Following on from one of my interviews I conducted this month, I thought I would finally write up a first impressions article about a game that has done exceptionally well to catch my attention in recent weeks. Down Ward, under development at Fisholith Studios based in Costa Mesa, California, is an 8-BIT 2D sidescroller with a heavy focus on combat, unique mechanics, and exploration. It follows the story of an owl named Gable, who must traverse the remnants of a forgotten civilization in order to rekindle its dormant relics. Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the currently free-to-play game is set to be significantly improved upon by the developers with the backing it has received, which bodes extremely well for this already well-received title. You can play the current build from the game’s Steam, Page via the link below:
But in addition, I have also decided to write a first impressions article about what I think of the game in its current form and to get a better idea of what kind of a game it’ll be like when it does get further developed upon. So here’s what I thought about Down Ward in its present state:
The game makes use of 8-BIT monochromatic visuals similar to several Game Boy classics such as Duck Tales, Super Mario Land, Tetris, and Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins. The color of the visuals is also interchangeable and can be modified by the player at any time, similar to how the Super Game Boy add-on worked for the Super Nintendo back in the day. But what is most striking about this game is its conceptual design. The use of pixelated art is outstanding and handled with great detail. This was to be expected, as the lead programmer Fi is an artist himself, but I’d only gotten half the idea prior to playing the demo. When looked at more closely, only then does the player get the true feeling of how excellent this game actually looks.
The gameplay is also very wonderfully varied, which to a certain extent, the visuals themselves assist with. The objective of the standard model is to collect feathers, combat enemies and accomplish one or two side quests within each stage by finding secrets hidden throughout. There is also a speedrun mode for the many aficionados of that particular game mode on Twitch and YouTube, similar to Axiom Verge. The developers have billed this game as challenging, and it’s not hard to see why. Although thankfully, the level of challenge is not to the point of the game being completely inaccessible. The challenge involved lies in being able to identify certain obstacles or traps the player can fall for, or watching out for enemies, as they blend in well with the scenery in most instances. But as well as it is challenging, it’s above all, a very fun game to play even in its current build, so it makes me quite excited about what kind of a game it will be following the modifications to be made.
The control scheme is also particularly unique for a 2D platformer with having to run and jump in order to fly across stages and explore higher areas. The game fully supports controller functionality at this point, which is preferable to playing a game like this with a keyboard and mouse. Curiously, the combat system reminded me somewhat of the Ori games, so it’d be interesting if the developers decide to build on that aspect of the game even further as well, and whether or not, a small RPG element could possibly be introduced in the form of a leveling up system or different means of attacking enemies, etc.
Potentially, this game could be made to last a significantly long time. It would depend on just how far the developer is willing to go in terms of modifying the game they already have, and what more could possibly be added in order for it to warrant lasting a considerable amount of time more than what it already does last. According to my interview with Fi, the team is looking to expand on the game mechanics vigorously. If true, this game can certainly be made to last many hours.
The story of the owl Gable is, in-game anyway, secondary to gameplay, as is the way it should be in my opinion. So even at this early stage, if the developers were to neglect the progression of the story in place of modifying the gameplay as much as possible, I don’t think I would feel particularly bothered by that. It would be nice to have a more in-depth narrative to complement the greater depth in gameplay (for example, there could be a story implemented similar to that of Ori & The Blind Forest or Dust: An Elysian Tail, but even if the level of depth in the story stays the way it is, then so be it; it will probably still turn out to be an exceptional game.
Out of all the retroactive gaming experiences I’ve indulged in since the start of the eighth generation, Down Ward is set to be one of the more standout of the lot of them. Again, it would all depend on what kind of modifications the developers are looking to bring in terms of gameplay, and whether or not they will be implemented well enough to make it as separate as possible from the plethora of games made of the same ilk to come before it. With the unique mechanics and gameplay premise, I wouldn’t see why they couldn’t do that, but time will tell in that regard.
Overall, playing the demo of Down Ward has made me further realize how much potential the game has to break new ground within the indie community. It’s set to be a standout title with an excellent implemented visual style and hopefully plenty to do throughout.
Released back in 2013 to a very mixed reception by the Steam community, Exodus is a Metroidvania that was brought out shortly before the influx of games in the genre that would follow from many other indie developers, including Dust: An Elysian Tail, Xeodrifter, Blasphemous, and Hollow Knight. For the most part, the Metroidvania genre has yielded some of the best games of the eighth generation for me with the likes of Axiom Verge, Ori & the Blind Forest, Ori & The Will of the Wisps, and Cathedral, but unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Exodus.
Graphics – 8/10
The one aspect in which I can’t fault the game for, however, is in the graphics. Hand-drawn and set on a mysterious alien planet, the game has been given a very vibrant and colorful atmosphere that has the feel of both tranquility and danger in equal measure. The environmental design is also as wonderfully varied as it should be in any decent Metroidvania title, taking place in forest lands, ancient ruins, and icy mountains. Unlike every other element of this game, the scenery leaves very little to be desired.
Gameplay – 5/10
In terms of gameplay, however, especially compared to most other Metroidvanias, is extremely bland and uninteresting. The combat style is very unoriginal and the range of different abilities that can be acquired throughout for the most part seem to simply conform to the Metroidvania blueprint as opposed to them being a little more diverse than what they do. With games like Alwa’s Awakening and Alwa’s Legacy, both provide something very different in the way of combat and puzzle-solving that make them stand out among many others, but with this game, it doesn’t seem the developers even tried to be perfectly honest.
Controls – 5/10
The controls in Exodus also seem embarrassing even compared to other generic Metroidvanias. The jump mechanics are extremely stiff, and many sequences involve both traditional controller movement and simultaneous point, kind of like in Terraria, but as some sequences require the use of both of these mechanics at the same time, it can cause problems for the player. And a lot of these different kinds of sequences were handled far better in older games in the genre such as Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, so for the developers to have even failed to follow the initial blueprints just make Exodus seem all the more amateurish.
