CL005 - A 2015 retro game retrospective
Retro graphics came back into vogue at the outset of the indie video game revolution. At the time, there were two clear motives behind that choice. One, indie devs didn’t have the time or money to develop their games in more sophisticated styles without compromising on design. Two, nostalgia for games of a bygone era was fever-pitched by the time the 360 and PS3 were settling in as the current consoles.
While those are both still technically excuses one could make, I believe the continued appeal of retro 8/16-bit graphics has become more nuanced. The Unity game engine has shot a big hole in the first motive: making a good-looking game using a modern development platform is literally an order of magnitude easier than it used to be. 1- and 2-person teams are cranking out technically beautiful work all the time now. The second motive still plays to some audiences, but today it’s part of a larger context that has less to do with nostalgia than it does with a basic philosophy: more is not better. There’s a lot you can do within the limitations of blocky art, and many people are making good arguments that Nintendo didn’t exhaust those possibilities back in the day.
Here are five video games from 2015 that share the retro aesthetic but little else. Only one is unambiguously nostalgic (Axiom Verge). While they all have great music, only one adheres to the chiptune style of the era its presumably imitating (Downwell). Some feel like arcade games; some don’t. Some require fast muscle memory to play well; some don’t. Some have been in Early Access on Steam since the Super Nintendo era; some actually just came out when they were supposed to. They are all pixelated snowflakes, and I recommend them all for different reasons.
Devolver Digital publishes a lot of games that seem built around the old line: “Perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.” Downwell isn’t quite perfect by that standard, but it’s close. The game is controlled with three buttons. The graphics are deliberately, aggressively retro. There’s no story to speak of—nearly no words, in fact. There are only really four levels in the game with a grand total of maybe 20 enemies. At first blush, that might not sound like the list of attributes you’d proudly display on the back of a box.
Thankfully, there’s another maxim Devolver Digital games tend to nail: “Gameplay is king”. Part and parcel to having so little else to concern themselves with, I assume that the devs/dev at Moppin got plenty of time to make sure that hopping on enemies and shooting them with your gunboots felt right, and it does. It took me about an hour to get the rhythm fully down, but once down it has the intuitive feel of riding a bike where I’m not even thinking about it as it happens. I was still struggling to pull off longer combos multiple hours in, but I’m not very good at twitch games so I’m willing to assume that’s on me.
When it’s brought up in discussion, Downwell keeps getting compared to Spelunky, the brutal cave platformer from four years ago. I can understand that comparison if all you’ve done is look at both games, but the two share almost nothing in common beyond the premise. Downwell is designed around fluid motion rather than tension. In Downwell, you build combos by bouncing off objects without touching the ground, everything is color-coded by effect to improve readability as you fly by enemies (something Spelunky does NOT concern itself with), and the way forward is virtually always apparent. They’re both tough and they’re both roguelikes but, if that’s enough to lump the two together, that says much more about the way we describe games than what these games are.
This is a quintessential “little game”, which would be perfect for a handheld with real buttons. Sadly, phones are not that handheld. This game is out on iOS and Android, but requires greater precision than touch controls can achieve (for me, anyway). It can be played that way, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’ve got a particularly large phone. Otherwise, your fingers will cover too much of the screen and the pitfalls of capacitive touch will probably conspire to push you away from it.
Downwell gets a C.
I’ve played a lot of Nuclear Throne: 38 hours as of this review. The game came about in Early Access two years ago and I scooped it up soon after, drawn in by the promise of some breezy dual-joystick shooter action from the Vlambeer duo. That team had just put a bow on Luftrausers, so I felt comfortable dropping the probably ten bucks to get in on their next project at the ground floor.
To date, I still haven’t even reached the Nuclear Throne. A day and a half of revisiting it over a year hasn’t yielded the prize and, though I’m tempted to just say I suck at games like this (which I certainly do), I feel like another force is at play here.
Vlambeer devotes a lot of development time to honing the look and feel of their games. You’d think that would start having diminishing returns in a game as lo-fi as Nuclear Throne, but I submit that this is the spade up the game’s sleeve. When things “hit”, not only does the screen shake, the game actually drops frames like you’re bogging down the CPU or something. This is satisfying in a way that supercedes progress. Using explosive weapons like the bazooka is irresponsibly dangerous if you’re trying to win, but a no-brainer if you’re looking to have the best possible time. Is this just an excuse for my garbage execution? It sure is, and I stand by it. Enjoy your dang self. Nuclear Throne will show you how.
Nuclear Throne gets a B.
Crypt of the Necrodancer
Gimmicks get a bad rap. We tend to use that word to imply a contrivance or a cheap trick, which sometimes makes me wonder if we really understand what games are. A game is just a set of rules, and if you come up with a rule internally robust enough to support a game in its wake, the peculiarity or arbitrariness of that rule shouldn’t weigh it down in our minds. Otherwise, we blow off games like Crypt of the Necrodancer, which would be a loss.
