Retro Arcadia Top 10 Games of 2021 – The Half Way Point!

Retro Arcadia Top 10 Games of 2021 – The Half Way Point!

Not sure I’ve ever got to the end of June and had a top ten games already, but I’m guessing the jump to Xbox Series X and it’s little Game Pass feature might have something to do with it! And that’s partly why I’m doing this now, because given what’s hopefully coming for the rest of the year, I reckon it might change a bit by December, so I just wanted to give these guys some credit before they don’t deserve it!

1. Resident Evil Village (Xbox Series X)
I wasn’t fussed about next-gen until the doors of Castle Dimitrescu were swept open in that very first gameplay footage back in January, and we climbed the grandest of staircases under the grandest of chandeliers under the grandest of ceilings, and it was just the best-looking thing I’d ever seen in a game! That combined with the clear influence of Resident Evil 4 – my third favourite game ever – to have me more hyped about Resident Evil Village than even Shao-Lin’s Road on the ZX Spectrum in 1986! And it more than lived up to that hype! A beautiful time, several times and counting.

2. Cyber Shadow (Xbox One)
Back in January, on my son’s hand-me-down Xbox, I succumbed to another Game Pass subscription for this retro arcade platformer, because a second one in the house for a month was still way cheaper than getting it on Switch! Little bit Metroid and a lot Ninja Gaiden – really punishing but begrudgingly fair, controls like a dream, and the levels are really well designed with some great variety, despite a couple of overly harsh checkpoints! And it’s also the best-looking and sounding NES game you could ever dream of, oozing this oppressive atmosphere behind all that polish.

3. Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection (Switch)
I’ve spent decades having the time of my life getting killed on the first two levels (but mostly the first!) of this game’s various Ghouls, Ghosts and Goblins predecessors, and I’m pleased to report that this one is no different! By far the most brutal in the series so far (although there are options for wimps and even optional mid-level checkpoints for all), and also the best looking, best sounding and, by all accounts, the most varied, though I’m unlikely to ever know about that!

4. Outriders (Xbox Series X)
Finally, I found my new Destiny! Fantastic feeling cover-shooter built around an addictive, repetitive and often joyfully mindless progressive level-up and loot loop that feels loads better if you jump in with others, though the flexible difficulty system means it works fine solo too. The magic classes mix things up, there’s various enhancement systems and all kinds of modification possible, a ridiculous amount of better weapons and armour to keep finding, and the story isn’t bad either. Looks mighty fine as well!

5. Narita Boy (Xbox Series X)
A pleasantly modern-feeling sort of metroidvania homage to the eighties that starts a bit bewildering as you’re dumped into a complex story made of complex language, but persevere a while and your back and forth will reward you with enormous environmental variety and loads of different enemies to overcome with increasingly fluid combat. And as you’re wandering and wondering at some glorious pseudo-Tron visuals and a fantastic synth-wave soundtrack, you’ll even start to work out what it’s all about too!

6. Genesis Noir (Xbox Series X)
I should hate this! Pointing, clicking and jazzing isn’t me… Unlike Howard Moon, I’m definitely not the jazzy boy! But I’m okay with some film noir, and I like some Pink Panther cartoon aesthetics, especially when they’re so painfully stylish! And this isn’t really point-and-click; it’s very tactile, and, unusually for that genre, its puzzles are mostly logical. There’s no escaping a bit of smoky jazz club in this absolutely unique anti-creation tale though, but I can forgive it that.

7. Travel Through Time Vol. 1: Northern Lights (ZX Spectrum)
For anyone interested in ZX Spectrums, you have to check this out! It’s up there with the machine’s best racing games, whether Enduro Racer and WEC Le Mans et al from its original run, or anything like 4K Race Refuelled or Just a Gal that followed more recently. Speaking of which, it’s from the same developer as Just a Gal, but this time the ingenuity, creativity and sheer craftsmanship on display here will just blow you away even more. Just stunning!

