In the guidebook for this year’s Fantastic Arcade festival in Austin, the blurb for Keita Takahashi’s Alphabet has the following delightfully silly note: “For 1 to 26 players.” Frantically attacking a mechanical keyboard a few moments later, I began to think it was onto something: With 25 friends, I could have actually succeeded at playing it.
By myself? Well… I tried.
The Whole Thing’s Made of Stars
Best known for creating 2004’s sleeper hit game Katamari Damacy, the hyper-colorful tale of a tiny cosmic prince, his alcoholic father, and a ball that can roll up anything, Keita Takahashi is one of the most consistently fun creators in gaming. His work is always surprising, always funny, always suffused with just a hint of an uncanny edge. In 2009’s Noby Noby Boy, the eponymous Boy stretches lovingly toward the aether, every player cumulatively adding their stretched forms together to empower Girl to stretch through the horizon. Six years later, the online players collectively “won” the game by stretching Girl in a loop around the solar system.
That sense of collectivity, a whole world working together to achieve a common task—whether they’re collaborating to send Girl to the stars or gobbled up in a Katamari to become stars—is one of a number of refrains across Takahashi’s work, a series of beautiful utopian toys.
Which brings us to Alphabet, a collaboration between Takahashi and Canabalt designer Adam Saltsman. First released in 2013 as a reward for Kickstarter backers of the LA Game Space, it’s been repackaged one of the premiere fixtures of 2016’s Fantastic Arcade. For the few days of the festival, it lived in a custom arcade cabinet, adorned with anthropomorphic letters, a luminescent screen and a mechanical keyboard welcoming passersby. The letters were all sleeping, their tongues lolling out of their open mouths, somewhere between friendly and creepy.
Speed Spelling and Swirly Poo
Like any Takahashi game, Alphabet begins with a deceptive straightforwardness. It’s a race: Lead your letters to the finish line. You start with one. Tap that key, the letter jumps; hold it, that letter runs. No problem, right? The obstacle course, rendered in simple primary colors, had a few bumps, but nothing me and my ol’ buddy J couldn’t handle. We made it in ten seconds flat.
The next race, I had two letters to control. Same control scheme, one key per letter, and I had to get them both to the finish line. You can see where this is going. Each race added another happy letter friend to keep track of, and along with a steady increase in the complexity of each left-to-right obstacle course, the proceedings quickly reconfigured themselves from easy to insane.
Things got even messier from there. Fruit pickups would change my configuration of letters on the fly, an entire alphabet made into a symphony of Qs for a blessed few seconds before morphing back into disorder; piles of classic Japanese swirly poop would get caught in between my letters; I’d forget about one straggler and poor lonely Y would wait half a screen away in the confusion.
This is when the “26 player” advice started making more sense to me. After I played, I overheard someone talk about a previous event put on by the Austin-based indie collective Juegos Rancheros in which Alphabet was mapped to a set of Dance Dance Revolution floor pads, each letter an individual person running and jumping.
I was not so lucky as to have help, and I suffered for it. The arcade version, which you can play at home via the Fantastic Arcade itch.io bundle, tops out at ten letters, which was simply beyond my capacity to handle. I forgot everything I ever learned about typing and pounded desperately on the keys.
Frantic, I had the idea to just try to hit all 26 letter keys at once. This was an elegant and terrible solution. I accidentally hit a function key, and the game crashed. I fled. I’m sorry, Takahashi-san. I’m sorry, all my letter buddies. I’m not the steward you needed. When I can find 25 friends, I’ll boot Alphabet back up and try again. It’ll make for a heck of a house party.