Crypt’s gimmick restricts your movement to the tempo of the background music. You have to fight your way through caves full of enemies who are all spellbound by the everpresent beats of Danny Baranowsky (of Super Meat Boy fame). Each enemy has a specific predictable logic of motion, and you’ve got until the next beat to figure out which of the four cardinal directions won’t get you killed. This creates a novel combination of turn-based and real-time combat: everybody moves in a prescribed fashion, but your time to process what’s going on is limited. I believe the music gimmick is well-executed and would recommend the game to anyone who is interested in it: it delivers on its mission of intertwining music with gameplay.
That said, there’s tons of room for evolution and iteration on the design. Crypt is only 4 worlds with 3 levels a piece plus bosses and, even within those few, a handful of levels feel uninspired. Throughout its time in Early Access of Steam, the game was just sort of expanding without purpose like a blob. There are as many characters and items and map elements in the game as the developers could think of, and virtually no curation seems to have taken place. In fact, other meta-mechanics were gradually introduced to deal with the bloat indirectly, such as a janitor who will remove items you don’t want to see from the game. A Crypt of the Necrodancer 2 (or a competing brand with its own twist on the formula), designed with focus, could be very special. For a first go, though, I absolutely think this is worth checking out.
Crypt of the Necrodancer gets a B.
Metroid is almost as old as Super Mario and Zelda. Many people consider the series to be a primary pillar of Nintendo’s empire but, unlike those other two, Nintendo has been loathe to exploit the franchise over time. We can assume out of hand that there are people working on an upcoming Mario and Zelda game at all times, but Metroid fans have had to be more patient.
This hasn’t stopped other developers from trying to scratch that itch for people between droughts. Metroid even became part of a clunky genre (Metroidvania) describing games about mechanically gated platforming. Most games carrying that label don’t ape Metroid’s style—only its template. Not Axiom Verge. It looks and plays like Metroid from an alternate universe, for good and ill. You might not be a galactic heroine in shining armor, but you are definitely jumping and shooting your way through sci-fi caverns full of biomechanical creatures.
If that’s all you want from it, don’t let me rain on your parade: this game delivers on the “More Metroid” platform. It feels as good as any of them and usually looks better. The glitching effects in particular subvert the retro art style and help keep up a surreal mood. For me, though, Axiom Verge feels old in a bad way. This kind of platforming hasn’t necessarily been done to death but it has absolutely been done before and, in a year where games like Ori and the Blind Forest are setting the standard for movement, this just doesn’t cut it anymore. You’re given plenty of guns to fire, but the hassle of shooting around 2D corners using strict 8-way controls hasn’t suddenly become enjoyable over the years since I played Metroid Fusion. Every time you get a powerup that mirrors one of Samus’s without being exactly the same thing, I got a twinge from the novelty, but it was always shortlived. There are also bosses who are more than one bad-guy-filled room away from their companion save point, making replay of difficult boss fights even more frustrating than having to fight retro 2D platforming bosses in 2015 already is.
I appreciate what Axiom Verge does. It manages to remind me precisely of the games that inspired it while messing with them in cool ways. The problem is with the inspiration itself. I get the feeling Nintendo leaves Metroid fallow for years at a time because they aren’t sure what to do with it. Axiom Verge doesn’t seem to either.
Axiom Verge gets a C.
Westerado: Double Barreled
If the brand associations in your head are anything like mine, you could play through Westerado Double Barreled back to front and not once think “Adult Swim”. I have no idea what Adult Swim is doing these days on television, but their games division has been steadily making a name for itself. Granted, they only published this particular title, but I’m certainly glad they did so that the Ostrich Banditos could build their little Flash game into a more complete experience.
Westerado is a mystery-revenge tale, set in an intensely stereotypical gunslinging Wild West. You traverse the plains looking for clues about the appearance of the man who killed your family. At any time, you can pull out your gun and either accuse someone of or shoot someone for the crime. This element shows the Flash roots of the game more than any other: you can actually get lucky and just randomly kill the right person, winning the game in less than 5 minutes.
Thankfully, with the extra budget and time allotted them, the developers built a world worth hanging around in for a little while longer. It is pretty expansive…almost too much so at times. There are dozens of little sideshows to attend to in your search for the truth. The writing isn’t period-appropriate, but it’s all clever enough that that’s okay. The gunplay is also appropriately silly for the look and feel of the game (your health is represented by hats that get shot off when you’re hit). I hesitate to call it cohesive because that would imply a strength of narrative the game doesn’t have, but my time in Westerado was nearly always entertaining for the two hours I was there.
Two hours isn’t a terribly long time, but it feels about right. Unless they had blown out the story in some other direction, the goal of finding and killing the murderer wouldn’t have held the plot together for much longer than that. Two hours was just enough time for me to see all I wanted to see without getting bored, and still long enough that when I finally saw my target on screen I got a good “Oh shit is that him?” rush as I frantically pulled up my Wanted poster to double check the details. There are also about fifty endings, all of which are silly. It’s a solid little novelty.
Westerado gets a B.