Enjoyment is mandatory; survival is not.
I vaguely remember reading George Orwell’s literary classic 1984 in high school; to be fair, most of high school was a blur anyway, but nothing sucks the joy out of reading more than being assigned a book. Besides, how much of society can one high schooler understand when they’re barely even in it to begin with?
Years later, my affinity for pixel games drew me to Ministry of Broadcast, a platformer that demands creative problem-solving wrapped up in an Orwellian universe. With society’s lines drawn between the broadcasters and the watchers, everything is under surveillance, and there’s no question about it — they see all.
The premise of Ministry of Broadcast is a little convoluted, but unravels over time; you are… you. Shoeless. Ginger. Orangey. You have no name, no role, but you must do your best anyway, and without boots to… boot. At what, exactly?
It’s complicated, but the rules of this Orwellian society is that there’s a show with cops, prisoners, and contestants. The cops and prisoners will do their thing while you, the contestant, must complete daring dos in multiple arenas for the entertainment of those watching. Your motivation? To beat the game so that you may obtain a VISA to go over the wall and see your family on the other side.
The arenas, of course, are veritable OSHA regulation nightmares — where some arenas have you crawling through rat-infested pipes and raw sewage, others will have you jumping around in radiation sectors without a suit, piranha-populated waters, and bomb-dodging after being shut out from shelters. It’s a dangerous game you’re playing, and it’s unlikely anyone will come out a winner… or even alive.
These arenas in theory are supposed to be straightforward — get from point A to point B — but, like your standard platformer, there are a plethora of challenges preventing a path through. Unlike your standard platformer, it’s less about killing foes and a mastery of the environment but constantly thinking outside of the box, being open to trying multiple strategies, and relearning how environments work.
For example, throughout most of the levels, you can use prisoners to your benefit in a sense that their bodies can be used to block sewers, provide pathways on top of spikes, or distract cops or dogs while you get away. When they’re on spikes, you can walk backwards and forwards on top of them — don’t worry, they’re wearing extremely thick clothing so they’re not harmed, just miffed af that you’re pushing them around…
…until you get to the last stage, when, unbeknownst to you, they haven’t been given all that extra padding, and the results are fatal.
What this means for you is that there’s no going back — your bridge is gone, so you can’t backtrack, only press on. Which is fine, but it’s just that “keeping you on your toes” aspect that permeates the entire game. So much is constantly being thrown at you that it feels like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire every waking moment, never being able to catch your breath, but there’s a certain degree of excitement and delight at that. Instead of being angry at the next challenge, you’re looking forward to the next outrageous level, anticipating the ingenious design and brain-teasing puzzles that await.
Although consistently re-learning environments is definitely a major part, the clear winner of Ministry of Broadcast is being able to think outside of the box. You’ll see what looks like the most likely path forward and die over and over again trying to get it right, only to fail enough times to realize that maybe, just maybe, you’re doing it wrong. So you try a different approach, and suddenly you’re through… hundreds of deaths later.
It’s at these points where it’s easy to feel frustrated and want some better direction, and this is another area where Ministry of Broadcast is unique. Observant gamers will notice certain hints hidden all throughout the levels that, when applied, prove the best way forward. Signs like arrows to point out the right direction, a jumping figure to show a running leap is necessary, or a giant statue of an animal showing which foe is next are all clues that will prep the gamer accordingly. These signs also provide flavor text, with slogans such as “we see all,” “enjoyment is mandatory,” and “yes, this is gulag” are delightful in world-building in a way that doesn’t take itself seriously and never forgets its medium.
As Ministry of Broadcast progresses, the world-building continues, framed around self-awareness and the fact that it is a video game. When a character dies and the group decides to hold a minute of silence in remembrance, for example, 60 real-life seconds pass, and they’re unskippable. After the 60 seconds, one of the characters remarks that he didn’t think it’d take that long, which is literally all you can think of for those 60 oddly frustrating seconds.
It doesn’t stop there. Your only “friend,” The Crow, will explain how your world came to be as you pass through conveniently placed murals throughout the arenas. At certain points, you. again, can’t skip the dialog. When The Crow starts talking about generals arguing “back and forth, back and forth,” your character is moved back and forth, as if by some cosmic power The Crow possesses. Your relationship with The Crow is never fully explained, and it’s questionable if they’re even real, but they become a powerful force nonetheless, and one that I’m sure means… something?
