Key Art from Pepper Grinder

Pepper Grinder : A little too much pepper in the Grinder.

Pepper Grinder is announced during Nintendo’s Indie World Showcase in November 2022. The Ahr Ech studio project, led by solo developer Riv Hester, is presented as an edgy, colorful 2D action-platformer. Inspired by other games such as Drill Doser on Gameboy Advance, Dig Dug on arcade terminals, Sonic and Donkey Kong Country, Pepper Grinder promises an extremely satisfying flow and exhilarating platform sequences. The fact that it is published by the renowned independent label Devolver has added even more light to the project, and further personal appeal to the game. After a promising playable demo, what about the final game?

Note: A key of the game was sent to us by the publisher. It was made on PC and I finished it in 4h30 without having found all the collectables. The game has been translated into French and is currently available on PC and Switch. 

Pepper washed up on the beach at the beginning of the game
Pepper washed up on the beach at the beginning of the game

Pepper and Grinder : 

Pepper is a young cyan-haired pirate on a quest for treasure and fame. Rather than stealing like other pirates, Pepper prefers prospecting and discovery. After getting her hands on a nice bundle of gems, she is shipwrecked on an unknown island. Now she’s stranded on the beach, alone on the sand, her eyes in… Well, in the sand too; surrounded by the wreckage of her boat and her precious booty. Soon the island’s creatures, small blue horned animals resembling land narwhals, swarm in. They’re led by a mysterious masked figure with pink hair, who tells them to take your precious booty. Pepper sets off in pursuit, but soon ends up at the bottom of a precipice. And it’s there, in what should have been her tomb, that Pepper finds what will be her salvation – Grinder, an abandoned drill just waiting for her. She soon decides to resume her pursuit and take revenge on those who dispossessed and tried to kill her.  

Pepper and his faithful Grinder
Pepper and his faithful Grinder

A game with many influences:

As you read in the introduction, Pepper Grinder is a 2D action-platformer with a wide range of influences. It draws as much inspiration from the tenors of the genre as from other, very different games. Some of these inspirations are reflected in the way Pepper raises his pirate flag at the end of each level, reminding us of a certain moustachioed plumber. The various cannons present in many levels are a direct homage to the iconic cannons of Donkey Kong Country, energizing the on-screen action and allowing you to play with the off-screen aspects of the levels, as well as varying the timings. All platform fans will be on familiar ground here, as the standards are respected and the clichés of the genre are there.

Pepper raises his flag Mario-style
Pepper raises his flag Mario-style

Riv Hesner describes Pepper Grinder as a cross between Dig Dug and Ecco The Dolphin. Dig Dug gave him the desire for a free, multi-directional platform, where the player digs as he wishes and in the direction he wants to traverse the levels. Although the connection with Ecco The Dolphin is less obvious, it was at the origin of Pepper’s imprecise dolphin-like leaps out of the material before plunging back in, as well as the idea of being forced to move forward without stopping during the drilling phases. The influence of the Sega Megadrive game is then felt in the narrative. Indeed, Ecco The Dolphin had the distinctive feature of a two-part narrative. While the game began as a marine exploration adventure, it quickly descended into a horror story bordering on the supernatural. To a lesser extent, the same is true of Pepper Grinder. It starts out as an ultra-satisfying platformer with a light, relaxed atmosphere, only to move progressively towards a much darker, more violent atmosphere in its second half.

Docteur Pepper and Mister Grinder :

In its presentation and first half of play, Pepper Grinder is a satisfying platformer with very little narrative beyond the short introductory cinematic I summarized two paragraphs above. It concentrates on offering us a pleasant flow, a chill experience that doesn’t aim to go any further. It’s all about digging, excavating gems and having fun. In this part, gameplay and flow are the essence of what the game has to offer. I must say that it was a small personal disappointment that it didn’t, on the surface, have more to tell me.

Pepper and his famous dolphin jumps
Pepper and his famous dolphin jumps

But that was before we got to the second part. Quickly, the atmosphere and settings change, from biomes depicting nature to something more urban, more serious, less bucolic. The challenge, too, changes from platformer to shooter, as the enemies become more numerous and more aggressive. This change is also reflected in the tools at our disposal. Grinder not only allows you to dig, but also to activate a whole range of tools present in the levels. While, in the first part of the game, they were solely platform aids: elevators, cannons, grappling hooks, they now mutate into solutions dedicated to the offensive. Machine guns, missile launchers and even mechas are now an integral part of Pepper’s arsenal. The confrontations become omnipresent, the deaths numerous, the damage massive. Little by little, this simple personal vindictiveness turns into near-genocide, Pepper having obviously read the perfect colonialist’s guide.  