Lifespan – 3/10
The game can be made to last there around 3 hours, which again, falls way short of the average lifespan of a Metroidvania. Though given the number of problems there are with every other aspect of this game, I’m amazed that people have even made it through the first hour. It wouldn’t be so bad if there were a few more things to do around the more open spaces than what there are, but it was a further push that this game needed which the developers seemed unwilling to implement.
Storyline – 4/10
The story of Exodus involves either one of two selectable characters, Zoulux or Ly’sax, who have become stranded on an alien planet named Exodus and explore it in order to uncover the mysteries behind it and to save the populous along the way. Again, it simply follows the blueprint of the original Metroid as opposed to perpetuating a new idea for a story in the same way that Metroidvanias like Blasphemous did. Since there seemed to be very little to the personalities of any of the characters involved, it was far too difficult for me to become emotionally invested in the story.
Originality – 3/10
The main thing that I’ve touched on many times in this review is that the developers simply seemed to be following the blueprint of bigger and better Metroidvania games that came before it, and this can be said for pretty much every aspect of the game; even the visuals, which were the only redeeming quality in my opinion. But the thing is, it couldn’t even follow the blueprint right in terms of things like gameplay and especially controls. So, therefore, the game does stand out to a small degree, but for very much the wrong reasons.
In summation, Exodus is a game not to be taken seriously alongside many of the other greater Metroidvania titles that have since been released. It’s available for less than a pound on Steam, but frankly, with how little effort was put into it, players should really be offered money to play it.
Developer(s) – Nintendo R&D1 & Intelligent Systems
Publisher(s) – Nintendo
Director(s) – Satoru Okada
Producer(s) – Gunpei Yokoi
PEGI – 7
Released at around the midpoint of the third generation on the NES to generally positive reviews, selling best in America, Metroid became a favorite among fans of the original NES, and of course, would go on to become one of Nintendo’s flagship franchises along with the likes of Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda and Donkey Kong. I was excited before first going into this one some years ago because it wasn’t a game I got to experience at the time of its release, and I was very much looking forward to seeing the beginnings of this franchise after hearing what I had done through word of mouth. But although I do think it is one of the better games released on the NES, and that I can understand why so many people regard it as a beloved classic, to me, the series did get better as it went on; especially as this game suffered from a lot of limitations that the era of gaming in which it occupied presented.
Graphics – 10/10
The best quality this game has, in my opinion, is the visuals. Set across an expansive alien world, it presented something extremely different from what Nintendo was putting out at the time, which mostly involved worlds made up of anthropomorphic animals and contemporary fantasy settings. Although there were plenty of games with sci-fi elements on the NES, such as Abadox, Contra, and Metal Gear, it was indeed interesting to see the makers of the console try their hand at it themselves, and the end result is one of the best-looking games on the system. The game’s soundtrack, composed by Hirokazu Tanaka, also compliments the game’s atmosphere in a way that also goes above and beyond that of which many other NES games attempted.
Gameplay – 6/10
Although the original Metroid is generally described as an action-adventure, ostensibly it’s a Metroidvania, although that term at the time had yet to be coined, of course, until Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night were both released many years later. The player must navigate their way through an open world, collect items, upgrades, and new abilities, and defeat bosses in order to unlock new areas, and ultimately face off against the end boss. But as this particular genre of game was yet to be built on, it suffers from limitations such as there being no in-game map, which in the Metroidvania genre, has become a staple element. Being a by-product of its time, players were reliant on either a strategy guide or even drawing up rough maps for themselves to make sure they don’t get lost or explore an area twice needlessly. It’s enjoyable to play with a strategy guide, but a nightmare without one.
Controls – 7/10
Another area where problems exist is also the control scheme. As the game also has a lot of sequences whereby players must jump up vertically elongated areas, this presents issues because the game’s jump mechanics can feel quite inconsistent. Super Metroid had the same problem, as well as a few others, but not to the same extent as the original Metroid does. What’s also sorely lacking is the ability to shoot diagonally, which again, would be something that would be greatly improved on with future Metroidvania titles.
Lifespan – 7/10
The game can be made to last around an hour and a half, which in all fairness, whilst that seems like nothing compared to games today, was actually a fair bit of time longer than the average game in the late 80s. In this respect, the original Metroid was somewhat ahead of its time, along with the original Legend of Zelda and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Again, it may be down to the limitation of what hardware was being used back then that the game couldn’t have been made to last longer than what it does, but the lifespan did manage to break some new ground at least.
Storyline – 7/10
The story of Metroid is that the Galactic Federation has sent a bounty named Samus Aran to the planet Zebes, which is infested with mysterious hostile aliens known as Metroids, in order to take out Mother Brain, a biochemical life form controlling the Space Pirates, who were responsible for the Metroid outbreak. Not a lot of that is made clear throughout the game, as in lieu of third-generation tradition, players had to read the manual in order to learn as much about the narrative as possible. But the reveal that Samus is in fact a woman is considered to be one of the most iconic moments in gaming history, as the concept of a female protagonist was pretty much unheard of in video games at the time.
Originality – 8/10
It’s for that same reason, as well as its contemporary sci-fi setting, style of play, and accompanying soundtrack, that Metroid stands out as being one of the most unique titles on the system. Although the series would go on to reach greater heights, and that the character of Samus Aran would go on to become even more admired by gamers everywhere, this is where it all started, and for many gamers, this title broke a lot of new ground in ways that no one could have expected. Satoru Okada would go on to become one of Nintendo’s most iconic figures until his retirement in 2012, and it’s not hard to see why with the legacy he and the late great Gunpei Yokoi have left behind with the release of titles like this.
Overall, Metroid, whilst it indeed has too many flaws for me personally to be able to label it as such, is still considered by many to be a classic and an NES favorite, and for good reason. It was a Metroidvania before the genre was even properly conceived, and no game had played anything like it at the time.
After once again scouting Kickstarter for new video game developers looking for crowdfunding, I came across a stunning-looking 8-BIT title already available on Steam, but in the process of undergoing major changes. Down Ward is an 8-BIT 2D platformer telling the story of an owl named Gable, who sets out on a journey to rekindle dormant relics of a land long forgotten and abandoned, similar in concept to games like RiME and Journey. Not only does the game make use of 8-BIT visuals, but it also makes use of a monochromatic visual style very reminiscent of Game Boy classics such as Super Mario Land and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.