Whatever that something is never feels fully fleshed out; in fact, the symbolism and storyline behind Ministry of Broadcast leaves more questions than answers. It’s easy to just get immersed immediately and accept the platformer for what it is, but the connections to Orwell’s 1984 are slightly missed. Unlike the novel, the protagonist never really sets out to take down the system, and in fact, plays right into it. There’s no actual romance portrayed on-screen, just a backstory and some dialogue that denotes his faraway family. And the “backstabbing” that happens in the game doesn’t even compare to 1984’s critical turning point where the main character is legitimately and truly backstabbed by someone he looked up to. The connections are there, and certainly more than tenuous, but they are muddled and lost; instead, it tells a stronger story on its own, and one that doesn’t need to tout a literary likeness to stand on its own legs.
Normally, I’d knock a game for creating a marketing campaign around something less-than-concrete, but Ministry of Broadcast is just too strong to take damage like that. It’s been decades since I’ve played a platformer that I literally could not put down, and I’ve never seen one where puzzles take such a precedence — in fact, the platforms are a mere conduit for the puzzles, which are seriously some of the best designed I’ve ever seen. Never once do you feel that the game is unbeatable, as you know it can be done, but you get unbelievably angry each time you die since success can sometimes hinge upon a mere pixel or a fraction of a second. The Dark Souls of pixel art platformers, Ministry of Broadcast is an exercise in masochism, and it feels SO GOOD to be able to say I’ve completed it in its entirety.
Additionally, I was both delighted and angry by how often the game played with me. At one point, you have an option to go left or right down a tunnel, with the most obvious option appearing to be right. As you progress down the tunnel, The Crow sees you and steps on a switch to shut the door in your face, teasing you. Swearing at the screen, I backtracked until The Crow moved off the switch, then sneakily tried to approach the door again. Just when it looked like I was getting close, The Crow covered the switch again, slamming the door once more. I tried this a few times, cursing at The Crow, until I decided to check out other options and being surprised that I had them.
At another point, your character is atop some construction platforms with ice covering the ledges. In previous levels, we’ve learned that slipping on ice can prove fatal, but with careful maneuvering, you can slide across quickly. As the protagonist looks below him, he sees a vast stretch of ice with some ’60s surfer rock music playing in the background, the cue being that you are supposed to slide across a long distance. Looking forward to the notion, I took the cue and surfed for probably a full minute…
…until an icicle fell and impaled me, killing me inches from the finish line. It was clear that was bait, and I was supposed to tiptoe across gently to avoid death by icicle. Like, damn, the game literally lured me into an action and punished me for trusting it.
And that’s why Ministry of Broadcast deserves all the praise. It’s a game that plays you just as much as you play it. You become equally as frustrated with the levels as the protagonist does and can really put yourself in his shoes (figuratively speaking, of course, as he doesn’t have them). There’s never a moment where you truly feel like you beat the game — instead, you’ve merely survived it, and in some cases, the game beat you. Hell, depending on which ending you choose, the game really beat you, and you’re left mouth agape as it ceaselessly flings more surprises your way.
I know I haven’t touched on anything like controls (which are easy to learn but hard to master) and art (which is stunning), but I feel like I’ve conveyed what’s most important — Ministry of Broadcast is extraordinarily deep for what appears to be a brutal platformer. I probably won’t play another game like it, and I’m not sure I want to, either. An exercise in endurance as much as skill, I was surprised at how Ministry of Broadcast made me feel, more than anything; frustration and the self (and not the game), shocking moments that made me angrily guffaw, and the immersion that blurred the lines between me and the protagonist. This is a masterpiece, despite its few flaws (typos out the ass, guys), and one that absolutely deserves to be in anyone’s library.
I will say this — I can’t imagine playing this without a controller, and I shudder at the thought of trying to play this on my PC. The Switch is where Ministry of Broadcast shines, and I think it would be a disservice to your console to not have this pixel platforming gem.
Ministry of Broadcast is a game like no other. Strangely cerebral and creatively deranged until the last possible moment, Ministry of Broadcast will absolutely challenge the platforming fans while providing endless amusement and frustration to the problem-solving crowd. The overall storyline may not make the most sense, but the immersion is definitely there and you’ll be too busy trying to get through it alive to pay much attention. Above all, you’ll walk away from the experience wondering if you really beat the game or just survived the ordeal. If you’re a fan of platformers, pixel art, or just really want to give your brain a brutal workout, you must pick up a copy of Ministry of Broadcast. Good broadcast!
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PC, Nintendo Switch (reviewed); Publisher: Hitcents; Developer: Ministry of Broadcast Studios; Players: 1; Released: April 30, 2020; MSRP: $14.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a copy of Ministry of Broadcast given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.