Weird. Damn weird. That's the best way to sum up Floating Runner, a surreal failure in 3D platformers from before the release of Super Mario 64. Today with analogue twin-sticks and fully controllable cameras it's easy to forget the time before Super Mario 64, where if a platformer was in 3D you had to suffer with a digital direction-pad and certainly no yellow Latiku buttons. Jumping Flash! avoided the problem by being first-person and switching the camera angle during jumps – Floating Runner doesn't and suffers as a result. The camera is permanently fixed behind the character with absolutely no way of changing it (there is a camera button, but this merely shifts the angle a couple of degrees and is therefore useless). Considering that the entire game's focus is platforming, it's a premise that nightmares are born from.
Perhaps failure and nightmare are the wrong words though. Despite how difficult the jumping can be at times, or how awkward the shooting is, Floating Runner does try to address these issues (albeit in crazy ways), and it exudes such a surreal sense of design that in spite of its faults it's still intriguing. Or at least that's the case if you paid little-to-nothing for it.
At the game's start you're given the choice of either Lay (brave bounty hunter) or Cress (apprentice priestess), though the difference is purely cosmetic. The basic premise is they need to recover seven magic crystals stolen by an evil wizard, by venturing through massive 3D platforming levels, each divided into two stages. The opening level is just a warm up, with a few easy enemies, some small rivers to jump over and some treasure chests to open. It's impossible to fall off the edge here since there are trees blocking the way, and at worst if you miss a jump you'll fall into the water and take some damage. Each character has a little pop-gun with infinite ammo, though aiming is haphazard at best. Special items can also be collected, cycled through, and used when needed (for example temporary shields). You're also given the ability to side-flip either left or right with L1 and R1, which is one of the most awesome things in Floating Runner; amazingly the game actually predates The Matrix film where this move was popularised by more than three years.
The goal of the opening area and all subsequent levels is to navigate the semi-maze like structure (sometimes linear paths other times wide-open spaces) and find a glowing coloured crystal, which represents the stage's end. Except there's no map and no compass, and some later stages are absolutely enormous. To prevent confusion the game employs a bizarre compass/signpost system, where sporadically you'll come across a floating compass with a little arrow pointing the direction you need to head in. It's reasonably effective, though can be slightly hair-raising when it's seemingly pointing beyond an empty ledge into the ether.
Subsequent levels are when things get really tricky, since many stages are suspended in the sky, above a bottomless void. Falling off the edge though only reduces some health before you're placed back on the platform you fell from – this is especially useful since enemies tend to gang up on you and will often knock you off. Since aiming at enemies is tricky and taking damage from them or falls is a near-constant occurrence, you're given infinite lives. Lose all your hearts and you have the choice to continue right where you left off, the only penalty being a loss of special weapons and less hearts than normal – though considering you can continue as many times as you like the inclusion of any kind of health system is redundant. They might as well have scrapped everything and just given you infinite health. And this is one reason why Floating Runner is so fascinating: it's filled with design redundancies.
Another example is the timer, which starts at 99, implying 99 seconds. Except for this to count down by 1 requires a full 6 seconds of real-time, effectively giving you 10 minutes to finish each stage. Why not just start people on 9 minutes and 59 seconds to begin with? The timer is important though, since this is the only way to get Game Over. You can die as many times as you like from falling and enemies, but let the timer reach zero and you restart the entire game over again from the beginning. Normally this would be a frustrating thing to contend with, but Xing circumvent their own shortcomings by giving you a stage select. The first crystal you come across is actually slowly cycling through six colours – each one representing a different level. Touch the colour you like to be warped to that area. Once there you need to complete two stages, whereupon you're faced with another cycling crystal, minus one colour.
Colours of the Crystal
An enormous forest filled with ruins and multiple tiers to it, and also one of the coolest stages. You'll start off jumping from tree stump to tree stump, before climbing a monstrously tall tree via its branches. They're small and easy to fall off, making this section hugely frustrating, but there's quite a view at the top.
A mystical desert stage with really awesome music! There are stone pillars emerging from the sands which you need to jump along. Later areas are set inside some ruins, which unfortunately become extremely taxing, with dead ends and bottomless pits everywhere.
A bizarre level set in the sky with celestial rivers acting as flumes to carry you from one cloud to the next. Not especially interesting, but it appears to have some flying around inside a giant rock (or possibly just a grey cloud, it's difficult to tell with flat shaded polygons).
An eerie swamp filled with giant lily pads and waterfalls. This is another great level with some fantastically foreboding music. Check out the snaking path of ferns which carry you from one area to the next. Be sure to avoid the frogs!
Your typical lava stage, with precarious, tiny platforms floating above a lake of magma below. Enemies are abundant and will rush you with the intention of knocking you into the fire. Don't worry though, you've infinite lives. Great music too.
Another strange level with celestial rivers, this time at night. You don't ride on them like flumes though, they're just in the background. Instead you need to navigate a series of narrow walkways filled with boulders – mastering the L1/R1 cart wheel move is essential for this area!
The camera may be hopelessly broken, the combat clunky at best, and the entire health system imbalanced to the point of redundancy, but much like Trespasser, there's a fascinating allure to this jumbled mess. Some of the stage set-pieces such as ascending an enormous tree, despite being infuriating, are quite epic. There's an unmatched surreal atmosphere as you traverse the purple swamp and desert ruins, with their flat-shaded architecture, curious inhabitants and beautiful music. The soundtrack meanwhile is almost all pure awesome, and cart wheeling left and right while firing your guns is always a joy. Most importantly though, Floating Runner stands as an early evolution of the 3D platformer, alongside Jumping Flash!, before common sense and controllable cameras become the norm. They really don't make them like this anymore! Whether you have the patience to play through it is another matter though.