NEScape! (NES Indie Review)

“Oh GOD, she’s doing another escape game.” Yea, in case you haven’t noticed, my family is obsessed with escape rooms, including mail-order “escape crates” and board games that are functionally single-use mysteries that may or may not be destroyed in the process of playing them. Hell, they even make Clue-branded ones now. Of course, our favorites are the actual brick & mortar ones. They’re like real life video games. It’s you, your friends and/or family, and a room full of puzzles. The object is to just get out the door, typically within a one hour time limit. Taking an experience that’s supposed to replicate the feel of a video game IN REAL LIFE and putting it in, well, a video game, seems redundant, but I’m so happy they exist. Escape Rooms can be hell of expensive (we spend usually $100 to $150 per one hour session). Not only do video escape rooms let people test the waters to see if this is the type of thing they’d like to go try, but they’re cost-efficient too! But, they have to be done right. Escape Simulator has shown how (just stay away from the user rooms unless you like old-school adventure video games since that’s what users tend to do with the engine). And hell, they don’t even need to be truly 3D or “high tech” to do well. Look at Cape’s Escape Games on Nintendo Switch. We’ve enjoyed them all, along with the Japanese Escape Game series that uses basically the same interface but is apparently a different company. There’s also tons of 3D escape rooms of, shall we say, less than stable build quality. About the only thing the Vice Family has not attempted is an 8-bit escape room. Until now.

Even the title screen is a puzzle. Thankfully, you can skip it if.. likely WHEN.. you need to replay the game.

I wanted to like this so much. Going into NEScape, I figured it’d be a novelty-at-best experience. Hey, it’s the Escape Room phenomena, only as a Nintendo Entertainment System cartridge. But, my expectations were quickly tempered. There were a few warning signs, the first of which was the hideous cover art that looked like absolutely no thought or consideration was put into it. At the point of sale, your first impression is the cover/logo for your game. You’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but when the cover art looks like this:

.. yea, that’s a red flag. Why not have 8-bit pixel art showing escape room elements? That’s the point of the game, right? The only reason you’d want to play it: an 8-bit escape room on the NES. Not only that, but there are people who specifically like pixel art style games. I’m one of them. But, if I had seen this on the store page, I’m not entirely sure I’d of clicked the page to see what the graphics actually look like. Not with this cover. Just having “NES” in the name isn’t enough. Yes, that’s an incredibly nit-picky thing to whine about, but a pet peeve of mine is bad cover art. It bothers me even for games I don’t like. You went through all the effort of making a video game, and THIS is the first impression you want to make at the point of sale? NEScape actually has really good graphics as far as NES Indies go, but you wouldn’t know it from this.

So, that was ominous sign of the type of consideration that went into making this. But the real canary in the coalmine was the instruction book’s warning about time running out and how not to give up, because you’ll make it a little further every time. Oh dear. Yes, hour time limits are the primary challenge in real escape rooms. But, strict time limits should not carry over to video game escape rooms. Among other reasons, real rooms have a better user interface. It’s called reality. You don’t have to figure out the controls of reality. You just act. You can pick stuff up and examine it with your own hands. You can move about freely. You can focus on whatever you want to without having to move a cursor around to switch rooms or click on objects to get a close look. Escape Rooms also need the time limit because they’re a business that has to do multiple sessions every day to be economically viable. On days where they’re not jam-packed or have no walk-ins, most generally allow players to continue past the time limit if they fail (especially if they’re close to the end). Strict time limits only make sense in real rooms on busy days.

There’s four “rooms” to look at (hypothetically one room with four sides. This house wasn’t made by Thomas Jefferson). There’s a curve to figuring out where to click to advance to the next room.

In the non-corporeal world of video games, you DO have to fumble with interfaces. You DO have to fumble with a cursor. You DO have to fumble with navigation, like where exactly on the screen you click to change rooms. You DO have to fumble with item usage. You DO have to fumble with what’s clicklable and what isn’t. Video games are always going to be more clunky, and you have to take that into account. NEScape doesn’t at all. It seems to expect players to fail and then start over from the beginning. That’s why the instruction book says this:

By the way, that design logic is fine.. provided you make a game that’s fun to get back to the part you died on. An escape room is almost never going to be that, randomized puzzles or not. You already know what item you use on what thing, and that part doesn’t change. Even the random elements won’t matter because it’s not WHAT the solution is but how to come to that solution that’s the fun part. Staring over from the beginning and working your back to the part you lost on is just a chore, and it’s going to be a longer chore every single time you fail. Well, NEScape goes strictly by the timer. The moment it runs out, you return to the title screen. They didn’t even do an alarm or a gong or anything. I mean, come on! It’d be like a Mario game without the death animation and fail music. Have a little pomp to your game! I’m surprised they didn’t have a buzzer, because the one good thing I can say about NEScape, besides having good graphics, is that it has pretty good sound design too. I really liked that the game changes to a different chip tune every time the lights dramatically cut-out to signify a major turning point in the ultimate puzzle. That’s a great idea and I hope other video escape rooms do something similar. But, that’s where my complements end.

