Review: Tapeworm Disco Puzzle

2022 began much as 2021 ended - with a bumper crop of healthy Dreamcast indie games for us all to enjoy. It seems the answer to the question "what did you do in lockdown" for many in the scene was "make a new Dreamcast game" and you know what? If the only positive thing to come out of that whole ordeal was more Dreamcast games, then that’s a small win for us here at the Junkyard. Give us more indie games! 

In January 2022, one Tapeworm Disco Puzzle arrived at the Junkyard headquarters. I say "headquarters", it's actually just a wooden shed in the New Forest that we initiate new members in, using a combination of audio-visual psychological warfare techniques, a pair of secateurs, a copy of Spirit of Speed 1937 and a signed picture of Peter Moore. I may have said too much. Forget you read that. Anyway, Tapeworm Disco Puzzle is one I'd been looking forward too for some time, as it was announced as a "spin-off sequel" to Lowtek Games' title Flea! which had released a couple of years earlier. I previously reviewed Flea! here on the blog and thought it was rather good. Tapeworm Disco Puzzle, just like its predecessor, is an 8-bit title that, whilst limited technically due to its Nintendo Entertainment System origins, packs a whole lot of game and bags of charm onto its disc.
Much like the Dreamcast version of Flea! I reviewed previously, Tapeworm Disco Puzzle is a NES game that has been ported to the Dreamcast. Lowtek games originally ran a Kickstarter for the title back in December 2020, which was successful funded - probably thanks in no small part to the positive reception that Flea! had garnered previously. A Dreamcast and a PC port were also listed alongside the NES cartridge as part of this initial campaign, and it finally made its way out to backers within a little over a year's time, which is a quick turnaround time by Kickstarter standards.
If you've ever played Lowtek Game's first outing Flea! (which is probably a fair few of you now, since its re-release by WAVE Game Studios), you'll be familiar with the colourful pixel world that designer Alastair Low has created. A world of greedy, blood-hoarding monarchs, "refu-fleas" and undeniably cute, hopping heroes; it was a credit that for such a simple title, it created a genuinely charming little in-game universe. This world is expanded upon in Tapeworm Disco Puzzle, in a rather odd way. Your main character this time is the tapeworm, proprietor of the local night club where all the fleas like to hang out. Problem is, something strange is happening to his parasitical patrons, so as well as making sure there's plenty of banging party tunes and enough blood to go around, you'll have to try and work out just what is going on. Along the way, you'll come across some other club-owning worms, as well as all manner of other denizens of this surprisingly well-crafted mini-universe that Alastair has created.
Whilst inhabiting the same universe as Flea!, Tapeworm Disco Puzzle - as its name may suggest - takes an altogether different approach when it comes to gameplay. This is a grid-based puzzle title, in which you must collect musical notes and blood with your tapeworm. Our hero, however, is limited in size, so to collect all the elements, you need to work out the best way to navigate the stage, as well as collecting tapes which will increase your worm's length (ahem...) which will allow you to reach areas that you'd otherwise be unable to. It sounds simple - and to be fair, the core concept here is - but the game quickly throws all manner of different elements in. Wormholes see our hero popping up in other areas of the stage, fleas will often be present in stages (the only way to collect blood) and it's your task to assist them, buttons need to be covered by your extended worm body to open doors, and there's plenty of bad guys spread throughout the stages too, which you'll need to avoid contact with.

Much like in Flea!, some stages are easy, but they are included as a gradual introduction to new gameplay mechanics. This is a great strategy, slowly introducing you to new things without having to rely on tutorials, although it can unfortunately leave some levels feeling like they're slightly pointless.

