It might sound like a health supplement conference, but Vitamin Connection turns out to be one of the zestiest Switch exclusives of the year so far – which shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise when you consider that the developer behind it, WayForward, is responsible for the joyful Shantae series.
This is no ’90s-inspired 2D platformer, though. In fact, it’s difficult to pin down exactly what Vitamin Connection is. It’s a casual shmup, a motion-controlled maze runner, and a mini-game compendium all smooshed together and set to a J-Pop beat. Oh, and just to add to the gaming gumbo, there’s a distinct two-player couch co-op focus to it as well.
Playing the game called to mind a number of disparate gaming curios, including Kuru Kuru Kururin, PixelJunk Shooter, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, and Rhythm Tengoku – and if that makes Vitamin Connection sound like a whole bunch of messy fun, then our scattershot comparisons have done their job.
You take control of a pair of tiny vitamin beings called Vita-Boy and Mina-Girl (stay with us here), who co-pilot a pill-sized submersible through the mazy arteries and twisting intestinal tracts of a nuclear family (and their dog). As you move along the branching, autoscrolling routes you’ll pop anthropomorphised viruses with your laser, burst through colour-coded membranes, and blast away thick layers of mucus (though it looks more like cholesterol to us) to uncover bonus stars and health-restoring collectables.
This is a very different game depending on whether you’re playing solo or in 2P, though the basic flow of the game is identical. It all comes down to control. On your own, the game plays like a twin-stick shooter with a literal twist. You move your craft around the screen with the left stick and aim and shoot your infection-killing laser with the right. You can also rotate your craft by either holding the shoulder buttons or physically rotating the right Joy-Con. This is an essential manoeuvre, both for squeezing through some of the tighter passages in the game and for the mini-game-like encounters that essentially stand in for boss encounters.
Neither rotation method ever quite feels definitive, though. The shoulder buttons move your craft in increments that feel too big for fine control, while the physical twist motions are just a little too flaky and tough to judge. Generally, you can bodge your way through, but it’s not ideal.
With a second player onboard, one of you controls movement and fires with the left Joy-Con while the second player handles tilting and aiming with the right. It becomes a whole lot trickier in this co-operative form and requires a fair amount of communication and practice – especially when the game requires you to move and tilt at the same time. Needless to say, the potential for both satisfaction and irritation increases considerably with two players involved, and it’s probably the way the game should be played most of the time.
Another control requirement is a grappling hook mechanic that arrives fairly early on in the game, and it’s pretty shonky regardless of whether you’re flying solo or playing with another. This requires you to hold one of the left D-Pad buttons, physically tilt the left Joy-Con to guide a jittery grabber, and then nudge the right stick to grab on. It never felt remotely instinctive in any configuration, and led to some extremely frustrating moments where our craft got stuck as the world auto-scrolled onwards.
Navigating through fleshy passageways is only part of the story here, though. As we’ve already mentioned, you’ll come across mini-game-like sections when you reach one of the three key areas of each level, which are typically represented by a major organ, like an eye or a heart. One of these compact games takes the form of a rhythm action game that requires you to twist, move, and clap in time to the prompts. This is one of the rare bits of Vitamin Connection that actually proves easier with two players, due to the need to keep an eye on two distinct time bars simultaneously.
Another section involves a timing-based grabber game, which entertainingly incorporates the right Joy-Con’s IR sensor in multiplayer. Still another plays out like one of those buzzy wire-maze games. Our favourite of these mini-games, though, is the heavily Kuru Kuru Kururin-indebted ‘Escaper’, despite the fact that it leaves the second player with precious little to do. Here you’re guiding a more angled craft through a series of incredibly tight mazes as quickly as possible. Besides making us pine for a fresh Switch version of Eighting’s overlooked gem, it’s the one mini-game that we found ourselves returning to repeatedly from the title menu once it unlocked – which is a welcome provision in itself.
The presentation is impeccable, with an art style and snappily humorous cut scenes (which are fully-voiced) that resemble a Saturday morning cartoon show. This is backed by a suitably eclectic soundtrack made up of J-Pop, obscure indie, and light-hearted hip hop. Like the game itself, it somehow works in spite of – or perhaps even because of – its tonal inconsistency.
Laying out all of Vitamin Connection’s various elements shows that it’s a bit like one of its biologically-questionable level maps. It’s a jumble of assorted gameplay organs in varying states of repair, all linked by colourful and fast-flowing passages of play. At times it can get clogged up with half-formed ideas, poorly-implemented control systems, and needless backtracking. But there are even more moments where it all clicks into place and everything somehow makes glorious sense, typically when lasering viruses or frantically rotating your craft to cut through stretchy barriers.
Vitamin Connection is a kaleidoscopic mishmash of influences and genres – part cutesy shooter, part mini-game collection. Not all of its ideas stick, and there are a couple of points of friction caused by its tilt controls, but when it’s on song, this is a charming sugar rush of an experience – especially if you’re after a new couch-co-op game.