Ah, video game logic. There’s a piggy bank and you need to open it. In the wacky world of video games, you need to find a hammer. In real life, piggy banks have a cork in the bottom that you can use to get the money out. Everybody knows this. Also, the ground exists. Why bother with a hammer when you’re presumably a person and not ghost. Just pick it up and throw it against the ground, right?

Another red flag was that the press kit I got for this game also included a complete walk-through, along with the solutions to every puzzle. Uh.. seriously? You don’t have to use it. We didn’t, and in fact, full disclosure: we didn’t finish the room. We played the game earlier this week and quit on the sliding puzzle when we got into an argument over what moves to make (yes, the guide has literal step-by-step instructions on how to solve that part, too). We fired it up a second time last night, but timed out late into the game. Look, I’m not above using a guide to beat a game. I do all the time. But it’s really, really rare for a developer of a game to send a step-by-step guide on how to beat the game to the people they’re presumably asking to evaluate it. Especially when that game has no action. They’re just puzzles, and when you tell someone how to solve the puzzle, that defeats the whole point of it, right? One of the most common mistakes indie developers make is telling play-testers how to play the game. Especially if they see the players get stuck or confused, or if the design is too obtuse. The correct way to do it is to just stand and watch, and not offer assistance even if the players ask for it, and then making adjustments based on OBSERVATION. Many people consider Portal to be the greatest video game ever made, and it got there because they watched play testers but offered no help to them. If they had done play testing THAT way, it wouldn’t be the intuitive masterpiece it is today. Unfortunately, many developers tend to hover over players and basically Mommy-them through the game. In eleven-and-a-half years of doing Indie Gamer Chick, I can’t remember a puzzle game developer sending me the game AND the solution to the game. “Ooooh.. that doesn’t sound promising” I thought when I saw that. And I was right.

If you’re deaf, you’re going to need the guide (in fact, I think the game should have a disclaimer saying as much on the store page). Some of the puzzles are based around sound, including digital voice samples that tell you the password for certain things. I don’t think any of the “random” elements are musically based, so you should be good there. In fact, having now read the guide (since I’m never playing this again, so screw it, why not?) the only random element is apparently a Simon game near the end.

NEScape isn’t exactly the most original escape game. The classics are all here. A puzzle where you have to tap the right piano keys? Check. A puzzle where you have to move the hands on a grandfather clock? Check. A puzzle where the solution is based on assessing the correct order of picture frames? Check. That’s not a knock, by the way. The classics are classics for a reason: they work. Hell, they’re probably the best puzzles in the game. If NEScape stuck to these, it’d make for a neat novelty game. Because that was the ceiling here. The creativity begins and ends with “..only this time, it’s for the NES!” And it’s not a particularly strong game on its own merits. There’s no story besides “I woke up in a room” which, fine, whatever. The puzzle is the attraction. But, instead of focusing on typical escape room logic, you also have to solve mini-games, and this is where it really falls apart.

It’s never a good thing when a game causes my normally docile family to erupt into a screaming match. The magic of sliding puzzles.

Like, early on, you have to do a sliding puzzle. For me, the attraction of escape rooms is doing them with my family. We all have a notepad, and we cooperate to solve the puzzles. You can’t do that with a sliding puzzle. You also can’t do that with a ball-in-a-maze tilt puzzle (one that even the guide advises you go slowly on). There’s even a “spot the difference” puzzle in this, and it’s one of the dumbest things I’ve seen in any game. For god’s sake: it’s 8-bit graphics and collision boxes in tiny windows we’re dealing with here. It wasn’t exactly QuickSpot. Like the other non-escape room stuff, it just stinks of busy work made to shave time off the clock and force replays. We still might have beat the clock, but during the fourth chapter, we ended up spending too much time trying to solve frame-swapping puzzle. At more than one point, we knew we must have solved it, but nothing happened. The design of it was.. well.. 8-bit enough that we weren’t 100% sure, so we kept tweaking it over and over.