Punctuating the puzzle-focused levels of the game, are various "boss" levels. These move the game into the direction of a more Snake-like experience, which, like the scrolling levels in Flea! before it, varies the gameplay up a little. In these stages, your worm moves continually in the direction it's facing, and to avoid an untimely demise, you need to control it in the correct direction to avoid hazards (and your own body!) and collect the various elements to complete the stage. These stages are quite simple again, with the main challenge coming from timing your control inputs in some tricky spaces.
Tapeworm Disco Puzzle also has a two player co-op mode. This is a fact. I am shunned by my local community and therefore no one is willing to play a game about Eucestoda enjoying the flashy lights and danceable tunes of a disco with me. For this reason I unfortunately can’t tell you how good the co-op mode of this game is. It’s probably pretty banging though, right? I mean, the rest of the game is, and if you’re lucky enough to have friends, acquaintances or just some unfortunate soul tied up in your basement, chances are you’ll probably quite like the co-op mode. Alas, my eternal shunning of human contact means I’ll probably never know, at least not until the Junkyard away team rocks up to a gaming event, looking super fucking cool with our home-made Dreamcast t-shirts and Tom Charnock-licensed bum-bags, with Kev carrying a ghetto blaster on his shoulder, 90s style, blasting out songs from random extreme sports games. The thought of playing a co-op mode on my own fills me with the sort of mid-life pangs of regret that can otherwise lead to fast cars, faster women and a large collection of medieval weaponry hanging from my walls (one of those is a fact, and I don’t drive). But, yeah, co-op mode is almost certainly pretty damn sick.
Visually, the game doesn't push any technical boundaries on the console. Of course, it doesn't need to, but as comments on reviews here at the Junkyard have shown over the years, for some, the pixel art graphics on display will never give the game a true "Dreamcast feel" and are therefore seen as inferior. Those people are of course soulless, miserable old bastards. Yeah sure, it's a NES game. But it's a colourful, charmingly designed game which makes the best use of the static screen set up, and manages to endow its world with enough character to bring a smile to the most jaded of gamers. The cutscenes look great, and the art style carries through to the package as a whole, with a fun cover and another mini comic strip in its two page manual. Once again, Lowtek Games has managed to put out a really professional-looking title.
The chiptune soundtrack, like Flea! before it, comes courtesy of artist Tui. It is another insanely catchy offering, and one which tops even its predecessor. The main theme, which happily plays on the menu screen, is instantly memorable, enough to leave you humming it for several days. We're blessed with an abundance of superb tunes throughout the indie releases on the Dreamcast, but this can sit right up there alongside past greats. Putting the game's disc into a CD player also gives you access to the soundtrack, which is a great feature.

Overall, I enjoyed my time with Tapeworm Disco Puzzle a lot. Its quirky and loveable characters, its well-designed puzzle mechanic, its superb chiptune soundtrack - all the perfect recipe for a great, 8-bit romp on the console. Yes, you can indeed bemoan the fact that this isn't pushing the hardware, that it's just a NES port, that the Dreamcast isn't meant to be the platform for this type of game, but to you I say piffle. Piffle, I say! Give me an enjoyable, charming little game like this any day, and I'll be happy. I can understand those who feel the game is perhaps slightly overpriced on the DC at £30 - and personally, I'd prefer a few of these NES titles to be bundled together on one disc in future - but if you see it in the context of helping out another superbly creative developer, then I believe it is money well spent.

Tapeworm Disco Puzzle for Dreamcast can be purchased from Alastair's Etsy store here for £30. As mentioned before, NES carts are also available, and the game is also on Steam. Since its initial release, Tapeworm Disco Puzzle has also made its way to a staggering number of other systems, from mainstream systems such as the Xbox (One/Series), PlayStation (4/5) and Switch, to the much more niche Evercade and Playdate.

For full clarity, Alastair Low sent me a copy of Tapeworm Disco Puzzle all the way back at the start of 2022. That and Flea! are the only two games I've ever been sent for free, and whilst I was happy to receive them, I felt I had to go and support Lowtek Games by buying a Flea! t-shirt from the Etsy store, and a copy of the re-release of Flea! from WAVE Game Studios. I also had to pick up one of the flea plushies that were available on Funstock, and if they ever come back in stock, I encourage everyone to do the same as it's... well, it's a little plush, grumpy, cute flea. Do I need to explain more?

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