It’s often said that games should either be casual or hardcore, aiming either for the score-chasing twitch reflex crowd or those who just want to relax with their video games. There are games which pitch their tents decidedly in one camp or another; Dark Souls shouldn’t be played if you’re looking to unwind after a long day, while Candy Crush Saga isn’t going to trouble the most hardened controller-wielding fingers.
There exists, though, a massive market for games that combine elements of both hardcore and casual games to create unique experiences. These games often have the pulse-pounding minute-to-minute gameplay and high-score focus of hardcore games, but their visuals are minimalist and their soundtracks consist of laid-back techno or trance. We’re thinking games like Race the Sun, Superflight and Amplitude, to name but a few.
Into this category falls Tunnel Rush, the latest title to come to us from Deer Cat Studios. Deer Cat’s previous titles include Flight Speed and Wave Rider, both of which combined chilled-out aesthetics with increasingly complex and difficult gameplay. Tunnel Rush continues this venerable tradition, and in many ways might be the apotheosis of everything Deer Cat is trying to achieve as a studio. You can access Tunnel Rush on web or via mobile depending on which platform you favor.
As with many of this studio’s games, you’ll be disappointed if you’re looking for a story, but you probably aren’t; Deer Cat excels at games to be played in the lunch break, games to kill a few moments while waiting for public transport or a taxi, games which insidiously pull you in with their “just one more try” gameplay loops and compelling presentation. Tunnel Rush is no different in this regard, so the full extent of narrative context here is “you are thing running through tunnel, run fast and do not die”.
That’s more than enough to be going on with, though. Imagine a cross between Amplitude, Race the Sun and old-school Atari racer Tempest and you’re most of the way there with Tunnel Rush. It’s a first-person score-chasing auto-runner in which players must avoid obstacles and reach the finish line intact. One collision with an obstacle means death, so it’s high-stakes all the way.
Normally, this is where we would say “things start out nice and slow to ease you into the experience”, but Tunnel Rush is the exception to the rule. Although the first couple of stages are certainly easier than what follows, this is not a game that holds your hand; Tunnel Rush expects you to familiarize yourself with its core controls and central gameplay mechanics near enough immediately.
Luckily, those core controls aren’t difficult to learn. The only control you have over your nameless, faceless character here is movement; the entirety of Tunnel Rush takes place on a cylindrical spiral, and your character can move left and right to avoid obstacles and position themselves more favorably. Pretty much anyone can approach Tunnel Rush, whether they’re a hardcore gamer or a neophyte, and immediately become familiar with what it’s trying to achieve.
That’s not to say that it’s easy, though – far from it. Tunnel Rush very, very quickly amps up, throwing an absolute onslaught of obstacles at the player not four or five levels in. If you don’t have a tremendous amount of patience, this one might not be for you, as the gameplay can seem a little “trial-and-error” at times, especially when obstacles start to move and shift seemingly unpredictably.
The genius of Tunnel Rush, though, is just that: the obstacles here are predictable. Every obstacle is defined in terms of shape and function, and performs exactly as it appears to. Players are actually given a fairly generous amount of time to react to each obstacle as it looms on the horizon, and each death (for there will be many) will likely be accompanied by an “oh, I really should have avoided that” exclamation.
Part of the way Tunnel Rush avoids the frustration that could come with its core mechanics is in its visuals and audio. Although the music is appropriately pulse-pounding and rhythmic, it has that curious quality present in a lot of dance music that’s just as likely to lull you to sleep as it is to make you feel like dancing. The visuals here are good, all 3D geometric shapes and well-defined level design; the aesthetic is relaxingly minimalistic, devoid of any of the predictable hardcore trappings one might expect from a game this difficult.
Tunnel Rush represents the perfect marriage of casual presentation and hardcore difficulty. Its levels present a challenge to hardcore gamers, taunting them to get through each stage unscathed (an increasingly difficult prospect as the levels go on). Simultaneously, it offers a soothing balm to its more casual crowd, as each level can easily and quickly be restarted with no detriment to overall progress.
We find ourselves in the unique and pleasant position of being able to recommend Tunnel Rush to both casual gamers and hardcore gamers, then. For the former, it provides a nice, chilled-out visual experience; dying doesn’t feel so bad when it looks and sounds this good. For the latter, there’s a score-attack element which traces how far through the tunnels you got before you died, a figure endlessly enticing to those who like to constantly better themselves. A moment-to-moment joy, Tunnel Rush more than earns its place among the greats of browser-based gaming.