February 24, 2015 2 Comments
I’m reviewing far too many neo-retro games. 8BitBoy lured me with a siren song of colorful, convincing retro graphics and a modest $0.99 price tag (when it was on sale. Price is now $3.99). An opening narration eases you into the charming, Neverending Story-like setting of a man who discovers that one of his beloved Sega Master System cartridges from his long-lost childhood has a label with a missing title. He plugs it in, and suddenly he’s in the game. I loved the idea. So it’s a real shame that the storyline never pops up again, at least until you beat the final boss. Only it does the Bubble Bobble thing where you have to get all the correct items to unlock the true ending. I didn’t bother trying, but for those who purchase 8BitBoy, you’ll be happy to know that it put a lot of stock in replay value. That is, assuming you can look past some of the worst play control seen in a good indie platformer that I’ve experienced.
8BitBoy handles awfully, at least with an Xbox One controller. Part of that is on me and my clearly-demonically possessed left thumb. No matter how many times I rest it on the d-pad and tell it “you will use THIS! The stick is no good!” the damn thing has a life of its own. Serves me right for smoking nutmeg that one time. But, actually, stick or d-pad, movement is ultra slippery. The best example of how movement needed a lot of tuning up are the Super Mario like vines. Sometimes you’ll hit a block and a vine will come out. The act of climbing this vine should not be a chore, but simply going up it in a straight line is agony. I kept wiggling to the left and right. I’m told this is much easier with a keyboard. Um, yea? So what? Who wants to play a 2D hop-‘n’-bop platformer with a keyboard? I don’t. I haven’t spoken with the developer so I can only speculate what happened, but I’m guessing he designed the game to be played with a keyboard and the controller support was only added afterwards. When you turn on the controller, the cursor for selecting stuff from the menu is also mapped to the controller, even though it still handles like it’s mapped to the mouse.
There’s a lot of other weird control issues. The game does the Super Mario “hit the block to reveal the item or get coins” thing. Only in 8BitBoy, you have to be perfectly lined up with the block or just bonk off it to no effect. There’s really no benefit to making a player be perfectly lined up. It’s just busy work. Like Three Dead Zed, 8BitBoy feels like the all the movement physics are transplanted from a different game. There is no one-sized-fits-all style of movement physics. Two of my favorite-controlling platformers are Super Meat Boy and Shovel Knight. Both couldn’t be more different. Take Super Meat Boy’s controls and put them in Shovel Knight and the game would be a disaster. Put Shovel Knight’s into Super Meat Boy and the game would be unbeatable. As a developer of a 2D platformer, you need to make sure the play control is perfect for your game, based on nothing else but how your game should handle. Don’t say “I like how (Game) controls. I’m going to make mine handle that way!” Because what you’ve designed might not lend itself well to that. And for God’s sake, don’t stop testing with complete strangers until the moment you go gold. Once you’ve released, you’re sort of locked in. Ask the Three Dead Zed guys.
I’m really frustrated with 8BitBoy’s loose controls because everything else about it is sublime. I almost never talk about the graphics of a game, but what’s here is practically an 8-bit siren call. 8BitBoy is colorful, inviting, and beautiful. Well, opening level rainstorm not withstanding. Seriously, why would you start your game with a rainstorm? Rainstorms are depressing. Christ, is there some kind of unwritten rule that indies must be at least THIS bleak? I shudder to think of what an indie reboot of Mappy would be like. “Act One: Mappy’s mother just died of cancer. Mappy laid down in bed and began to cut himself. Going too deep, Mappy nicked an artery. Our adventure begins with Mappy slipping into unconsciousness..”
And that level design? Sorry to quote Inspector Gadget, but I’m feeling it here: wowzers. Perfect use of old school tropes here. Excellent moving platforms. Well placed spikes. TONS of hidden pathways and rooms. No matter how bad the controls were, I wanted to experience these stages. When I found a warp zone early on and skipped to the midway point of the second world, I was kind of bummed out. But, the fact that the level design is so inspired only serves to frustrate me with the controls more. How could a developer get one aspect of the game so fucking right and completely and utter airball an equally important component? You know, a common theme in indie gaming is final stages that go out with a whimper instead of a bang. Where you can tell the developer rushed the finale out just so they could see the game released and hear what people have to say about it. 8BitBoy doesn’t have that. The last levels are some of the best in the entire game. Normally that would have me looking to give the closest person a tearful hug of relief. Here, that made me just shake my head and wonder, what if they had got it right?
8BitBoy by all rights should be a top 25 game on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. Does it do anything new? No. Instead, it feels like an all-star version of an old school tribute. Every conventional 2D mechanic is here and damn near perfect. Even though I spent my entire run cussing the controls, I would be lying if I said I didn’t have any fun. 8BitBoy is a lot of fun. It’s yet another one of those “dream game come to life” titles. But this dream game is a bit of a nightmare. The controls are completely unacceptable. I do absolutely recommend 8BitBoy, both to love-sick nostalgic types and cynical nostalgia-hating cynics such as myself. But I also recommend it as an example of a game that does everything right except the thing it needed to do most. Giving a game like this to a fan of platformers (such as myself) is like handing someone a Porsche without a gas pedal that has to be started like Fred Flintstone’s car. Hey, it’s still a Porsche, right! Just be ready to pick glass and rusty nails out of your feet.
$0.99 (normally priced $3.99) didn’t note above that there’s a nasty glitch where sometimes you have a reserve item, go to activate it, and the item is lost with nothing happening. They really ought to fix this in the making of this review.
8BitBoy is Chick Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.