Wanting to know about what changes this project is currently undergoing and the challenges that came with implementing such drastic improvements, I got in touch with the game’s lead designer, simply known as Fisholith operating out of Costa Mesa in California. It turned out that the influences and thought process behind this game was even more intricate than I’d realized at first glance, and Fi’s answers certainly provided a lot of clarity on where he hopes to go with this game following its successful backing on Kickstarter. So, here’s what Fisholith had to say about Down Ward:
What were the influences behind Down Ward?
This might not be too surprising but … birds. I got into photographing birds quite a while ago, and I gradually became more and more interested in learning about them. I think that has definitely carried over into a lot of the creative stuff I’m working on. In terms of gameplay there are probably a lot of subtle influences, but certainly among them is Descent (1995) with its zero-gravity flight, exploration, and intrinsic verticality. Likewise, another influence has been some of the design philosophy that Shigeru Miyamoto described as how he approaches making games fun.
What led to the decision to implement the numerous monochromatic visuals styles in Down Ward?
I’m the kind of idiot that will find the color customization options for a text editor and make a “water level” for it, and then start working on lava and ice.
I’d say there are two reasons for the multitude of palettes. Firstly, the visuals in Down Ward only ever use four colors on-screen at a time. I decided early on that I wanted to try giving the game a sort of painterly look, and so I wouldn’t be using any outlines to visually separate the foreground objects from the background. Instead, I was going to try to rely on techniques found in traditional painting, like lighting and shadows, brightness, contrast, and texture.
So instead of having the four colors represent abstract things, like outlines, dominant color, secondary color, and accent color, I arranged the four colors to simply represent a range of brightnesses: dark, dim, light, bright. I had essentially a grayscale game, with a palette based only on lighting, and this is what opened up the possibility to have so many palette variations. An interesting concept from traditional painting is that the dominant readability of a scene comes from light and shadow first. So if a scene reads well in grayscale, then you can colorize those light and dark areas with whatever colors you want, and the scene will pretty much always read well.
This meant that I could dream up as many color palette variations as I wanted, and as long as they roughly followed that relative dark-to-light brightness scale, the scene would always be just as readable as the grayscale version. Secondly, I like colors… Specifically, I really like designing with colors, and in particular, how changing just the colors of a scene can dramatically change the mood and atmosphere.
What has the developmental process been like?
The most heartening part of it all has been creating something that I love and seeing others fall in love with it too. Over the last year, I’ve gotten several messages from people, telling me that they appreciate the game, or the art of Gable, or some bit of respite they’ve found in my project, amid the unusual circumstances we’re all in. I think some of that may just be due to the pretty stressful year 2020 has been. Nonetheless, I’ve tried to be a positive source of creativity in the maelstrom of this year’s strangeness. It’s such a different place to have ended up than I expected going in.
How close are we to seeing the finished product?
Close in some aspects, and semi-distant in others. There’s quite a bit I want to do to expand on Down Ward visually. There are gameplay mechanics I would like to add. I don’t want to get too ambitious though, as it’s my first major game, and it’s easy to get mired in feature creep. As with any creative project, when you’re the creator, your vision of cool things you’d love to do will always extend beyond whatever you create. Whatever interesting hill you reach the top of, you’re always rewarded with a sprawling vista of more intriguing distant hills.
What has been the most exciting aspect of developing Down Ward?
I’ve made a lot of wonderful friends, and I’ve gotten to meet and talk with some incredible people who created some of my favorite games that I grew up with. At the same time, getting to see the little world I’ve created for Down Ward grow and take shape has been a joy.
What has been the most challenging aspect of developing Down Ward?
Trying to learn the outreach and social media side of game development, and build up everything needed to make a Kickstarter work, while also trying to keep momentum working on the game itself. I love learning it all, and I love talking with people, but I don’t feel like I’m especially good at the outreach side of things yet. I’m trying to learn though. I have a lot of respect for the amount of work that publicists must do.
How well has the game been received so far?
Early on, I was worried that not many people would be interested in a four-color monochrome game, but it has been received very well, much better than I’d have expected. Even outside of the game, people seem to really like Gable. It’s also nice that all of the constructive critiques I’ve gotten on the game have been very helpful.
In what ways are you looking to expand on the current game?
I have a lot of ideas, and I’m sure as I go I’ll gradually realize which I want to focus on. Outside of the things I’ve specifically promised in the Kickstarter, nothing is set in stone yet. Broadly speaking, I’d like to expand on the mechanics, hazards, enemies, and puzzles. I would like to expand on the graphics and style of the game a bit, with distinct environments, as well as music composed to fit each. In fact, at the moment, I’m working on a piece of music based on an in-world folklore song.
What platforms are you looking to bring the game to?
PC, Mac, and Linux. A lot of people have asked me about Switch, and while I’d love to try that, there’s a whole world of feature and design compliance requirements totally separate from just porting the code. I’ve researched it but I’ve never done it, and I want to limit my promises to things I’ve done before and know I can do since it’s my first game.
Have there been any ideas at this stage of development that has since been scrapped or reworked?
While touch screen controls have never been a planned feature, I have done some work on creating a flexible touch interface. It allows you to unlock the touch UI, move the buttons wherever you want, create unlimited copies of any buttons, and scale the buttons for larger devices. Though not scrapped, it has been put on a distant back burner for the time being.
Given how passionate you clearly are about art, did you find working with monochromatic visuals among one of your biggest challenges?
Not necessarily one of the biggest, but there are a lot of interesting and unintuitive challenges that emerge from 4 color graphics that I wasn’t expecting, going in. Some of that challenge came from the no-outlines style I decided to go with. For instance, still, screenshots can look nice, but the game has much more visual clarity when you see it in motion. Early on, I started making seamless looping gif animations of gameplay, as an alternative to screenshots, as I think the gifs do a much better job of presenting Down Ward’s look and feel. They definitely take longer to create than a screenshot, and evolving the workflow for creating them has certainly been a challenge.
