REVIEW: Chico and the Magic Orchards DX delights with Game Boy puzzle action
The Game Boy era renaissance is here and I'm all for it. A ton of my formative gaming experiences took place in the backseat of a car, curled up in a weird way, my arms holding this small gaming rectangle up to any light source possible. Mario Tennis, The Legend of Zelda: Oracles of Ages and Seasons, Super Mario Land 1 and 2, Hamtaro Ham-Hams Unite — all legends in my book.
Thanks to the efforts of Daikon Games and developers like them, we're seeing that era surge back into relevance, and Chico and the Magic Orchards DX is a great example of what can still be mined out of that nostalgic era.
Just the Facts
Developer: Daikon Games
Publisher: Daikon Games
Release Date: Original - Aug. 8, 2022 DX Update - Jan. 13, 2023
Review key provided by Daikon Games.
It's always fun to see a game jam game reach its full potential, to see a playable concept crystallize into a full-fledged title. Chico and the Magic Orchards was originally an entry for Retrograde Jam 2, a 10-day game jam dedicated to capturing the magic of gaming in the '90s. Once the votes were all counted, Nick Ver Voort's solo effort rated first overall out of the 27 entries submitted.
With that vote of confidence, the work started on a full release. Nick always intended on keeping the project within scope and came out the other end with a solid two-hour game with five unique worlds. After seeing even more acclaim for his work with Chico's original release in August 2022, Nick got to work polishing up the experience, looking to add content after the only major initial complaint after launch was "we want more." And so brings us to Chico and the Magic Orchards DX, a free update that gave the game even more weight, alongside a bevy of fun features, including a full-color mode to replace the initial launch's palette-based art style.
So what's it all about? What does Game Boy heaven look like and why's a chipmunk in charge of it all?
Much like its era-appropriate predecessors, Chico definitely puts gameplay first, though its story and setup are charming enough in their own right.
Chico is a chipmunk who finds himself transported into a world of giant walnuts scattered across the eponymous magic orchards. Needless to say, Chico's main goal is to gather up all of those nuts and bring them home. Talk about early retirement potential.
Along the way, he'll gather up seeds that can be spent at an in-game store run by the adorable bird shopkeep, Budgit, and listen to one of the game's nostalgic looping level tracks with the intensely '90s cool gorilla, Gruvit.
Bees act as your guide through the world, which helps to set up the post-game campaign added in the DX update that has you facing off against the Queen Bee. She's been infected by an evil presence and is trapping all of her worker bees in honey. Since the bees helped Chico gather seeds and nuts, they recruit the hero to help them free the bees and unshackle the Queen Bee's mind.
Again, while light, the narrative does its job and introduces enough of the cute and cuddly forest folk that you accept and embrace the theming across the game's five unique worlds. It feels appropriately nostalgic in that you're given the tiniest glimpse into a world and its inhabitants that you may never properly get more information about down the line.
Chico is all about an animal kicking objects around to push buttons and solve problems, dealing with a few environmental hazards along the way. Yes. It's the Goof Troop follow-up you've been dying for.
The core action of the game has Chico and his walnut trying to make it through some basic puzzle-platforming levels. On his own, Chico can push buttons, jump over obstacles, and generally be more agile. With the walnut, he's able to roll and launch the nut to and fro, getting through sections of the map he otherwise couldn't, and triggering buttons and traps that Chico's little chipmunk body couldn't otherwise survive or work with.
Each of the base game's five worlds introduces region-specific obstacles: Fans that push your walnut around in the clouds or shifting sands that pull Chico and the walnut into holes in the desert stage, for example. Each world comes with two levels, one to introduce the area's unique mechanics and another to put those lessons to the test with a boss fight. You are only able to leave each level if you manage to pull Chico and the level's walnut all the way to the end and hop through the portal waiting at the end.
Chico and the Magic Orchards is a straightforward affair. As the game jam it came from requests, it represents the '90s era of gaming perfectly, giving you an experience that's easy to hop into, is perfect in bite-sized chunks, and is overwhelmingly charming.
The stop-and-launch mechanic utilized when Chico sets up to launch a walnut works better than you'd expect, clearly utilizing some modern design tricks to amplify its overall feel. It feels good to launch the walnut to and fro and satisfying to slowly uncover Chico's puzzles.
