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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

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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.

2015-05-11_00003Being 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.”

2015-05-11_00006Games 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.

JET GUNNER

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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.


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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.

2015-05-11 12_30_31-GreenshotBreaking 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.

2015-05-11 12_31_51-GreenshotThe 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.)

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Josh Bray
Josh has worked in IT for over 15 years. Graduated Broadcasting school in 2012 with a fo­cus on A/V pro­duc­tion. Amateur pho­tog­ra­ph­er with a pas­sion to make things work… by any means nec­es­sary. Editor-in-Chief and do-er of tech things at SuperNerdLand