Another tricky aspect is how to represent objects that are darker colors. For instance, a snowy white owl on a black background is not too hard, but if I wanted to add a crow, it would be a bit of a design challenge to figure out how exactly to make that work.
How instrumental has player feedback in terms of shaping the course of the project been?
In terms of refining the difficulty, solving level design ambiguities, and improving the introduction of mechanics, player feedback has definitely been instrumental. Even just watching gameplay videos from players is very enlightening.
I’m constantly trying to think through what I design from the perspective of a first-time player, but as the developer, my familiarity with what I’ve created works against me. I know what’s around every corner, and what’s just off-screen. So it’s easy to accidentally create something that makes sense to me, without realizing that a new player will encounter it with a different expectation that makes a lot more sense if you’ve never seen it before. Player feedback is like a kind of x-ray vision. You get to see the holes in your own perception. You get to “look” at your own blind spot. It’s pretty cool.
If you had the opportunity to develop a game with any company or for any franchise, which would it be, and why?
This is an interesting question. On the one hand, there are quite a few companies that I think would be really interesting to work with, and on the other hand, I actually really like the creative freedom that comes from being a solo developer. Two companies come to mind though, Revival Productions and Stonemaier Games.
Revival Productions is the company behind Overload, the recent spiritual successor to Descent. It was founded by Mike Kulas and Matt Toschlog, creators of the original Descent franchise. They, and the Revival team, seem like a really cool group of people, who genuinely care about the player community that came together around the genre that they established. If I was going to work with a company on a six-degrees-of-freedom FPS game, that would be the company to work with.
The other is Stonemaier Games, created by Jamey Stegmaier, a tabletop game designer. I love tabletop games, I’ve created a few for fun, and for a long time I’ve been fascinated by the similarities and differences between tabletop games and digital games. I also really just love the design puzzle of making rules elegant enough to create interesting gameplay, while running on the notoriously slow and unstable People-at-a-Table operating system. Jamey of Stonemaier has spent a lot of time creating articles and videos sharing his thoughts, and what he’s learned in the course of designing and publishing tabletop games. He seems like a really creative and really nice guy, who grants a lot of creative freedom to the designers that work with him. So I think that would also be a pretty fun company to develop a game with.
Do you have any advice for aspiring developers that may be reading this?
I’m certainly not an expert, but I can share what has helped me. I think there are two different goals I could give advice about. Game development, and game crowdfunding.
The most concise bit of advice I can give that benefits both of those is, “Do game jams.”
To get better at game development you need to experiment quickly, release publicly, and plan around simple deadlines, and it helps if it’s a relaxed environment. To improve your prospects in crowdfunding, you need to begin building an audience and get comfortable interacting with people about your work.
Game jams will gift-wrap much of what you need to learn in both domains and present it to you in a fun, short, and bite-sized package. Even better is that there are lots of jams with all sorts of different creative limitations, timeframes, and skill ranges. So you can almost adventure your way through them, like different little island worlds, gaining experience as you go.
In the not too distant future, I’ll also be creating a website. There are a lot of subjects I’m interested in, and while I wouldn’t call myself an expert in them, I’d love to start creating tutorials and articles to share some of the stuff I’ve learned so far.
Do you have anything else to add?
I began my prior Kickstarter for Down Ward, a little over a year ago, and without any advanced press coverage, and a much smaller audience, it didn’t make it to the funding goal. Rather than cancel it, I ran it to the end and thanked everyone. I explained in my thank you message, that I planned to relaunch in the future, and should my future campaign succeed, I would like to let this campaign stand as one more example, for anyone discouraged by a campaign that fell short, that you can always take what you’ve learned and try again. Perhaps the most important lesson that I’ve learned from games. 🙂
As always. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Fi for taking the time out of development to talk more about what players can come to expect of the final version of Down Ward compared to how the game currently plays out now. If you’d like to check out the game as it is, you can do so by visiting the Steam Page where it can be currently downloaded for free:
But in the meantime, I hope you guys enjoyed learning more about this title as much as I certainly did. As soon as I laid eyes on Down Ward, I had to learn more, and it turns out I got even more than what I bargained for with this one, and I was pleasantly surprised. I hope you guys were too.
Developer(s) – Nintendo R&D1 & Intelligent Systems
Publisher(s) – Nintendo
Director(s) – Yoshio Sakamoto
Producer(s) – Makoto Kano
PEGI – 7
Released in 1994 coming up to the twilight years of the Super NES, and finding critical acclaim worldwide and commercial acclaim mainly in North America, Super Metroid is considered to be one of the most influential games of all time, as along with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, it helped to pioneer the so-called Metroidvania genre of games; the 2D side-scrolling open-world experience focused on combat, epic story, and exploration. I decided that as I’ve now reviewed a great number of games in the genre, that I’d examine the game where the groundwork was laid, and find out whether or not the experience still holds up to this day, and for me, it did not disappoint.
Graphics – 10/10
One of the most standout features of the game is undoubtedly its beautifully crafter 16-BIT visuals with the game taking place across a number of locations that have since become iconic and synonymous with the Super NES era, including Brinstar, Norfair, and Maridia. This game’s visuals have gone on to inspire a number of retroactive indie titles over the last decade such as Blasphemous and Axiom Verge, and not just Metroidvania titles. For the time, these graphics were revolutionary, and the accompanying soundtrack, composed by Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano, perfectly compliments the wonderfully horrific atmosphere this game perpetuates throughout, which in and of itself, was very much out of character for a Nintendo game at the time, as most Super NES titles, for the most part, focused on happy-sounding music and brightly colored environments.
Gameplay – 8/10
Super Metroid followed the basic model of the original Metroid, but with drastic improvements. Players could now combine different types of weapons to create more powerful ones, and the boss fights littered throughout are far better throughout. There’s even more cause for exploration that in the original game or Metroid 2: Return of Samus, and it also comes with the synonymous Metroidvania map system; something which was sorely lacking from the previous two games, and something which every other Metroidvania title would adopt in increasingly innovative forms from then on. Few side scrollers at the time encouraged exploration to the extent that this game did, and it was a welcome breath of fresh air for those who got the chance to play it back in the day.
