There are a lot of retro and retro-inspired games out there today. A lot. Browsing Steam provides you with a cornucopia filled with titles that take inspiration from retro gameplay and aesthetics. Some seem to want to bank on the familiarity that a certain design approach provides, and instill their work with the essences of games from past eras. Others may not have the time or skill set to work on games in certain engines that focus on more 3D-based experiences.
The kind of game I am here to talk about today, though, is the kind that works within the specific design structures of older systems, like the NES or the Sega Master System. These games embrace the limitations in color palettes, sound chips, sprite and level designs from older systems. Maybe the creators were long time players of NES or C64 games themselves and want to pay homage to their inspirations, or they want to test out and hone their design skills by making the next great new “classic” game. You can look at a game like Shovel Knight as a prime example of this trend in action and succeeding at it.
These games provide an excellent tool for designers to level up their skills while offering games that cater to a nostalgia driven audience, and opening the doors for younger players to experience the style of game us older folks had to walk uphill both ways in the snow to play.
In the first of an ongoing series looking at these style of games, I’m going to get into an overview and impressions of Castle in the Darkness and Jet Runner. These are two games I would term NES-like, in that they work to conform to the limitations provided by the NES. From the palette choice to the control scheme — besides memory limit being a thing of the past — these titles work to emulate the styles of older games that I think many readers will be familiar with.
It is of note that these are provided as impressions. I am over halfway through each title and feel that is well enough for an informed opinion, but would not consider these full-on reviews.
CASTLE IN THE DARKNESS
Castle in the Darkness is a game developed by Matt Kap, who also worked on Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. It’s published by Nicalis, who also published BoI: Rebirth. This one is an adventure platformer much in the vein of Castlevania 2 (sans nightly curse annoyances) if you mushed it with Ys III.
You get the open-ended world that Castlevania 2 offered, but with a better variety of scenery and level design, along with a series of progressively different and powered-up weapons and armor. Magic comes into play, too, with different spells unlocking secrets within the games dungeons and balancing out physical weaponry.
The game’s story is a sparse but efficient one, even providing a couple twists. After the initial setup, the story is mainly told through in-game sequences without dialog, but they do their job well enough, with characters emoting in exaggerated fashions to convey context. You are thrown into the action fairly abruptly after starting, but with a rousing tune that leads you into that action.
The music and sound design is a point of high favor in my eyes (or ears, as it were). The music in Castle in the Darkness is filled with well-arranged chip tunes, and has rousing melodies and beats to make you feel properly heroic as you go about your quest. The sound effects are well done, with hits, kills, jumps and special moves having a very satisfying feel when combined with the tight control scheme.
Being NES-inspired, Castle in the Darkness uses minimal controls; D‑pad, Select, Start, A and B are what you have. This leaves certain things, like switching out your equipped magic or weapon, to be done at save points. It’s only a slight annoyance, as you can equip newly acquired items and skills as soon as you get them, and save points are not sparse enough to make it an an issue to switch up.
Where those save points do become an annoyance, though, is in their placement. In some areas farther in the game, a save point will be five or more screens away from a boss fight. While not always a problem, there are enough times that your route from a save point to a boss will be littered with enough enemies or hazards that will take down your health in a significant amount, if you are not precise with every movement just to get as good a chance at the boss as you can. This can lead to some serious rage-quit moments, but if you enjoy the underlying charm of the game, like I do, then you will always come back for a little more punishment.
You are rewarded in a slight way for dying, at least. Extras, like early versions of the game, are unlocked when you reach certain thresholds of death amounts. And Castle in the Darkness is not easy, so you will not have to farm deaths just to unlock these “achievements.”
Games like this tend to rely on nods and references to other nostalgic properties, and Castle in the Darkness has this in spades. A bit too much, if I have to be frank. The odd joke or reference here and there is fine, but this game takes it to an extreme. They are cute and offer a quick laugh, but the references come so often they outweigh what little story there is there already. There are a couple non-referential jokes in there that I won’t spoil for you, and it is obvious Matt Kap is trying to keep a lighter tone to the story presentation. I just feel that this game relies way too much on “Hey, look at this! This is from a game we all know. *wink wink*” to get its humor across.
All in all, Castle in the Darkness is a fun adventure platformer with tight controls, decent level design, a memorable score, and enough secrets to give the completionists plenty of gameplay to really dig into. It doesn’t do anything new. What it does do, though, it does well. It’s not going to convert people who shy away from retro-style games or platformers to the cause, but I think the audience this game was made for will get a lot of fun from it.
Castle in the Darkness is currently available on Steam for $5.99 USD or your local equivalent.
The next game we are looking at today is another platformer, but this one is on the action side of the coin. Jet Gunner is a run-and-gun action platformer developed and published by Sinclair Strange. This is his only game on Steam, but Sinclair Strange has more fun titles under his belt over on Newgrounds. Put simply, Jet Gunner is unabashedly Contra inspired with bits of Megaman-esqe level design thrown in. And a jetpack. Who doesn’t love jetpacks? The story is actually a bit better than Contra’s, insomuch as you do actually get one! It’s there just as a lever to start the action, and given the style of game it is trying to emulate, a deep story is not really needed for this experience.
In Jet Gunner, your goal is to essentially get from the left to the right of the screen as alive as possible. That would seem to deflate the fun factor when described that way, but this is the modus operandi of this style of game. What makes these games enjoyable are how satisfying the action is, and how immersed you can find yourself in staying alive. Thankfully, like the aforementioned Castle in the Darkness, the controls are tight enough that most failings are your own fault.
Jet Gunner tosses save points aside for an older style of 3‑lives-with-unlimited-continues. The six stages are split into multiple sections, with deaths sending you back to the beginning of that section; continuing after spending all your lives sends you back to the start of the level itself. After you unlock the next level, it is saved, thankfully, so you won’t have to start the game over again when you end your current play session.
Breaking down the Jet Gunner‘s title into its main elements, jetting around and weaponry, I can say the title does very well. Flying around with the jetpack is as satisfying as that concept should sound, and your fuel auto-magically regenerates, so you don’t have to worry about having to pick up items to refill your fuel. The weapons are varied and all of them are useful in certain situations, but unfortunately they are randomly generated, so it can be easy to get into a situation where you have a gun that is horrible for your current predicament. Jet Runner even has Gradius-style Options, orbs that will float with you that have guns of their own and will assist you, and there are upgrades specifically for them.
This game does become the definition of “NES hard” after a certain level. If that idea turns you off, then this title may not be for you. For those already downloading the game because everything sounds amazing so far, know that you will get a decent amount of replayability if you are masochistic enough to go through the Hardcore mode that ups the difficulty on multiple fronts. It also features a series of challenges to test your skills and give the completionist-types something to work for.
The only serious issue I feel the need to bring up is the controller issue I have. Jet Gunner does offer controller support — but not rebinding. The issue I had with my Xbox 360 gamepad is that I cannot use the D‑pad control scheme. The D‑pad just will not work. When I select analog control, everything is fine. This is not a deal breaker for me, as I can just use a key binding program, but it is something I hope to see fixed in the near future.
Jet Gunner isn’t going to change your life, and it’s not going to win any awards. Those not interested in this genre of game are likely best to just pass this one by. But if anything about the words “well done Contra-like” piques your interest, then I suggest giving this affordable title a look.
Jet Gunner is currently available on Steam for $3.99 USD or your local equivalent.
(Disclaimer: The copy of Castle in the Darkness mentioned was purchased by the writer, the copy or Jet Gunner mentioned was given as a gift.)