My favorite video game of 2023 involves a portly, balding pizza chef named Peppino Spaghetti scaling a medieval tower to defeat a sentient floating pie threatening to blow up his pizzeria. It was developed by a small independent studio named Tour de Pizza, led by a designer named McPig. Its soundtrack was largely composed by a first-time composer and a high school student. Its art style is at once expressive and grotesque. It’s called Pizza Tower, and it is, in all seriousness, one of the best 2D platformers I’ve played in a long time.
I’m late here, as Pizza Tower arrived on PC in January. Currently, it has the second-highest user rating of any 2023 release on Steam. The simplest way to describe it is to call it a modern Wario Land — really, the game’s structure is straight out of Wario Land 4. Almost all of its 20 stages are split into two halves. In the first, you can feel things out at a leisurely pace, collecting little pizza topping buddies, unlocking treasures and finding secret rooms. There’s a grading system based on how quickly and thoroughly you finish a level — but Peppino can’t die, and you don’t need a certain score to pass, so you’re free to move recklessly.
Then it’s “Pizza Time.” At the end of each stage is a pillar that, once knocked over, causes the whole level to begin collapsing on itself. The music intensifies and a timer appears. That’s your cue to hurry up and get the hell out of there. You can’t just go back the way you came, though; parts of the original path get blocked off, while certain secrets only become accessible during the mad dash back. Fail to reach the entrance in time, and the truly cursed Pizzaface hunts you down. It’s a simple dynamic, curiosity inverted by anxiety, but one that always worked for me. Each Pizza Tower stage concludes with the ending of Super Metroid, only you play as a funny pizza man trucking through fork-wielding cheeseballs and pepperoni goblins.
It’s not just the structure that got me, though, it’s the speed, and how it’s deployed. In fact, I’d argue Pizza Tower is equal parts resuscitated Wario Land and better Sonic the Hedgehog. Quick explanation: I do not like Sonic. I didn’t when I was a five-year-old failing at Sonic the Hedgehog 3 on my great aunt’s Sega Genesis, and I don’t today after giving the original five games another shake last year. I get if you do. But for me, all Sonic provides is a bad kind of tension, an itch I can’t reach. Sonic can go fast, but his worlds do way too much to impede his momentum. The open fields of Green Hill Zone eventually give way to slow-moving platforms, hard-stopping ledges and suffocating water. When I’m halted, it takes several beats to speed back up again. The only way to consistently zoom through its stages is to memorize them.
Pizza Tower, on the other hand, knows exactly what it is. Peppino moves like the bus from Speed, bursting through walls and obliterating most enemies in his way. When you dash, his legs spin like a wheel and his body glows in technicolor. When you change direction, it sounds like a car screeching. When you pivot into a super jump, Peppino rockets infinitely into the air. The little guy beats the hell out of himself, smashing stomach-first onto bricks and slamming into dead ends. It’s a constant kinetic thrill, the kind I want from any platformer. Like Mario’s brisk hop or Donkey Kong’s weighty slams, Peppino’s runaway-train dashing feels distinctly his own.
The key is that you actually have space to explore this form of movement. The fact that Peppino can’t die plays a big role — less fear encourages less hesitation. Beyond that, it only takes a second to pick up speed, and the zoomed-out camera gives you just enough time to see what’s coming. Crucially, the controls are simple. Wall-running, wall-jumping and diving under ledges only requires one button press. Pizza Tower has you complete strings of precise moves, but it’s built on instinct more than memorization. It understands it’s partially a racing game, not just a platformer. Indeed, to get the highest rank in a stage, you must complete a “Lap 2.”
Pizza Tower’s rousing kinetics are enough for me to like it. But what makes me love it is its Nintendo-like commitment to exploring new abilities and sensations. One moment you’re stampeding on a hot dog horse, the next you’re a loosely floating ghost, then you’re stopping to play a warped game of golf (a Wario nod). Importantly, Pizza Tower takes care to discard these ideas once they’ve run their course. Sometimes, it’ll introduce a mechanic only to subvert it in the back half of the same level.
Everything in Pizza Tower adds to its distinct sense of character. The art style looks like a dream you’d have after downing a meat-lovers pizza and falling asleep to a Rocko’s Modern Life marathon. Peppino is a realized character, scared and pissed, purely through the evocative animation and movement. The incredible soundtrack is funkyandfierce, itself a throwback to Dreamcast-era Sega yet completely its own. And it’s all funny! Not just in its natural physical comedy, but in its jokes — you haven’t truly hated The Noid until you play this game.
I haven’t even talked about the boss fights (honest duels that strike that “tough but fair” balance) or the ending (one of the most intense and cathartic sequences I’ve played) or the amazing WAR. But I’ll conclude by saying Pizza Tower is a model for how to make an homage game. Its inspirations are as clear as day, but it doesn’t rehash the past. Instead, Tour de Pizza has thought through how to ignite the spirit of a classic while making it rawer, livelier and a little more unhinged. Every year, I see people fawn over focus-tested blockbusters and pure pastiche projects. Pizza Tower’s thrilling wildness rejects them — it couldn’t be anything but itself.
This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/pizza-tower-is-the-wario-land–sonic-crossover-i-didnt-know-i-wanted-130022186.html?src=rss