Controls – 8/10
The game’s control scheme, however, isn’t perfect. Whilst most Super NES games used the Y and B buttons for attack for primary movement and combat controls, this game uses the X and A buttons for that purpose, and among Super NES fans, this will have caused some confusion for players back when it was released, and can still potentially cause confusion for modern-day players looking to play it for the first time, as indeed I found, since I wasn’t introduced to this game back when it was released. Kind of like Metroid Prime, it can take a bit of time for players to get used to initially. What the developers did add in terms of controls, however, was the facility to shoot diagonally, which again, was sorely lacking from the original games, and furthermore included in the re-release of the first; Metroid: Zero Mission for the Game Buy Advance.
Lifespan – 7/10
A thorough playthrough of the game can take an average of around 4 hours, which is about an exceptionally long amount of time for a game to have lasted back in the days of the Super NES. Although the game can be completed within half an hour (indeed, as this title has become particularly popular among speedrunners), it’s not a game that’s designed to be rushed through, and whilst it may sound like a paltry amount of time for a game to last compared to what gamers are used to these days, it was relatively unheard of at the time and most fans of the game have ended up playing it multiple times throughout the years anyway.
Storyline – 7/10
Taking place in the latter stages of the Metroid timeline, the alien lifeform (the Metroid) that bounty hunter Samus Aran had recovered from planet SR388 at the end of Metroid 2: Return of Samus, had been delivered to a research facility by her for further study. But shortly thereafter, the space station is attacked by the leader of the Space Pirates, Ridley, who then captures the Metroid specimen and takes it to the nearby planet Zebes, and Samus is in pursuit of him. The game is also a lot more cinematic than games of the previous generation; the game’s opening cutscene, in particular, has become an iconic moment in Super NES history. It’s also among one of the earliest examples of how gameplay sequences can be used to build up tension within the confines of the story, as there are sequences whereby Samus must escape from certain places within a designated time limit before it explodes.
Originality – 10/10
There is no understating how unique and influential this game was back in the day. Any game from which an entire genre is created stands out as being among the most influential of all time. Doom gave birth to the first-person shooting genre, Rogue paved the way for the Roguelike genre and Super Metroid was the primary pioneer of the Metroidvania genre; even Castlevania: Symphony of the Night adopted several gameplay elements that this game had first.
In summation, as well as being one of the most influential video games of all time, Super Metroid also stands out as one of the best titles on the Super NES and is an experience that still holds up and one that I would highly recommend. Regardless of the issues, I may have had with the controls, the immersive gameplay, wonderfully rendered graphics, and engrossing story more than make up for it.
In my efforts to discover yet more indie titles in the making on crowdfunding platforms, I found another Kickstarter campaign for what is a very promising passion project based on a beloved comic book series. Little Nemo and the Nightmare Fiends is a 2D non-linear sidescroller based on the works of the innovative US comic book artist and animator Winsor McCay. Having inspired famous animators and artists since, including Walt Disney himself, he left behind a legacy and a mythos in equal parts beautiful and surreal, and this all serves as the inspiration for this game. The player controls 4 different characters throughout, including Peony, a character added to the mythos exclusively for the game, to explore non-linear 2D sidescrolling levels whilst along the way collecting hidden items, engaging in different varieties of combat, and making each character stronger as time goes on. Similar to Mickey Mania, the levels are based on classic Little Nemo episodes and stay faithful to the art style that McCay perpetuated throughout his career.
Wanting to know more about this gorgeous-looking and ambitious title, I contacted the project lead Chris Totten, head of Pie for Breakfast Studio based in Kent, Ohio, to get a better idea of this game amidst its Kickstarter project, and a better idea of the varied team behind it ranging from a variety of different indie development studios who are also helping out on the project. Here’s what Chris Totten had to say about little Nemo and the Nightmare Fiends:
Of course, the main influence behind the game was Winsor McCay’s classic comic book series of the same name. But what video games have been kept in mind most throughout development?
We’re really big retro gaming fans so when coming up with a game that involves a cast of characters like this, we take a lot of inspiration from games like Little Samson or Demon’s Crest (where the player character could change his form.) We’re asked about Little Nemo the Dream Master a lot as well and while we can’t remake that (it’s not public domain like the comics), we are going to make lots of nods to it.
What has the developmental process been like?
Our team is geographically distributed so that’s always a challenge, but one we’ve dealt with before. Making a game during a pandemic has been a bigger challenge, but it’s also provided something to keep us occupied. I’m mainly responsible for the art and animation so far (with bits of level design alongside Adrian Sandoval) so that’s been a lot of intense drawing – each character has dozens of frames so far and will probably need dozens more before release!
How close are we to seeing the finished product?
Our production schedule is mapped out as an 18-month project from the end of the Kickstarter, assuming we’re funded, of course.
What has been the most exciting aspect of development?
In my day job, I teach game development at a university and my research is on the intersections between games and older fiends of art, design, and animation. For me, this is an opportunity to use the process of making art to explore an important piece of comics and animation history.
What has been the most challenging aspect of development?
For me specifically, all that drawing! In general though, when you’re working on the first stages of a project trying to produce sample gameplay on nights and weekends, it can be very difficult to balance when you’re trying to put something out.
How well has the game been received so far?
Incredibly well! Folks seem to love the characters and the art style. Either they know the original comics and are excited to see someone use public domain stuff in that way OR they didn’t know about the comics at all and we’re educating them!
How did the collaboration with so many other indie developers come about?
These are all friends that I’ve made through years of going to conferences and conventions. We occupy a lot of the same spaces.
Do the additional developers share the same love for Little Nemo that you have?
Yes, the team is pretty passionate about Little Nemo. We all have our entry points: either renting the NES game or seeing the movie, but as everyone’s learned more, they’ve discovered a favorite character or comic.
What platforms are you looking to bring the game to?
If we reach our initial funding goal we’re going to launch on at least Windows and Mac, but we’ll consider other platforms depending on funding. We’d love to bring it to consoles!
Have you found many other fans of the comic book series have offered their feedback in regards to the game?