8. Pac-Man 99 (Switch)
I really didn’t appreciate having to buy a skin when it turned out I kept getting into the top ten then dying because of a red enemy Pac-Man on the black background that I couldn’t see because no settings compensated for my very common red-black colourblindness… But it was a Xevious one, and it was cheap, and the game was free, and it’s a really, really good competitive multiplayer take on the classic core mechanics, and it’s really, really addictive, so I’m going to begrudgingly forgive it that and just say it’s great!

9. Danterrifik III (ZX Spectrum)
Yes, you read that right – another Spectrum game! This is a triumph of both minimalist design and the most brutal of old-school split-second, pixel-perfect punishing platforming. The intricate black, white and occasionally red Nazi-soiled religious imagery would look like this on any platform, and the exquisite soundtrack is as good as has ever graced the Spectrum – you might even think you’re listening to a Commodore 64 while your 99 lives are being chipped away in very rapid succession!

10. The Medium (Xbox Series X)
As the first game I played that was made for my new next-gen console, this was a disappointment! Just imagine the leap from playing Zub on ZX Spectrum to Defender of the Crown on Atari ST… Well, it was pretty much the opposite of that, and I might even say was a backwards step from something like Final Fantasy VII Remake on PS4! But as a horror walking simulator of sorts with a fantastic psychic otherworld mechanic and hard-hitting story, it really hit the spot.

Game Review: Resident Evil Village on Xbox Series X

Game Review: Resident Evil Village on Xbox Series X

I know this isn’t retro, and I’m weeks behind any other reviews that actually mattered to anyone, but as well as having some form with Resident Evil, when I finished the game I wanted to try and reconcile some of the feelings I had about the experience, especially in relation the well-known fourth entry in the series, so I thought why not!

With the possible exception of Shaolin’s Road coming to ZX Spectrum in 1986, I’m not sure I was ever as excited about an upcoming game as I was Resident Evil Village. It was the January 2021 first gameplay trailer that did it, when the doors of the castle swung open and you were greeted by this majestic, shimmering chandelier hanging from the grandest of intricately carved vaulted ceilings, over the grandest of intricately carved wooden staircases, accented by gold and flames and all that fancy next-gen lighting! In fact, it was that very moment that I decided it was time to take the plunge, leading to weeks of Xbox Series X hunting, but I had five months and it arrived long before panic needed to set in… In fact, the only moment of panic was the day before the game’s release, when my wife informed me she’d never actually had an order confirmation (for good reason, it turned out!), so the two day wait I was already prepared to endure between 7th May and my birthday on the 9th was about to stretch to ruinous levels!

It didn’t, thanks to the eighth wonder of the world when you live in the middle of nowhere, one-day delivery! Anyway, why all this excitement? Firstly, even from the trailers, you could tell that the stench of Resident Evil 4 (more here) was all over it. And that’s not only my favourite Resident Evil, but my number three favourite game of all time; now, I might have been very late to that party, it being the last major game in the series I’d never played because back in 2005 I didn’t like the look of the first chapter that was in all of the screenshots we got, but this year alone it’s been played on GameCube twice, and Wii, and PlayStation 4. I love it, and so by extension, I should love this as well! Then there’s secondly, which is how it looks. Again, a moment in a trailer was all it took – I’ve written a bit about favourite sights in all of gaming, a couple of times in fact (here and here), but that castle hallway stomped all over what’s come before. I think it’s breathtaking! And as trailers became bizarrely timed Sunday night-only demos spanning my PS4 then Xbox Series X, I was getting similar feelings about the village before the castle, and then the rest of the castle… I’ve always said I could retire to Super Castlevania IV, and Castle Dimitrescu was that wonderful Super Nintendo pixel art brought to the most stunning real life in 2021! From what I’d seen in the trailers and the demos, they really couldn’t have made a game look more personally appealing to me than this one, and combine that with the Resident Evil 4 context and influence, and we have what might be the best game ever just over the horizon…