This is the swap puzzle in question, which should not have been clickable until it was the next puzzle in the sequence.

Well, it turns out, that wasn’t supposed to be the next thing we did. What happened was the lights went out, and when they came back on, there was this nonsensical gibberish on the typewriter. We knew there was a clue in it, so Mom and Angela took a pic on her phones to study it while I exited the screen to explore. Upon exiting the typewriter, the telegraph tile-swap puzzle was right there and opened in the same room we were already in, so we worked on that. Unknown to us, a hammer had spawned in another room during the last interval, and the puzzle associated with THAT was the next puzzle we were supposed to do, with the telegraph not working until that part was completed. It’s the type of design logic that’s there to deliberately mislead you and shave time, which is what bad escape rooms do. Granted, this was made in 2019, where what’s called “red herring design” was more common. It’s a design trope the industry has largely phased out, because they learned people are more likely to become repeat customers from winning and not timing-out and coming back to do the same room again. But, for us, it was the final straw. You can do this type of “not this puzzle YET” design in real escape rooms because your party can split up. Divide and conquer. In video escape rooms, everyone is tied to one screen. Should we have explored first before wasting time on the puzzle? Maybe. But, that’s the risk the developer took on when they designed it that way: that they’d piss off the players for deliberately wasting time with the obvious attempt of forcing a restart.

Well, it does.

Do you know what I’ve noticed? My friends who actually liked NEScape were not escape room fans. Indie Gamer Team’s Aki liked it. My friend Daria liked it so much she considers it one of her favorite NES Indies. If you’re a fan of games like Shadowgate or Uninvited or Deja Vu, where dying and starting over is expected, you might like this a lot more than we did. Meanwhile, my family hated this so much that we went to an actual escape room this morning just to get the nasty taste of NEScape out of our mouth. This is a terrible video escape room. There was no point in the strict time limit. Hey chaps: the game wasn’t very fun to begin with. Forcing a from-the-start replay was going to be especially annoying with all the busy-work you created between the puzzles. WE considered restarting. In fact, Angela worked out the game’s typewriter puzzle while we sat around bitching about the red-herring, time-eating sequence issue. She was going to get us back to the spot we were on, but when she got to the sliding puzzle, she said “oh right.. I forgot about this stuff. Yea, I don’t want to do this stuff again.” C’est la vie!

This isn’t a puzzle. It’s a time sink. One that you have to heeltoe your way through to avoid having to restart it. These mini-games are what ultimately sealed NEScape’s fate for us. I can deal with clunky interfaces, and I can even deal with having to redo puzzles (stupid and self-destructive as that idea is). One thing I can’t deal with is being bored, and the greatest sin of NEScape is the padding it chose is BORING!

So, that was that. If the thought of replaying the same puzzles over and over again until you finally open the ultimate door sounds like a good time to you, hey, you might enjoy this, ya weirdo. We didn’t. If it had just stuck to the puzzles, this would have been fine, I guess. Certainly not great. The interface was too clunky to rise to that level. Unfortunately, NEScape set itself up for failure with the strict time limit, which forces you to replay mini-games I didn’t even want to do one time, let alone multiple times. And FYI, a strict time limit would have likely sunk Escape Simulator or the Cape’s Escape Games as well. This is especially true of Escape Simulator, which has a short timer. But, that game doesn’t end when you time out, nor are you penalized for it. It’s more of a high score or time trial type of thing. The mini-games weren’t the deal breakers by themselves, but they did make me dread that replay. When Escape Simulator, Cape’s Escape Games, or Japanese Escape games do mini-games, I find them annoying too.. BUT I’M NOT FORCED TO REPLAY THEM! Escape Rooms require a different mentality from other games. They’re one-and-done. Replay value is not expected, and I’m not sure the developers understood that staple of the genre. BUT, if you want replay value, the way to do it is by adding hidden objects. It’s not by forcing you to redo the same puzzles with the same solutions over and over. That’s not fun, and NEScape isn’t fun. Lock this one in a room and throw away the key.

NEScape is not Chick-Approved

NEScape! was developed by KHAN Games
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Xbox, NES Cartridge (Coming Soon?)

$4.99 timed out in the making of this review.

A review copy for Nintendo Switch was provided for this review. Upon the game’s release, an Xbox copy was purchased by Indie Gamer Chick.

 

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