Yes! One of our main cheerleaders has been Zachary J.A. Rondinelli, a researcher doing a social media project called Welcome to Slumberland:
Every day he posts a new Little Nemo strip and delivers really excellent commentary along with an audience of contributors. We’ve been able to boost one another’s projects and it’s been fun having a community like that.
How much fun has it been celebrating the license by adding new elements to the Little Nemo mythos?
This is the best part of working with the public domain, I think. You can add your own twist to things or address problematic parts of an original work. There are parts of McCay’s comics (from the early 20th century) that are pretty racist, so we worked with a BIPOC artist to create characters so that Slumberland can be for everyone.
Have there been any ideas at this stage of development that have since been scrapped or reworked?
We’re always reworking things. I don’t want to cite anything specifically but we’re always tweaking what characters can and can’t do. It’s a normal part of game development.
If you had the opportunity to develop a game with any company or any franchise, which would it be, and why?
I’m a shameless Nintendo fanboy so anything Mario, Zelda, or Metroid would be in my wheelhouse. I’d love to do a hand-animated Mario game that looks like the original promotional art!
Out of the many varied things you’ve done throughout your career, would you say this project is what you’re most proud of?
So far this has been a high point, but one of the best parts of being a game design academic is that I also have a lot of freedom to work on self-directed projects. One of the best things I’ve done has been to write a book on level design. I’m also really proud of the tabletop game I released in 2019 based on Don Quixote (which was also a Kickstarter project!)
Do you have any advice for aspiring developers that may be reading this?
Learn the tools, but don’t think that’s the whole game development experience. Games are about the player experience, and you can make wonderful things no matter what tool it’s in. Make lots of little games, don’t just try to make something that looks like the big commercial games.
We hope you love Little Nemo and the Nightmare Fiends! Please support and share the campaign so we can make this the game of our dreams!
I’d like to close out by thanking Chris for taking the time out to talk to me about this wonderful-looking game, and to wish him the best of luck with Little Nemo and the Nightmare Fiends and its Kickstarter campaign. Little Nemo is clearly a labor of love, and if it sees its full release, I have every confidence that this will be a gaming experience loved by fans of McCay’s work, as well as fans of the 2D sidescrolling genre, and that it will be a fantastical journey that McCay himself would’ve been proud to see. In the meantime, you can check out the Kickstarter page of you would like to back the project via the link provided by Chris, but I hope you guys enjoyed reading this Q&A because I certainly had a fun time learning more about not only this game but also about the inspiration behind it.
An early indie title released in the first part of 2021, Skul: The Hero Slayer is a rogue-lite that provides a new gameplay experience with every playthrough offering intense combat, platforming, and an insane amount of customization options for the player character throughout each time playing. Similar to the likes of Rogue Legacy and 88 Heroes, the game can make for hours upon hours of playability and a level of variety in gameplay that I haven’t seen for quite some time. It makes for a far better game than either of the aforementioned examples as well as other games of the same ilk developed in recent years.
Graphics – 8/10
Skul makes use of a traditional 8-BIT visual style with a mythology heavy inspired by high and dark fantasy; it’s basically The Lord of the Rings or Dungeons and Dragons in 8-BIT form, featuring creatures straight from the works of Tolkien and Gary Gygax such as ents, chimeras, liches, and demons. But it also has elements inspired by the modern world too; for example, one of the power-ups allows the player to take the form of a biker who attacks with chains and rides a motorbike for a limited amount of time as one of his special moves. It fits interestingly with the tableau of the game, as the character was clearly inspired by the comic book Ghost Rider, but that, along with many of the other powerups found throughout the game, such as the genie and the samurai, add an unexpected, yet welcome level of diversity in character design that I never saw coming at all.
Gameplay – 9/10
The game is a rogue-lite whereby players must face off against hordes of enemies whilst both conserving as much as what they have as possible, including health, whilst at the same time, using items and upgrades collected throughout as wisely as possible. There is an insane amount of power-ups that can be used by players to adopt a ridiculous amount of playstyles, making each playthrough a completely different experience. In that respect, you can draw comparisons to 88 Heroes, only in this case, the feature of being able to play as what are essentially different characters throughout is a lot better thought out in this title and makes for a much more accessible experience overall. Because with 88 Heroes, characters are given to the player at random, and it can hinder the gameplay through no fault of the players. But here, the player gets far more of a choice, making for a better experience overall. On top of that, there are also a great number of perks that can be acquired throughout each playthrough that offer increases in attack, speed, and magic and that also offer passive benefits such as freezing, poisoning, or burning enemies for dealing additional damage. The base stats can also be upgraded before each playthrough such as the attack power and amount of health that the player starts with, making each playthrough more accessible over time, like in Rogue Legacy. But again, in this game, that element is also handled in a far better manner.
Controls – 10/10
The game’s control scheme is also very interesting indeed. Whilst there are common control elements with each playthrough, such as the ability to attack, jump and dash, each character is controlled differently through all their different movement capabilities, attack patterns, and special moves; so the player has to strategize in accordance with what power-up they have equipped. The controls will seem familiar to players whilst at the same time also offering more than what they’ll be used to in the form of the different power-ups, and it’s really quite an impressive feat that’s been achieved.
Lifespan – 8/10
Seasoned players have been able to play through the main game in its entirety in just shy of an hour. However, this is a game that has clearly been designed to be played through many, many times, and players should not stop at one playthrough by any means; even if they somehow manage to beat it on the first time of asking. With everything taken into account in terms of gameplay, there is enough on offer to make this game last an ungodly amount of hours; players may wish to go through the game using different power-ups, or they may wish to try and go through it without using any power-ups or passive abilities at all. The customization options are that insane.
Storyline – 7.5/10
But in addition to the compelling gameplay, there’s also a surprisingly touching story behind it as well. The game follows Skul, who is a lowly minion in service to the army of a Demon King. As heroes of humans storm the Demon King’s castle and take him captive, Skul evades capture and resolves to destroy the human army and free his master. The game puts the player on the side of evil and paints Skul, the Demon King, and their allies as the heroes almost, and it’s done in a way that I’ve never seen in a video game before. There have been games that have tried similar things, like Overlord for example, but it’s presented much differently in this game. There’s a sense of elegance about it in each intermittent cutscene that I wasn’t expecting at all.
