Plenty of indie games emulate the retro style of a bygone era, but developers somehow still manage to find new twists on the classics. Pony Island's novelty doesn't lie in its gameplay, which is comprised of simple endless-runner action levels and forgettable faux-programming puzzles. Instead, the main draw is the entertaining Da Vinci Code-style mystery that lies beneath the idyllic and carefree veneer.
Pony Island is presented to players as an Atari-era arcade game, but unsettling anomalies soon hint at a deeper (and stranger) experience. Before you even hop over your first gate as a miniature equine, you must delve into virtual menus and start fiddling with the settings, which react in surprising ways; options shatter when you click on them, and warbling binary portals take you into the game's programming. Meta-game interactions and fourth-wall-breaking moments abound as you explore the underlying operating system and exchange messages with shadowy figures. Rarely do you spend more than a few minutes on an action level or puzzle before the rules are changed up, and developer Daniel Mullins has buried a trail of enticing breadcrumbs that slowly reveal who you are and why you're stuck playing the game.
This variety is a good thing, because Pony Island's gameplay is as rudimentary as its visuals. The side-scrolling levels require you to hop over a series of gates while repelling enemies (and sometimes Jesus) with your mouth laser. While the controls are simple, a single mistake sends you back to the beginning of the level, and the ever-increasing intensity of the action sequences makes them more frustrating than fun. The puzzle levels offer a welcome (but not particularly engaging) respite. They require you to "hack" the game's code by arranging the right combination of arrows in the corresponding slots, but rarely do they require any real thought to solve.
The real magic of Pony Island happens between the levels. At one point, the game crashes and leaves you to snoop your way through the desktop files of the creator (who may or may not be Satan). At other times you're able to circumvent the creator's wishes, allowing you to skip unnecessary grinding or explore areas that aren't fully complete. Everything is handled with a tongue-in-cheek humor, but it doesn't diminish the underlying intrigue. Pony Island also throws some surprising tricks at you – one in particular caught me off guard and had me laughing out loud.
Pony Island isn't particularly long. You can see everything there is to see in a couple of hours, and you'll likely need to browse the Steam forums to do so, as some of the secrets are too obtuse to solve without the collective mind trust of the Internet. Nevertheless, Pony Island is an experimental and novel experience with some memorable surprises.
An entertaining Da Vinci Code-style mystery lies beneath Pony Island's idyllic and carefree veneer.