But some of the built-in limitations meant to replicate the Game Boy's tech definitely hold it back some. Wonky physics, slightly cumbersome handling of said walnut, and some funky checkpoints that have you going through a frustrating section over and over, all contribute to a general grumbly feeling — especially when the game is so light and fluffy everywhere else. Still, those aren't the things I thought of most when I wrapped up this light puzzler.
Chico and the Magic Orchards is so easy to consume, with the game capping out at around two hours. And that's if you're taking your time and going for 100% completion (picking up the seeds in each level that can be used to buy new color palettes and songs). No level overstays its welcome, nor do they feel excessively short. It strikes the perfect balance.
If you are a believer in the "we want shorter games with 'worse' graphics made by people who are paid more to work less and we're not kidding" mentality popularized in 2020, Chico is perfect for you.
In talking briefly with Nick, I discovered that he too shares the idea that more developers need to keep within their scope. It's okay to make smaller games, mining out just enough from an idea and avoiding the dreaded "feature creep." Chico is a testament to that.
We're always amazed by games that secretly hold multiple games within them. Your Yakuzas. Your Assassin's Creeds. But the world needs more Chicos.
And if it was just a matter of its base game, Chico does more than enough to stand out. But with the newly added "free update" DX campaign, Chico's concepts really begin to shine.
Adding another 30-60 minutes of gameplay, with two large open areas, you use your walnut to free the honey-trapped bees and defeat the Queen Bee. The mechanics shift in this post-campaign DLC where now it's about combining your walnut with a variety of new "elements" to knock down obstacles. In water, you're given three "splashes," we'll call them, that you can use to free bees and put out fires and the like. Fire gives you 15 seconds to burn flammable items down. Honey, introduced in the second world of DX, coats any area Chico rolls his honey-nut over with a sticky trail of honey, allowing you safe passage over dangerous stretches.
The new mechanics and concepts, paired with the more open-ended Metroidvania-esque design, shows just how far the simple "switches and buttons" puzzle design can really go. There are some genuinely clever bits of level design in this segment, particularly in the areas where these three new elements interact (honey trails are eliminated by water; naturally, water puts out fire, etc.) And as a completionist gamer, finding that hidden zone behind that one flammable tree or uncovering the right way through with a honey trail to find those last few hidden bees? Simply blissful.
The game's final boss fight pits you against the Queen Bee. It's a perfect culmination of the campaign's concepts and the highlight of a batch of boss fights that were otherwise lightly underwhelming. Everything that DX adds is a plus, and the fact that it was all free, that it nearly doubled the content of the base game, and that it came as a response to some of the critique from the base game's launch, shows Daikon's commitment to their community.
I can't finish writing about Chico without talking about its pitch-perfect looks and sounds. If we're talking about reflecting an era, Chico certainly accomplishes its goals of looking and feeling like a Game Boy-era video game. Sandy shore tilesets feel lifted straight out of The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening. Both the base game's limited color palettes and DX's full color mode showcase the charm of the era's limited technology. Full color is always appreciated but the world-specific palettes add to the personality of each area. I was especially enamored with the "Trans Rights" palette.
Chico's short music loops are also right at home for classic Game Boy gamers, with 30-second snippets playing over and over, perfectly capturing that... half-maddening, half-addicting feeling of some of the tunes from the era. Some of the more "intense" boss fight tracks are probably my favorites.
Chico and the Magic Orchards DX sets out toward a goal: Replicate the charm and innovation of an era limited by technology. It does more than knock it out of the park — it shows what it can look like when game devs keep themselves in check. When creatives craft something amazing that meets or exceeds their original ambitions, and say, "That's enough. I'm satisfied with what this has become."
We appreciate the precedent, and we're curious to see where Nick and Daikon Games head next and wish them all the best.
Video Games Are Good and Chico and the Magic Orchards DX is . . . GOOD-GREAT. (7.5/10)
+ pitch perfect Game Boy era aesthetic replication, simple but approachable puzzles, earworm-y soundtrack, easy to sit and finish in one sitting
- boss fights can be lackluster, some poor checkpointing causes a few annoying chokepoints, wonky physics when launching your nut...
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