dare to pass through on your last go? It’s a risky decision as any and every collision adds a huge three second penalty to the clock, completely eliminating any benefit even the fastest player could gain if they ended up inexpertly clanging through a small gap.

In spite of the numerous hazards and the optional pressure from the clock Squash! always has enough leeway built in for you to make your way around each course, for you to decide for yourself when and how to move on. Think of it like a racing game – sure, there are good racing lines, bad racing lines, and you want to hit that key curve just so but there’s flow and energy to it too, and pursuing that feeling always trumps any mechanically accurate “best” route. This makes for some fantastically nerve-wracking moments as you think to yourself “OK, I’ve got to go for it right now“, because you can see how the curve in the path ahead matches the helerin’s rotation.

In these magical moments the forcibly punctuated Kururin Squash! feels so fluid, the analogue control so smooth, intuitive, and satisfying, that the line between you and the game becomes momentarily blurred. The helerin’s speed and rotation feeling as natural and rhythmic as waves lapping against the shore, and you can see – it’s so obvious now! – how the helerin fits into these convoluted curls.

Sadly those magical moments soon fade into distant memory; Squash!’s five worlds, each neatly split into seven stages with an iffly-judged arena-like boss battle waiting at the world’s end (one that always relies on you using the world’s “gimmick” helerin ability to win – such as the paddle mentioned earlier), swiftly descending into unsustainable frustration. These later stages would’ve been less aggravating if they’d been reserved for a dedicated post-story challenge mode, but as it stands there comes a point in Squash! where I wouldn’t blame anyone for putting it down forever. There’s a fine line between a creative challenge and being made to navigate and abstract, hazard-strewn landscape filled with frustrating moments where one slightly misjudged move can ruin the whole sodding run, and towards the end Kururin Squash! definitely falls on the wrong side of that invisible divide too often.

This unfortunately meant that by the time the credits rolled I wasn’t thinking “Now I know I’m good enough to go back to the earlier stages and seriously improve my times!“, instead all I thought was “Thank goodness I can finally put this damned game down and never pick it up ever again“. There are times when Kururin Squash! flows so beautifully it almost feels like a dance… although those times are never in any danger of outweighing the awful moments when I ever so slightly scrape the wall, knocking my helerin into the other side of a narrow passage and causing an inescapable fail state as I helplessly ricochet to my death between two hazards regardless of how well I’d played up to that point. A smaller helerin (with the one shown throughout this article marked as the “standard”/”you should be using this one” model) is available, but using it denies you as much pleasure as it does pain and only leads to disengaged “Why am I doing this again?” lines of self-questioning.

When Squash! is good it’s great; the only problem is you hit that sweet spot between challenge and breezy whirliness early on, with every level after a certain point only concerned with increasing the difficulty, rather than the amount of fun you’re having.

[Ko-fi supporters get to read these posts a week early – and help me keep this place fresh too!]

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