Originality – 8/10
I’ve mentioned throughout this review that this game threw stuff at me that I was not prepared for in the least bit, and I was pleasantly surprised by all of it. It’s a game that gets the fundamentals right as if it was created by a team of seasoned developers, but yet it also gives players an experience unlike most that have been created throughout the years, and considering that it came from an indie studio really is something. It wasn’t the first game developed by the South Korea-based studio (that would be an app game called BSTG), but their first effort of creating a game designed for conventional consoles, really is phenomenal.
Overall, Skul: The Hero Slayer is a fantastic rogue-lite with almost limitless possibilities in terms of gameplay, and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s an exciting and dynamic title in every respect and is not one to be overlooked.
Released in 2019 to an overwhelmingly positive reaction from gamers and critics alike, Wandersong is a 2D platformer centering around music; puzzles are solved with music, new areas are uncovered with music, and abilities within the game are taken advantage of through music. Developed by Greg Lobanov with the music and sound put together by Em Halberstadt and Gordon McGladdery, it’s one of those games that is a true labor of love and is evident within every aspect of it. I interviewed Greg Lobanov sometime before the initial Kickstarter program was successfully funded:
And I’m glad I did; looking back, I’m thrilled that this game has since garnished the critical and commercial acclaim that I felt it deserved before release, and the game did not disappoint by any means.
Graphics – 8/10
Firstly, the conceptual design of the game is nothing short of beautiful. Each area is vibrantly colorful and a pleasure to beyond, be that whether the game takes the player into dark caves, skyward temples, and peaceful towns. Each area has a different main color palette, similar to the original Yoshi’s Island, and works flawlessly to distinguish each area as the player visits them. Influence from several cultures and periods in human history is also evident in the architecture of the game, such as Indian culture and even modern-day culture, and overall simply adds to its visual diversity.
Gameplay – 8/10
As I alluded to, the gameplay involves the player taking control of a young bard and must progress through the game by singing. Singing is at the core of the gameplay; the player sings to move platforms for jumping across, to manipulate wind traps to move ahead, to advance the story, and to solve puzzles among many other things. It’s definitely one of the most interesting and innovative platformers to have been developed in recent times, and to me, even outstripping many other indie titles in terms of gameplay, including Journey and Flower. There’s much more to play for in this game than in many indie titles to have been developed throughout the eighth generation; players will not be disappointed going into it.
Controls – 10/10
The control scheme has been handled as well as any other platformer; in that respect, there are no negative issues to be addressed. I’m actually quite impressed with just how singing and dancing are incorporated into the game’s control scheme very effectively to allow for a lot of things the player must do in order to progress through each area of the game. There have been indie games released, such as The Swapper and Contrast, that have had innovative gameplay mechanics but have arguably not been used to their full potential to provide as great an experience as what could have been; but Wandersong delivers on that spectacularly.
Lifespan – 7/10
What the game also delivers in a big way, compared to many other indie games, is lifespan. Taking around 12 hours to complete fully, it’s definitely one of the longest linear 2D side scrollers I’ve played in a long time. Side scrollers that long don’t normally get released unless it’s by a mainstream development company. It could be argued that it was to be expected given the somewhat lengthy development cycle this game had, but it still excels compared to many other indie games that have taken just as long to develop, if not longer.
Storyline – 7/10
The story follows the young bard, named by the player in-game, who embarks on an adventure to learn what is known as the Earthsong, which according to prophecy, is the only way to prevent the upcoming end of the world. Along the way, the players will meet a massive cast of characters, each with their own stories and situations to be resolved, which all add so much depth to the story. A lot of the different situations in this world can be seen as very true to life and it does incredibly well to connect with gamers. This game actually has a better story than a lot of other indie games that focus on story sacrificing gameplay in the process. With Wandersong, there is a clear equilibrium between the two.
Originality – 10/10
Simply put, there is no other game like Wandersong. I’ve never played a game whereby music and singing are so integral to how the player must progress through it, and enjoyed it as much as this. Games like Parappa the Rapper and Guitar Hero are obviously titles that make use of music within the gameplay, but Wandersong does even better to integrate it into gameplay, making for, as far as I’m concerned, better titles than the two formers. Platformers have been coming and going since the 80s, but never handled in the way as what it is in this game.
In summation, Wandersong is an excellent game from start to finish. Any platforming fan needs to give this game a try; it’s innovative, enjoyable to play, beautiful to behold with a wonderful soundtrack to listen to along the way, and again, I’m happy for Greg Lobanov and the team to have gotten the recognition they deserved for it.
The debut game of Danish indie outfit Bedtime Studios, who would go on to develop the critical acclaimed indie hits Back to Bed and Figment, Chronology is a 2D side-scrolling puzzle game, which puts the player in the shoes of a kindly old inventor and an anthropomorphic snail with the ability to manipulate time in various ways. Although I had my minor issues with this game, it is a very fun title, which provides an insight into how future Bedtime Digital games would be influenced and where many of their ideas for games came from.
Graphics – 7/10
The game’s visuals are entirely and lovingly hand-drawn taking place in a contrast between the lush green environments of the present day and the dark, gloomy, and seemingly lifeless environments of the future; visible depending on which timeline the player is in at any given moment. The scenery is almost like a character in and of itself with a contrasting personality and a perpetuation of a theme; that theme being the nature of time itself. The game’s soundtrack is for the most part very calm and relaxing but can start to add to tension during precarious platforming sequences for example.
Gameplay – 7/10
The game relies on the player’s ability to effectively platforming as well as puzzle-solving in order to progress. The player must switch between both characters in order to solve puzzles by manipulating time and changing elements of the world in conjunction with how things will be in the future or present if certain things are done within the opposite times. It’s really satisfying to be able to solve each puzzle as it comes, as the entire game can challenge players vigorously to think on their toes for the most part.
Controls – 10/10
The controls, as the 2D side-scrolling genre has been around for over 40 years, were expected to have done correctly, and so they are in this game. There are no unnecessary issues with platforming interacting, and it’s quite clever the way the developers handled the snail’s part in this game in terms of movement in order to progress; for example, the player may have to position the snail in a certain way for the inventor to be able to reach particularly awkward ledges.
