Thanks to Wayforward for the review code
Title: Vitamin Connection
System: Nintendo Switch (eShop)
Release Date: 02/20/2020
In this sidescrolling shooter, you take control of a special capsule that must set out to destroy a mysterious legion of bacteria that has targeted a family! With a host of wacky characters to encounter on the journey, this game does has a continual story, although it’s not too much of a focus.
Vitamin Connection starts with a great impression, sporting a very cartoony art style that looks as if the whole game could pass as a modern-day cartoon! Everything animates well with that Wayforward quality, with each character here having a cute design of some sort. There’s even animated cutscenes between the stages, along with a plentiful amount of voice acting, though the quality of the acting here is a bit hit or miss.
The musical score is rather bizarre, though it isn’t bad by any means. Rather than singular, stage-by-stage songs, the whole game’s OST acts like a radio station, rotating between a selection of tracks that switch up depending on the stage, along with the faux commercial break now and then. A lot of these songs are pretty charming or goofy, but I didn’t find many of them that memorable, since a lot of them sound similar to music that would be playing at a doctor’s office.
Vitamin Connection offers two completely different ways to play the game. Either with a co-op partner, with each player using one individual joycon along with their gimmicks, or by yourself using standard controls. Right off the bat I noticed that this game does an oddity by having each form of play take up its own separate save file. This means you can’t just start a co-op game with a friend and then resume it on your own, you must commit and do the entire save the same way. You can have one of each thankfully, so you don’t have to worry about losing the other file by switching the amount of players, but this was definitely an odd decision that actually contributed in how long it took to get this review out.
The original plan was to focus exclusively on the co-op aspect and thus beat the entire game like that, but due to you-know-what, I had to put that on hold after the first stage. I managed to get through a lot more of the game with that same friend a month ago, but not to the point of beating it. Thus, I went back and redid the stuff I did with my friend in single player, so while I didn’t get to beat the game before covering this as I hoped, I have played it pretty extensively, especially in co-op, so I do ask for forgiveness in that regard.
Whichever way you play, the game tasks you with guiding a pill-ship containing Vitaboy and Minagirl throughout the systems of whichever family member is in peril. Whether it’s the mother, the kid, or even the dog, the main goal is for the two to venture through and destroy all the nasty bacteria and viruses trying to cause trouble. Each stage is a mini-labyrinth of sorts, with multiple branching paths leading to different routes that thus allow you to go to the affected areas in whichever order you please, a nice touch for replay value. There’s also some hidden collectibles to discover as you traverse each family member, meaning that you can even go off the beaten path to discover these if you so choose.
Now the biggest thing Vitamin Connection boasts is the strange control schemes it has to offer. In single player it doesn’t seem too crazy, just being a twinstick shooter with the need to tilt your ship around every now and then. But it’s the co-op where the game becomes absolutely insane, ridiculously so. You see, since each player holds an individual joy-con, they both have to cooperate and work together to achieve success. One player holds their joy-con vertically, while the other holds theirs horizontally. One person does the moving, tilting, and aiming, while the other person does the firing and motion controls. It’s very bizarre, not at all helped by the fact there are other aspects to your ship like a claw, which you must control by motion and work together in order to actually pull things out of the way with it.
Yet despite all that weirdness, it somehow works. As a co-op game, Vitamin Connection is pretty brilliant, offering a bit more strategy and a deeper level of fun than a single player experience can provide. You also have a very handy button that lets you speed up the autoscrolling, and if both players press it, the game goes by at an insane speed, perfect for speeding through familiar areas and cutting down on tedium, but it also forces both players to be careful and make sure they know what they’re doing before rushing ahead. These are just a few examples of the wacky co-op fun the game has to offer, and that’s just in the normal exploration.
The other main aspect where co-op changes things come from the boss battles, which are in the form of several minigames. One of them is a pretty fun balancing minigame where you and a friend have to tilt the joycons to avoid crashing into a rail as you ride trickier and trickier assortments, and another is this pretty lame rhythm minigame where each player has to mimic the commands listed on their side of the screen, forcing both players to be in sync. This is easily my least favorite part of the game, and unfortunately it likes to remind you that it exists several times throughout the game.
The last one I could note during my time, is this odd minigame where you have to reach up with a claw and grab items to bring back down without hitting an obstacle, and this one is done through an unseen feature of the Switch, the IR Camera. Yes, one person moves the claw while the other uses their hand in front of the IR camera to adjust the distance of it, and it’s brilliant. In fact, once you get good at measuring the distance the camera provides, you can cheese these levels by instantly retracting/extending the arm in a second. However, it isn’t just the upper part of the claw that can get damaged, for the lower half can too, so both players have to keep an eye out for obstacles. This is a lot of fun, and honestly impressed me with how so much can be gained through a seemingly insignificant camera.
With the co-op quirks and oddities out of the way, playing this game solo is definitely a step back. I mentioned before that it basically turns into a simple twin-stick shooter when played this way, but that unfortunately means all the minigames are nerfed in some way as well. While you can still fast-forward the autoscrolling, I didn’t really find myself that engaged when going through the stages alone, and if it wasn’t for the fact the game thankfully makes a save at every branching path, I wouldn’t even be able to complete a single level in this way due to how boring the game becomes when playing alone, making this option one I can only advise you do in short bursts, otherwise it gets pretty repetitive. While it’s nice that Vitamin Connection is still playable in this fashion for those who aren’t always around people, it definitely is the inferior way to go about this game, and considering the world situation for the past few months, it really sucks that there isn’t some way to make the single player as equally interesting as the co-op one. Obviously, a game with co-op controls this strange could never work for online multiplayer, so don’t even think about that being a possibility.
In conclusion, Vitamin Connection was a game with tons of charm, using the joycons to their maximum potential for a unique co-op experience. While the main game is very playable solo, it doesn’t feel nearly as fun or as polished as a co-op title. It may use some gimmicks I’m not fond of such as motion controls, but I can’t deny that it led to a unique shooting experience overall. It was harder to play this game in co-op than I had anticipated, since I had to put it on hold for a long while due to the current health crisis, but now that I was able to give it several lengthy afternoons in co-op, it felt natural, and I’m confident in saying that Vitamin Connection is a quirky, charming co-op experience that’s a must-own. As a solo experience however, the game is pretty dull, and while it’s very handy to use normal controls for some of the trickier things like shooting enemies or using the claw, it just feels way more fluid with the co-op method of controls, which is something I never thought I’d say due to my general distain for motion gimmicks.
Easily the toughest part of this game for me comes from the $30 pricepoint. Unlike Shantae, which I felt had plenty of length and replay value to be worth that price, Vitamin Connection feels a lot more limited. While there are secrets to find in each mission, they aren’t nearly as in-depth to hunt down as a metroidvania, and the minigame challenges are only barely suitable for beating your own scores. Personally, I would have priced this game at $20 considering the content, value, and high quality experience it has to offer, but as a $30 digital only title, I can only recommend Vitamin Connection at this price for those craving a co-op experience, since this is a really high quality one that’s worth a playthrough if you have another player. But honestly, I’d just recommend hunting down the game at Best Buy when Limited Run puts it out later this summer, since it feels more like a retail-quality game for two, than a digital only game for one. Still, this was definitely a pleasant surprise from Wayforward, and I am glad this game turned out as charming as it did.
I give Vitamin Connection a 7 out of 10.