Before we go any further – even more important than saying I’ll do my best to avoid any spoilers – is turn on ray tracing if you’re on a next-gen console! It’s off by default but needs switching on to make a great-looking gaming the most sumptuous, gorgeous game you’ve ever seen! As I’ve mentioned this a couple of times already, we’ll start with graphics, and confirm that this is a really beautiful game; I know we’re only scratching the surface of next-gen consoles so far, and with this being available on the old ones there’s sure to be some compromise, but all the same, apart from some of the gorgeous lighting effects in the enhanced Dirt 5, this is the first time I’ve really felt that I’m experiencing Xbox Series X. The domestic scene setter at the beginning of the game is fine (and we’ll come back here shortly), but it’s when you’ve taken in a stunning vista of everything that’s about to come your way, then you finally arrive in the titular village that you start to really notice all the shadows and reflections, the glisten of snowflakes and flickering candlelight, and stunning details literally everywhere you look.

You’re going to have some of these shoved right in your face very early on too – hair effects are always a mark of next-generation machines, and lycans and werewolves (there is a difference!) are the perfect showcase for seeing these in action! There’s just so much fidelity in everything, whether static or in motion, and some of these early encounters are not just graphical showstoppers, but they also serve to absolutely terrify you with the prospect of everything else that’s going to be out to get you in the ordeal to come! An early introduction to pre-launch sensation Lady Dimitrescu and her three fellow Lords also hints at the variety to come, and even very deep into the game I was constantly jumping into the pause menu, opening up photo mode and getting a shot of the latest thing to blow me away as we travelled through their various distinct domains. Some of these had a real Universal horror vibe as well, which I really appreciated, both literally and also where everything exists to have an atmospheric purpose. And you’re constantly encouraged to take all of this in, looking for that tiny glint that tells you there’s something valuable to be dislodged by a bullet, but sometimes you’ll also just decide you need to sit back and admire it, whether the sight of a mass of crows circling some ruined battlements, or just watching resident merchant, The Duke, ignoring you and enjoying his cigar before hunting out a book, flicking some ash out of it as he finds the right page, then exhales a puff of smoke as he starts reading. So much effort has gone into not only creating a realistic gothic fantasy with startling attention to detail, but also by bringing almost everything in it to life. There’s no doubt that this is the best looking game that these eyes have ever seen!

Quick note on the story. This is a direct follow-up to Resident Evil 7, continuing the story of Ethan Winters after he rescued his wife from supernatural Texas Chainsaw country, but now they’re in exile somewhere in Eastern Europe and he’s got a baby daugher to rescue this time. After being kidnapped by Resident Evil stalwart Chris Redfield and his cronies, she’s kidnapped again by our aforementioned four supernatural crime-lords, who are all at the behest of wicked witch Mother Miranda. As well as being the best looking game I’ve ever played, this is undoubtedly my game of the year so far, trumping even Ghosts ‘n Goblins Ressurection, Outriders and Cyber Shadow, all of which I thought were utterly wonderful, then there’s Genesis Noir, Narita Boy, Pac-Man 99… And we’re still in May! Anyway, I choose to say this now because the first time I was introduced to this baddies collective in a very early cutscene, all of that pre-launch excitement about having a new and improved Resident Evil 4 on my hands got a teeny bit tempered. Lady Dimitrescu was fine, and her three insect-infused daughters even more fine to this particular old goth! Modern-day Frankestein Karl Hesienberg was alright too, even if he was no Ramon Salazar. But then there was this doll running about shouting like some crazed Harley Quinn nerd figure, who turned out to be representing Donna Beneviento, a creepy dollmaker. Now, I’m not saying that either of the first two are any kind of realistic, but they were at least grounded in the same kind of horror reality that we were treated to in most of the previous game with the Baker family, but all these in-your-face Bride of Chucky histrionics just seemed a bit out of place at this point. As did the fourth Lord, an oozing, deformed aquatic worm-man thing by the name of Savatore Moreau – I might have loved the lake monster boss from Resident Evil 4, and this might have been a strong hint towards something similar to come later, but all the same, it’s not really what I wanted as I transitioned from a lycan-infested scene of rural slaughter into the golden vampiric opulence of Castle Dimitrescu; a couple of Scooby Doo villains making an overly dramatic entrance was all a bit jarring!

