My Friend Pedro

Developed by: DeadToast Entertainment

Published by: Devolver Digital

Available on: Nintendo Switch, PC

Like a contented diner at a restaurant trying to figure out what makes a particular spin on a traditional dish so delectable, I found myself wondering why “My Friend Pedro” is such a quality arcade experience. As someone who has been playing video games since the Reagan era, I’ve played more than my fair share of side-scrolling games where the object is, generally, to move from one side of the screen to the other and annihilate everyone in sight. “My Friend Pedro” clings to this template, but it adds just enough spice to keep familiarity from breeding contempt.

The Pedro of the title is a talking banana who awakens you at the beginning of the game. It would seem that you were knocked unconscious and left on the floor of an industrial building until one Mitch the Butcher can add you to the ersatz meat he peddles as part of a front used to hide illegal weapon sales. (Notice, I didn’t say arms sales. Wah, wah.) Who you are and why you should have ended up where you did aren’t revealed until just before the game’s finale. Given that this is a throwback-style bullet fest with a talking banana, the story is obviously breezy. Its cleverest moment comes when it puts you on the track of Ophelia, the Dictator of the Internet. To get to the Internet, you have to jump into a sewer that’s populated with homicidal, lifelong gamers who were raised on violent video games — picture a bunch of gun-toting bearded dudes in T-shirts.

What separates “My Friend Pedro” from any number of run-and-gun side-scrollers is the emphasis it places on graceful movement. The best way to dodge incoming bullets is to tap the controller’s left bumper, which makes your masked gunslinger twirl around like a runaway fire hose. When mixed with wall jumps, dives through the air, rolls along the ground, and the dual-wielding of weapons, the action takes on the look of a hopped-up Hong Kong action flick. In a smart concession to accessibility, the game allows players to slow down time by clicking down on the left thumbstick, making it that much easier to follow the trajectory of projectiles and navigate tricky platforming sequences. This slowdown mechanic is tied to a meter that gradually replenishes when not in use. I found the meter to be quite generous, so much so that I never stumbled into any roadblocks in the game that frustrated me for long.

Because your performance is graded at the end of each level, and bonuses are allotted for completing levels quickly and thoroughly, skilled players will want to refrain from using the slow-motion mechanic as a crutch while they try to pick off everyone in sight. As for the levels themselves, they escalate in difficulty gradually, without any sharp spikes. New wrinkles are introduced, such as electric currents that must be dodged or temporarily disabled, as well as levers and enemies that require one to perform ricocheting shots off hanging platforms to activate or eliminate, respectively. Motorcycle, skateboard and helicopter-hat sections change the pace up a bit.

Though “My Friend Pedro” will certainly not make anyone rethink their assumptions about video games, it induced in me a feeling of kinetic bliss. I enjoyed running through its paces because the levels, with their pulsating electronic music, encourage a sort of heedless flow. I never grew bored of the game’s hypnotic game play loops. Considering that “My Friend Pedro” was designed, coded and written by one person, Victor Agren, its simple-seduction strategy is no mean feat.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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