I’m not sure I’ll ever both love and hate any game as much as I did 2017’s jaw-droppingly stylish platform adventure Hollow Knight… 50 hours splattered with vicious difficulty spikes, filthy checkpointing and regular loss of everything that constantly had my blood boiling, with two rage-deletes before it kept pulling me back to finish it! Yacht Games’ Shovel Knight did come close though, offering a more focussed but equally polished, equally brutal take on the genre. And here they are again with Cyber Shadow, which sits somewhere in the middle in terms of gameplay experience, and comes even closer in terms of love / hate ratio! This time they’re publishing though, with indie dev Mechanical Head Studios the true sadists behind this genius nearly-NES side-scrolling cyberpunk platformer.

Creator Aarne Hunziker, who actually did pretty much everything here apart from the music, described the game as combining “the level design principles of Mario, the skills and action of Ninja Gaiden, the enemy designs of Contra and the dark visual aesthetic of Batman.” I definitely picked up the Ninja Gaiden vibe from the outset, not just from the ninja you’re leaping about killing stuff as, but also the very slick, almost cinematic way the gameplay feels. I’d also say there’s a strong whiff of Mega Man, especially in the way you progress into boss fights, and Super Metroid, both aesthetically and with some of the backtracking you can do later that makes further progress (marginally!) easier.

The plot begins perfectly lightweight and off-the-wall, with your cyborg ninja exploring the far-distant future of Mekacity to rescue his fallen clan, whose mystical powers are being harvested by nasty synthetic lifeforms. That translates to you fighting your way through ten chapters of varied sci-fi environments in and around the city as the story of the mad scientist, his robot army and your place in everything evolves into something a little more complex, and for better or worse, a lot more so than you’d find in Mega Man!

You start off basic, with your techno-ninja running, jumping and slashing, but as you progress you’ll start to discover and evolve regular genre tropes such as dashes, wall-slides and double-jumps, as well as health and secondary weapon or power lifespan upgrades. The latter are also unlocked as you progress, with a basic shuriken for longer-range combat then being enhanced with additional properties, and also being supplemented by special abilities such as energy bolts or an upward slash that fires poweful flame attacks; these are obtained and selected at most of the checkpoints you come across, in exchange for cash you’ve found on the way, and generally offer something useful for the next section or boss. As a reminder of the game’s cruelty though, take three hits with one of these equipped and you’re losing it!

Speaking of checkpoints and cruelty, once you get to about chapter four, you’re going to die and die and die again before you see the next one! As you might have worked out by now, whether you love it or hate it or both, this game only hates you! As everything naturally gets trickier the further you go, you’re also going to start to see things like robot enemies positioned exactly where you need to be landing, then between you and your landing point there’ll be an electric pit with a floating platform you need to recharge your double-jump on in the middle, but it’s covered in spikes except down one side! And that’s not enough because here come the robot spiders or a beam that’s going to trigger all sorts of homing destruction or just a wave of instant death! If it was just one such obstacle that you need to learn to get perfect at overcoming (because imperfection means instant death) that would be one thing, but increasingly there’s going to be screen after screen of them between you and the next checkpoint. But the most frustrating thing is that even when you know there’s no room for any error, you also always know it’s beatable if you try it enough times!

I think there were two points in the whole game that this frustration got me to the point of quitting though… The first was a huge mechanical dragon boss that you could start to predict fairly quickly, but killing floating robots so they turned into platforms you could use to launch enough attacks from while avoiding the dragon and the electrified water below added a whole new level of challenge. In retrospect, it was just a brilliant piece of punishing boss design, and by the time you’ve worked it out, practiced it to the point of being able to beat it and accepted you just need to be extremely patient with it, you’re going to beat it without losing any energy at all. The final boss turned out to be very similar, albeit with three stages, and the third being a bit more punishing and unpredictable, so you need a few planets to align before eventually beating it!

There were a couple of overly long, crazy difficult platforming sections too, the second of which really had me thinking life’s too short even though it was actually the approach to the final boss! The main problem I had with this one was a reliance on a clumsy pogo-to-double-jump mechanic once you got past a cruel, sprawling platforming ascent that reminded me of the awful sandcrawler section in SNES Super Star Wars! Over several evenings I was able to navigate this part unscathed (or it wasn’t worth continuing anyway), then you emerge into a multi-section ascent involving what is the only imprecise mechanic in an overall very precise experience. It was just horrendous, especially when you finally got within touching distance, only for some otherwise easy robot enemy to take your last bar of health – which, of course, is precisely why it was there! And because the checkpoint was a good ten minutes back, and you know perfectly well it might take another ten attempts before you get close again, it was just soul-destroying! That said, I’ve never felt such relief in a game as when I eventually landed on that checkpoint!

Apart from this though, the difficulty never felt unfair – it was just letting you know you weren’t good enough yet! And new abilities and power-ups generally gave you the crutch you needed to overcome the relentless introduction of new forms of sadism that never stopped right up to that final stage of the final chapter. In the main, checkpoints were just about right too; I was particularly appreciative of how they allowed you to jump straight back into boss fights (something Hollow Knight didn’t do so well). I used that last checkpoint, right before the final boss, so many times over the course of a weekend, though by that point, having got there at all, I was doing it a few goes at a time then having a break and coming back later when I’d cooled down a bit, taking time after each session to also appreciate the visible progress as you cracked the first stage, then the second, then worked out how to do it without taking too much damage so you had a fair shot at the third and final stage. And that final stage, in the game’s final twist of the knife, would have been a tough nut to crack without the other two!

Brutal difficulty is certainly not the only place that Cyber Shadow looks to the NES for inspiration. Graphically, this is the NES game of your dreams! It’s authentic, but it’s like any technical limitations have been removed, so it’s full of NES colour, full of detail and full of stuff that can kill you! I really loved the way it used big black spaces with muted highlights and shadows to invoke a very oppressive atmosphere at points too, and when you notice all that parallax scrolling, or the 8-bit rain coming down on top of it all, it just looks gorgeous! Pretty much the same can be said for Enrique Martin’s cyber-synth soundtrack too, which was noticeably sometimes the only saving grace at some of the game’s more bleak difficulty spikes!

I really loved Cyber Shadow, but I did really hate it too! And I reckon that’s what it was aiming for. I don’t think it’s going to rank as one of my favourite games ever (like Hollow Knight did), but finishing this on Xbox One certainly left me feeling that I’m not as bad at games as I often say I am, and over the course of thirteen hours and almost 1100 deaths I had a wonderful, very NES at its very best time! I know it’s only the first day of March as I write this, and I’ve not given Ghosts ‘n Goblins: Resurrection more than an hour or so yet (because there’s only so much punishment you can take at any one time!), but without doubt the most engaging and simply the best thing – old or new – that I’ve played in 2021 so far!