Fortunately, you’re not given too long to dwell on this as you’re dumped into a rip-roaring Indiana Jones-style set piece; it really is a testament to the game design that when I finally got to the end of this frantic little interlude that I wondered quite how I’d managed to escape first time and in one piece, but some clever pacing and some subtle funnelling quietly served its purpose here, and it wouldn’t be the last time I’d have a similar feeling after some of the game’s later set pieces too. This might be a good time to mention the puzzles, which is something else I really appreciated, though for reasons that others might bemoan them! I’ve never come to Resident Evil for the puzzles, and anything beyond the lightweight brain teasers we recently saw in Resident Evil 3 Remake have been things I’ve learnt to tolerate more than enjoy; thankfully, the puzzles here might be even more lightweight, sometimes being a test of your brightness settings as much as your logical thought! As I said, maybe a turn-off for some, but you’re rarely going to be scratching your head about what to do or where to go next, especially if you’ve played any of the series before. There are definitely some secrets to find off the beaten track though, and after my first playthrough I had a list of various non-critical puzzles to go back to that I’d encountered but not found the right gear to solve, or just stuff I knew must exist but I hadn’t had the right gear to access at the time.

I’m not going to describe much beyond what everyone with any interest in the game has already seen in either trailers or demos or bigger boys’ reviews, but after spending a good chunk of time in Castle Dimitrescu, you are going to use the village as a bit of a metroidvania-inspired game hub, and then travel through each of the other three Lords’ themed worlds doing things very much inspired by every Resident Evil game you’ve ever played, and not just spiritual predecessor Resident Evil 4. Although one of them very much reminded me more of Doom 3 than any previous Resident Evil, but as my favourite shooter ever that’s something I can forgive! Actually, as I think about it, it did go a bit Call of Duty at one point too, though again, in a fun, chaotic scrap with guns kind of way, so again, quite forgiveable! As I may have hinted, the castle is my favourite area in this game, but there’s not that much to where you’ll spend the most time while exploring here, and whilst that’s not necessarily a criticism – especially from someone with my sense of direction – I did feel that you were too-quickly whisked through some of the later areas it expands into in comparison as you reach the end of your time there. On a related note, there’s one dominant puzzle that appears here very early on, but you spend several hours not being able to do much about; and when I say several hours, it may be less if you’re not soaking in every decadent detail like I was! Anyway, that puzzle contain various elements, and the first and even the second of these are going to take some tracking down, but then this was where the pacing caught me out a bit as suddenly the rest of it all fell into place in quick succession; pacing is undoubtedly one of the hallmarks of Resident Evil 4, and this could have taken some cues from that game’s castle area by just taking its time a bit more instead of excitedly getting you on a roll and then out of there.

Another hallmark of Resident Evil 4 for me is the boss fights. I’m not a massive fan of boss fights in general, but I did enjoy most of those, as well as some of the other giant enemies it introduced in between. I also really enjoyed most of the nerve-shredding but ultimately dumb Nemesis fights in Resident Evil 3 Remake, and I think it was these I missed the most here once the first main boss fight was done – which it should be said was great, with its frantic and often overwhelming chase around the ramparts! After that, and right up to the final boss fight where things get a bit more traditional again, I was just a bit underwhelmed by the rest of the bosses, and none more so than when one of them turned out to be a very straightforward game of hide and seek, with absolutely no user input outside of a glorified game of Where’s Wally!