Could it be that our seemingly gentle Pepper has turned into a bloodthirsty monster, driven by a deep-seated desire for revenge? What started out as a victim is turning into a veritable scourge, ravaging everything in her path. Her motives are questionable, for while at first she only wanted to recover her treasure, she now seems to take a particular pleasure in destruction. Indeed, as we make our way across the island, Pepper accumulates a rather colossal amount of wealth, seemingly far more than her stolen chest contained, but that doesn’t stop her from continuing her vindictiveness. Is Pepper really this vulnerable little prospector? Could it be the damaging effect of Grinder’s omnipotence in her arms that makes her lose all rationality?

Pepper disrupts the party
Pepper disrupts the party

Speaking of Grinder, let’s talk about him. Isn’t it almost too nice that he’s wisely waiting for Pepper when she should have died?

Where did it come from, what was it doing here, who did it originally belong to? The answer may lie with Mint, the masked, pink-haired human we saw at the beginning, who ordered the monsters to seize our possessions. What’s certain is that Pepper instantly regains all his vigor after discovering her, as if he were acting directly on her. It suggests a kind of machine with its own consciousness, possessing anyone who uses it. Let’s even imagine that it’s Grinder who’s finally seeking revenge, on Mint for example, who abandoned him or led him astray after his arrival on the island. We’d be better able to understand Pepper’s determination, as she ironically becomes Grinder’s sword-wielding arm. Isn’t that funny?

“Des p’tits trous, des p’tits trous, mais pas toujours des p’tits trous “:

Pepper Grinder takes a peculiar angle for a platform game, that of a heroine who can only make tiny, ridiculous jumps, barely lifting her two feet off the ground. But in Pepper Grinder, we’re going to dig holes, lots of holes, like a frenzied dwarf in search of the heart of the mountain. We’re going to dig holes, but not just any old way – mind you, Pepper is a professional. We’re going to dig them with style, grace and agility. I have to say that all the work done on the drilling and the sensations it provides with the controller in hand is excellent. Through sound and vibration, Grinder gives an impression of power. Cutting through rock in search of gems is already a great sensation, but swimming through matter with such ease is simply exhilarating. Pepper is at home in her environment: from slow and heavy on land, she becomes fast and light underneath, and even flies. Some of the platform sequences become real memory challenges, as the speed is so high and the action window so small. In this sense, it’s reminiscent of the Sonic games, where you had to know the levels like the back of your hand. These fast-paced platforming phases are the most enjoyable in the game, drawing us into their flow and allowing us to simply glide along with a smile on our faces.

A very satisfactory platform phase
A very satisfactory platform phase

The level design also contributes to the enjoyment of the game, with some of the platforming sequences very well thought out. They require you to combine speed and precision in veritable aerial ballets. A little extra salt comes from Pepper’s control during drilling: while swimming in rock is a joy, dolphin jumps on exit are not really precise, giving us the delightful sensation of always being on the edge. All this is made possible by the intelligent construction of the levels, which are proportionally adapted to the margin of error present in the jumps. The only fly in the ointment is the collision zones, which are sometimes at fault. Indeed, sprites sometimes seem to protrude a few pixels beyond the collision zone they represent. This leads to a few glorious misses which, if repeated, can become frustrating.

As in any self-respecting platform game, the levels offer a number of secrets and hiding places, some of which are marked by small cracks in the rock, while others are simply out of sight. These secrets provide the opportunity to unearth the five gold coins adorned with a skull per level. These allow you to buy sticker book pages, one of the game’s collectables, itself directly inspired by the interactivity of Smash Bros Melee and Brawl trophies; but above all, they give you access to the locked levels of each biome. Indeed, the game is divided into four major biomes, each trying to bring its own gameplay gimmick via tools or different surfaces to be drilled. Each contains five levels, one of which is locked, and a boss room. There’s also a store for each world, selling upgrades, cosmetics for Pepper and stickers.