Lifespan – 6/10
The game lasts there about the average lifespan of a traditional 2D side scroller, which is around an hour and a half. Although at this point, Bedtime Digital would’ve inevitably have been operating on a budget since this was their first title, I think there was certainly scope for it to have been made to last a little longer at least. Lifespan in their games is something that would be decisively improved upon with games that the company would go on to develop in the future, such as in Back to Bed, Figment, and their upcoming game Figment 2: Creed Valley, but Chronology is a pretty short game. But given how inexpensive it is, it’s not something it should be marked down on too much.
Storyline – 7/10
The story of Chronology follows the exploits of an old inventor, who had been forced into exile by his mentor after having developed a device known as the Verve. Encountering a huge anthropomorphic snail, they resolve to find the mentor and confront him in a plot that provides an intense twist ending. The concept of the game’s story is quite unique and well presented for the small amount of time the game lasts. It’s packed with comedic moments between the inventor and the snail and all comes to a head between the inventor and his former teacher in the final confrontation.
Originality – 6/10
Although the story’s concept is relatively fresh in terms of gaming, where the game stands out most is its approach to gameplay. I’ve seen many puzzle-solving platformers since the start of the eighth generation, but very few have been handled in the same way as in this game, save for titles like The Swapper, Fez, and Guacamelee. For their first foray into gaming, Bedtime Digital did fairly well to provide players with a fresh new experience and would provide the ideal springboard for where their later games would go.
Overall, Chronology, though short, is a fun game for the time it can be made to last; it’s a fairly unique side-scrolling game filled with brain-testing puzzles and a story concept that stands out relatively well within the indie development circle.
Released back in 2019 to universal acclaim after an immensely successful Kickstarter campaign, Blasphemous is a Metroidvania title influenced by games such as Dark Souls and Resident Evil 4 combining wonderfully rendered visuals with intense and challenging combat sequences and precise platforming. After having gotten the chance to play this game myself, I was captivated from start to finish; it is most definitely one of the best Metroidvania titles released throughout the eighth generation of gaming, if not one of the best games in general released throughout the time.
Graphics – 9/10
The game is set in the harsh and mostly dangerously desolate landscape of Cvstodia, which was inspired by religious art composed by classic Spanish artists such as Francisco Goya and Jusepe de Ribera. The developers also drew further inspiration from the religious iconography of their hometown of Seville, Spain with gothic architecture and the religious attire associated with it.
The world of Cvstodia is also beautifully rendered in 16-bit pixel art reminiscent of titles of the fourth generation of gaming. The world of Cvstodia is as wonderfully captivating as it is dark and gritty; it features some of the best examples of video game conceptual design I’ve seen for some time. Everything from the landscape to the character design attests to how much of a labor of love this game truly is.
Gameplay – 8/10
Playing out like a traditional Metroidvania title, the game is heavy on combat and character development as well as requiring precise and clever platforming to progress. Players must both subdue hordes of enemies and uncover new areas within by acquiring new abilities and improving their character’s stats. Two different endings are available to unlock depending on what items the player has acquired and how they are used or modified.
Another particularly standout feature in this game, however, is the boss fights, which again give testament to the quality of the game’s conceptual design; bosses such as Ten Piedad, The Last Son of the Miracle, Our Lady of the Charred Visage, and my personal favorite, Exposito the Scion of Abjuration. The game is every bit as challenging as the titles it took influence from, but at the same time not inaccessible. It’s also an extremely satisfying experience to revisit locations far stronger than before with the acquiring of new abilities and more health and magic, but also equally as satisfying to defeat each boss. It does exceptionally well to make the player feel like this is their journey along with the player character, The Penitent One.
Controls – 10/10
The game’s controls are precise, responsive, and present the player with no necessary issues, which is desperately needed in a game like this. There’s nothing worse than when a developer tries to challenge a player with a tough game, and the controls aren’t right, like what I found with the original Mega Man. Fortunately, however, this issue is nonexistent in Blasphemous.
Lifespan – 7.5/10
To complete the game to 100%, along with the newly released free DLC package The Stir of Dawn, will take roughly 30 hours, which for a Metroidvania game is particularly impressive. It could possibly be made to last longer with the potential introduction of new DLC released somewhere down the lines (here’s hoping), but regardless, this game will have players investing in it for a particularly long time to come. There are plenty of collectibles to scout for and abilities to require to make Blasphemous last more than a meaningful amount of hours.
Storyline – 9/10
The story of Blasphemous follows a mute lone soldier known only as The Penitent One, who is the sole survivor of an order known as The Brotherhood of the Silent Sorrow. The Penitent One embarks on a pilgrimage in the name of The Miracle, a god-like supernatural force that governs the land of Cvstodia and manifests itself in various twisted ways in the name of either mercy or punishment.
The Penitent One seeks a holy relic named the Cradle of Affliction and is instructed by a narrator of the Miracle named Deogracias to carry out the three humiliations to gain access to the location where the Cradle of Affliction is housed.
The game’s story is expertly structured and masterfully written with full voice acting and a plethora of lore and backstory to unearth throughout Cvstodia. It raises questions about the nature of godhood and everlasting life in a world where the desire for punishment or forgiveness comes at a heavy cost and what impact religious institutions can have on the world. Again, it was yet another element to this game that excited me from beginning to end.
Originality – 9/10
Taking into account everything about this title, from its conceptual design to its combat system to its gripping story, it is definitely one of the most original titles I’ve ever played. In a gaming generation that has been arguably over-saturated with Metroidvania titles in recent years, it would have taken something particularly special to make another one stand out among so many others; but this game does that flawlessly; it tackles themes, gameplay mechanics and graphical features that have rarely been seen in gaming before and will go on to influence a plethora of games for years to come.
In summary, Blasphemous is definitely one of the best games of the eighth generation. The influx of indie games over the last seven years has made this generation one of the most exciting in the history of gaming, but this title will be one that gamers will still be playing long after, with its wonderfully rendered visuals, intense combat, and boss fights, and a story that players will be talking about for many years after its release.