I’m going to stop finding fault in a second, but while I am there’s just a couple more things that bothered me. Before launch there was a big debate about the pronunciation of Dimitrescu, with everyone that had ever had any exposure to anything Eastern European (i.e. not an American being told what to say by a Japanese guy at Capcom) knowing it’s pronounced exactly how it’s written. But in the game, it is actually pronounced “Dimitreesc” and having worked for a Japanese company for exactly twenty years and one week at the time of writing, I’ve a feeling that this is grounded in the Japanese language handling of the letter “u” at the end of a word being assumed to also directly translate to Romanian. A mistake, in other words, but even if not, it sounds ridiculous every time you hear it! Final moan is the punishment that Ethan’s hands take in the first hour of the game. Even more ridiculous! One of them literally gets torn apart, and there’s fingers bitten off, and you find out exactly why people say that if Jesus was crucified like the popular story says then the nails would have gone in his wrists and not his palms in the most graphic detail (twice), and he even has one sliced completely off. But a bit of rag and some magic healing juice and they all come back again, which is fine, but what about the sleeves that get sliced off too? Did I miss the magic sewing kit as well? And if you’re planning on explaining that away, do it sooner before it becomes an ongoing annoyance rather than later, by which I mean during the absolute end-game.

I know, to the normal person neither of these are likely to be a showstopper, but these little details can nag away, and combined with similar, relatively minor issues definitely contribute to why Resident Evil 4 is my number three favourite game of all time and this isn’t even in the reckoning, as good as it really is over its ten hours or so duration! As an analogy, there’s a well-know way of approaching seemingly insurmountable ingrained problems in large corporations, like a huge giant block of stone that’s stopping you continuing down the path; you just start chipping away a the corners, and even though getting rid of each tiny bit isn’t going to let you pass, eventually you’ll be able to roll the block out of the way. And that’s how I feel about Resident Evil Village versus my beloved Resident Evil 4, but in reverse. I think! All that said, I’m sure there’s also an argument somewhere in my head for the groundbreaking and more epic nature of 4 over this one’s eye on the past to add to its sense of wonder.

And make no mistake, it is wonderful, so let’s talk about some more good then, and a really nice nod to Resident Evil 4, The Duke, who even knowingly spouts a line from his Resident Evil 4 counterpart, The Merchant, and over time you’re going to appreciate this guy (and his familiar backing music) just as much. For me, his first appearance was actually one of more horrific moments in the game too; this huge obese aristocrat crammed into the most unlikely of spaces, found in the most unlikely of places to sell his wares. As well as selling ammo and upgrades, and taking unwanted treasure off your hands, he’s also going to offer weapon upgrades and permanent stat boosts by taking meats you collect from killed wildlife and crafting them into various recipes. It’s worth saying that the crafting scare stories you might have heard before launch are no more than this, so take it from someone who dislikes crafting almost as much as stealth, but not as much as deck-building, that it’s really nothing to worry about! The Duke is also going to move the story along in places, and a bit more besides, and for something I initially took to be little more than window dressing lifted out of Tod Browning’s Freaks, he really became a surprise highlight, full of character and full of detail, as well as that familiar source of relief when you see him so you can save and fiddle with your inventory in peace for a while, just like with The Merchant before him!

Apart from The Duke, the Four Lords (and saucy insect offspring) and Mother Miranda, you’re going to come across a skull-wielding hag to also point you in one direction or another, various villagers in various states of panic, illness or death, and they all combine to keep the story moving and giving you just enough rope to hang yourself with too! There’s also much more than lycans and werewolves of all varieties to fight, with zombies, fire-wielding archer ghoul-things, mechanical soldiers, living gargoyles, big hairy things and everything in between waiting around any given corner, alone or in a big group, ready to spell your doom. They’re not massively scary, and running to preserve precious ammo is often an option, but there’s good variety and plenty of ways to strategise when you do have to take them on. Shooting stuff feels really good too, and the non-stop parade of upgradeable guns, explosives and other supplies you’ll come across, then picking and choosing what to do with them is also a fun side-story that really adds some extra depth to proceedings.