Since I’ve mentioned the bosses, let’s talk about them briefly. Apart from the very last one, which is a real success and offers a sort of synthesis of the game, as well as providing interesting narrative elements in the design of its arena, the other three are, in my opinion, fairly classic and similar in their approach. They don’t impose any real difficulty or radical approach. The good idea is to have based these confrontations on drilling and not on the various tools of the drill, which makes them dynamic, and for some, quite tough.

Battle with Big Bug, the game's first boss
Battle with Big Bug, the game’s first boss

Unfortunately, the fluidity and lightness of these platforming moments are interrupted by other phases that don’t quite match the pleasure of drilling. While the tools and accessories add variety to the gameplay, they too often break the rhythm of the game. Pepper Grinder is all about flow and movement, which are completely broken by the tools and certain interactive elements. The elevators that work with the drill are a time-out that don’t add any real play value. Passages on snowmobiles, which also require the drill to be activated in order to move forward, are nothing more than straight shots with no real stakes or nuance. Things don’t get any better in the second half of the game. With the change in tone and tools available, the interesting platforming phases become rarer and rarer, in favor of fights that quickly become repetitive and break the whole dynamic. Whether it’s the machine gun or the missile launcher, they all seem too powerful, and apart from a short passage through one of the levels in the fourth world, these phases didn’t really challenge me. The only other moments that convinced me were the short sessions aboard the mecha. As well as offering a thrilling sense of power, going through a building has never been so easy, with enemies and debris flying in all directions; it gives the scenes that slightly surreal, end-of-the-world feel that can be found in Kaijū films, for example. A sort of apotheosis of Pepper’s vengeful thirst.

If you’re a fan of scoring, performance or even speedrunning, the game has the good idea of offering a timed mode right from the start.

Artistic direction and soundtrack :

Like many independent games, Pepper Grinder opts for pixel art. I have to say that, visually, it’s a great success, whether on PC or Switch Oled, the vibrant colors are a pleasure for the eyes. Some of the lighting effects are also highly successful. The scenery is teeming with detail, with small destructible elements that bring each image to life. Drilling-related destruction effects are also very well executed, with a good number of particles flying in all directions. Animations are also very fluid, reinforcing the lightness felt with the controller in hand.

An example of the very beautiful scenery and lighting effects.
An example of the very beautiful scenery and lighting effects.

As for Pepper’s design, Riv Hesner says he was inspired by Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara. Here too, we can observe a perfect coherence between the character of Pepper and the artist’s work. Yoshitomo Nara was part of the Japanese Pop Art movement of the 90s. His work, which focuses on isolation and rebellion, takes the form of portraits as gentle as they are disturbing. A nice parallel with the final impression left by Pepper, so cute yet capable of the worst.

For the soundtrack, Riv Hesner chose to entrust it to Xeecee, a multimedia artist as much illustrator, scriptwriter as composer. The soundtrack alternates between almost epileptic tracks, such as the menu music, and more soothing synthesized music, which accompanies the more satisfying gliding phases.  

The most rhythmic OSTs borrow sounds from rock, even ska in the use of brass, and accompany the most intense moments of platforming or boss battles, amplifying the sense of urgency that the gameplay makes us feel.

Example Bug Boss – Xeecee

Bug Boss – Xeecee

Other, more electronic, floating tracks are the perfect accompaniment to these drilling phases of the track.

Example Dulcimer Drama – Xeecee

Dulcimer Drama – Xeecee

Conclusion :

All in all, Pepper Grinder is a good platformer with gameplay that, at times, counts as one of the most exhilarating in the genre. A fairly classic experience that digests its influences and adapts them to its drilling gimmick. A flow game that too often breaks its rhythm with various tools that are not really up to scratch or not always consistent with the game’s philosophy. Is he perhaps overdoing it? It’s also not afraid to try things out on a narrative level, which is to be applauded, even if it will never be as striking or touching as Celeste, for example. Every moment is sublimated by the superb artistic work done on the game. If you’re a fan of platforming, flow games, scoring or even speedrunning thanks to the timed mode, I can’t recommend you enough to embark on the adventure of Pepper and Grinder.

Pepper, Grinder and one of the island's giant inhabitants exchange a glance.
Pepper, Grinder and one of the island’s giant inhabitants exchange a glance.

Developer interviews :

Kryzts Bates –
Link interview

Gemma Johnson – Gamerant/
link interview

Sources :

Data sheet Yoshitomo Nara – Artnet

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