Jill is a dedicated sub to the Queen (as far as I know, that’s her name). One day, Jill makes the mistake of licking the Queen’s boots without permission, so the Queen punishes Jill by kicking her down to the base of the tower that the two of them live in and making her climb up–dodging killer spiders, fire pits, and spike traps all the way. Y’know, I think that might be a tad overboard. Of course, Jill is aided by the fact that she can jump (“Z”) higher than anyone and can even float if the player rapidly taps “Z.” If Jill survives, she will get some comforting words and a gentle caress… before being sent to do it all over again.
In case you think that this is a bit of an odd premise for a tower-climbing game, well… it is and it isn’t. While this is far from the typical plot of any other platformer you might come across, there is both a progressive attitude and a brilliant parallel that come from this premise. To start with, the designer for this game, Anna Anthropy (who also designed the lesbian BDSM-themed Lesbian Spider Queens from Mars), wanted to make a game that made up for “the distinct lack of real dyke characters and dyke desire in games” and succeeded. Jill was very carefully drawn by James Harvey: he went through the painful process of making sure that Jill wasn’t the traditional portrayal of a lesbian sub. Instead of being a reluctant participant, forced into her position, Jill and the queen are in a loving, consensual relationship (considering that Jill has super-powers and infinite lives, I guess kicking her off a tower isn’t as big a deal as it would be in real life) and both of them are getting what they want out of it. Also, Jill and the queen aren’t overly sexualized; Jill is pudgy and the queen isn’t an over-endowed 90-degree-back-thing from a Liefeld comic. The fact that a relationship of this type is portrayed in a lighter narrative (if not a positive light) than you’re likely to discover in “other games” is actually refreshing and makes Jill an endearing character when, bound and gagged and being pushed down the tower again, she gives a wink to the player, as though to say: “Yeah, I’m loving this. So what?”
Not to mention, making the protagonist of a grueling tower-climber game that has a second stage worthy of comparisons to The Lost Levels or even I Wanna be the Guy a masochist is a brilliant bit of meta-fiction. Think about it: Jill is enduring the punishment of going through a challenging tower for only a brief bit of pleasure and affection before doing it again; part of the joy comes from enduring the punishment. Similarly, players who love difficult games like IWTBTG or Kyoshi play not so much for the ending but rather for the masochistic joy that comes from the experience of going through these difficult trials and being able to say “Yeah, I beat it.” At the same time, the designer takes the role of the dom, giving the player what they want and making them work for it. In a way, this is a rather creative parallel that adds to its status as a blending of artistic statement and gaming.
Of course, we aren’t here to just debate the merits of a provocative plot structuring device in a game and its metafictional importance, we are also here to talk about a somewhat tricky tower-climber with a nostalgic gameplay mechanic and a nice 8-bit experience. Well, review done. No seriously, there really isn’t much to the game. You climb a tower using the jumping-mechanic from Mighty Bomb Jack; i.e. Jill can jump twenty feet in the air, so you need to worry more about cutting the jump off at the right time, using this ability to curve around jutting spikes and enemies, or floating to safety. The jumping mechanic and the two towers work together beautifully. If you die, it’s all on you (no surprise, off-screen kills here). There really isn’t much else to the gameplay, though the game (or at least its first tower) isn’t too difficult at first and the game is nice enough to set checkpoints each time you clear a room, so you don’t have to worry about starting all the way over. The second tower (which I was not able to play since you need to beat the first tower in 12 minutes to unlock it) is significantly tougher but it also has the checkpoint system (and a very cute ending) so a little endurance will get you through.
On the aesthetic side, Jill is a perfect little 8-bit game that, if it weren’t for the expertly, hand-drawn pictures and piano tune that plays during cutscenes, would fit in with a Solomon’s Key game night or the previously mentioned Mighty Bomb Jack. Each room you run through takes on a different color and the background is made up of bricks. There’s nothing particularly impressive visually with the title (Jill’s “death” animation is a bit fun to watch however), though as you climb, you can see the outside of the tower and watch as you climb out from underground and eventually ascend even the clouds. The tune that gets played as you climb sounds like it could have been from an NES puzzle game and never grinds on your nerves (which is good since you’ll be dying quite a bit), though it’s not particularly notable.
As a side note, the game is short, and even if you suck at it (like I did) you should get through the first tower in under 30 minutes. If you are used to this kind of game, even the second tower shouldn’t take much longer, so there’s only about an hour at most of tower climbing.
Overall, while this game definitely has an interesting plot hook and lead character (who can also be seen in Super Meat Boy), it is ultimately just a decent gameplay experience. It is a good way to see if those super tough freeware platformers that have been popular over the last decade are your thing and Super Meat Boy fans will probably like to see this little game, although the gameplay is just carefully timing jumps and dodging dangers. The design is fine, but it just doesn’t try to do anything special in the gameplay department to differentiate itself or make itself legendary like IWTBTG did. Ultimately, the game is just average. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play it though. This is a unique as hell little premise that you won’t normally see in this type of game.
Download Mac OS and Windows versions here