What else? For all of its gameplay and character influences from earlier games, as well as the direct link to Resident Evil 7’s plot, if you’re perceptive (and by the end, even if you’re not) you’re going to get some nice loose ends tied with regard to the Umbrella Corporation; I’m not saying the narrative isn’t bonkers by any means, but there’s more to it than I expected! As I’ve mentioned, it’s not especially horrific, but there are some great moments of tension, in many cases relating to your lack of ammo, which is classic Resident Evil design! As is the sound – stick some cans over your ears and that tension is ramped up another 100%! Much like the graphics, there’s enormous attention to detail in this department too, with all sorts going on in all directions, and as much as you’re going to be constantly panning up to the ceiling for that tell-tale glint of some precious jewel, you’re also going to be listening for the creak of a bird cage and its hidden bonuses, or just what direction the next insane danger is coming from! The soundtrack is suitably haunting, and also injects the adrenalin when it needs to, but its not especially memorable; that said, I’ve a feeling it might be a bit of a slow-burner, and is something I’ll definitely pay more attention to on future play-throughs. You’ve got some trademark Resident Evil voice-acting too, but let’s stay focussed on the very, very good!

Resident Evil Village is definitely a Resident Evil game, but for me it’s not much of a pure horror game despite the vampires and werewolves; there’s no sense of dread, shock or revulsion, and you’re not going to get scared like I know some did in Resident Evil 7’s claustrophobic opening few hours, though there is one area that some might find disturbing in a similar way to why some people won’t watch the movie IT! But that’s absolutely fine because the very best of the previous Resident Evils took a similar approach, and as was just pointed out to me, just because I wasn’t scared doesn’t make it not a horror game altogether! Overall, the tense, varied and mostly brilliantly paced gameplay, combined especially with the jaw-dropping, atmospheric visuals, makes Resident Evil Village absolutely essential, especially if you’re already on next-gen machines. It’s not perfect, and even though it controls like a dream in first-person, it’s still not quite up there with Resident Evil 4, but apart from Feud on the ZX Spectrum and Kick Off on Atari ST, what is? That beautiful, beautiful castle though…

Outriders, Genesis Noir, Narita Boy – Celebrating One Incredible Week on Xbox Game Pass

Outriders, Genesis Noir, Narita Boy – Celebrating One Incredible Week on Xbox Game Pass

Game Pass is great, and in the very short space of time since I got my Xbox Series X and have been involved, has completely justified my jumping to Xbox after four day-one PlayStation generations before it! Actually, it was the main justification for it!

On top of everything Xbox to explore that I’d previously missed out on, the past couple of weeks – and in the space of about a week – there’s been no less than three stone cold classics that I’ve immediately played the hell out of to completion (though Outriders is sure to keep on giving way beyond the story), and as a quick non-retro bonus post I just wanted to give a quick impression of each…

Outriders

Finally, I found my new Destiny! Fantastic feeling cover-shooter built around an addictive, repetitive, progressive level-up and loot loop that feels loads better if you jump in with others, though the flexible difficulty system means it works fine solo too. The magic classes mix things up, there’s various enhancement systems and all kinds of modification possible, a ridiculous amount of better weapons and armour to keep finding, and the story isn’t bad either. Looks mighty fine as well!

Narita Boy

A pleasantly modern-feeling sort-of-metroidvania homage to the eighties that starts a bit bewildering as you’re dumped into a complex story using complex language, but persevere a while and your back and forth will reward you with enormous environmental variety and loads of different enemies to overcome with increasingly fluid combat. And as you’re wandering and wondering at some glorious pseudo-Tron visuals and a fantastic synth-wave soundtrack, you’ll even start to work out what it’s all about too!

Genesis Noir

I should hate this! Pointing, clicking and jazzing isn’t me… Unlike Howard Moon, I’m definitely not the jazzy boy! But I’m okay with some film noir, and I like some Pink Panther cartoon aesthetics, especially when they’re so painfully stylish! And this isn’t really point-and-click; it’s very tactile, and, unusually for that genre, its puzzles are mostly logical. There’s no escaping a bit of smoky jazz club in this absolutely unique anti-creation tale though, but I can forgive it that.

If you’ve got access to Game Pass, definitely give these a go. And if you’re still holding out for an elusive PlayStation 5, I’d have a serious look at it too!

Game Review: Cyber Shadow on Xbox One

Game Review: Cyber Shadow on Xbox One

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!