The Indie section of the Xbox Live games marketplace can be a confusing beast, like a hydra with sub-bargain-bin TV games in place of its hulking heads. For the most part it’s a complete crapshoot of mediocre to unplayable… things… that aren’t even worth wasting a buck on, and sifting the gold from the worm-ridden earth is almost entirely futile. Occasionally, however, there are gems that warrant more than a quick peek. Such is the case with the games of Japanese developer 8-Bit Fanatics. Their most recent release, Aban Hawkins & the 1000 SPIKES, is another in a sparse but proud line of games arguing for the validity of a retro resurgence.
The thing about “retro” and “8-bit,” though, is that stuff in that vein—but not necessarily in the proper spirit—is all over the Internet. It takes a discerning eye to plumb the depths and avoid the cloyingly kitsch impostors from the real deal. Certainly there’s some subjectivity involved, but more often than not one can get a feel for the creators’ intent within the first few minutes.
Take the upcoming Retro City Rampage for example. Developed almost entirely by one man, RCR began its life as a fairly straightforward, albeit mightily impressive, 8-bit riff on the Grand Theft Auto series called Grand Theftendo. The charm doesn’t just lie in seeing modern gameplay mechanics in anachronistic matrimony with sprite-based visuals of the past, but in the fact that it also completely adhered to the limitations of the Nintendo Entertainment System. While it’s true that, in its current form, Retro City Rampage wouldn’t be entirely playable on an NES, the spirit remains.
Something similar can be said about Daisuke “Pixel” Ayama’s Cave Story—one of my personal favorites of 2010 (WiiWare version), reviewed here. Behind the deceptively simple premise and intricate design is one man with real passion for what made the games of the past tick; someone who understands that the longevity of the classics doesn’t merely lie in nostalgia. There’s much more drive behind their staying power than any one facet—be it the graphics, music, etc.—just as there’s more to tapping their essence than spreading carbon paper over a relief of 198x and rubbing away.
8-Bit Fanatics are another team of developers out of Japan that know this well. Their first Xbox Live Indie game was released in November of last year, and it’s one I regrettably slept on at the time. Such is the combined danger and freedom of releasing a title in the Mos Eisley of game ports, where your potential classic can sit right next to something with a cover that looks like this.
The Tempura of the Dead has a premise right out of the NES days. With zombies running amok, the President of the United States leaps into action alongside the only other man brave enough to take on the germ-powered horde: a samurai named Sugimoto. Sugimoto lets President Thompson know that this isn’t just about killing zombies. Their spirits must be released by slicing off their heads and juggling them until they turn into delicious, heavenly tempura. Thompson does so with automatic weaponry, while Sugimoto sticks to his trusty blade. Together they’ll destroy the Germs of Calamity across America and save us from this wretched fate.
If it wasn’t already clear, the key mechanic of the game is juggling zombie heads and maintaining a “Tempura Fever” chain for as long as possible. 8-Bit Fanatics keep things nice and clean by leaning on this addictive, and often difficult, strategy for claiming the highest scores possible in each stage. Though it takes quite some time for the going to get tough—they don’t throw the truly challenging germs at you until your tour of the US is almost at its end—purchasable power-ups, new enemies and fresh stage designs ensure things stay interesting from A to B.
The music, which changes depending on whether or not you’re in Tempura Fever mode, adds to the hypnotic flair. And that’s pretty much the game in its entirety. Much like the games of olde to which it owes its inspiration, The Tempura of the Dead is designed with repetition in mind, and is loaded with quick-pick-up replayability. At 240 MS points (about 3 bucks in American Human Money), it’s as easy as choosing a Toblerone in a candy store full of nothing but Swedish Fish.
Their latest creation, Aban Hawkins & The 1000 SPIKES, is even more of a steal at 80 MS points, or 1 freakin’ dollar. It also sheds further light on the team’s old school design principles. The setup makes Tempura‘s premise look downright sprawling in its complexity. Aban Hawkins is an Indiana Jones-style adventurer chasing treasure, a pursuit that inevitably sends him on a mad quest filled with… lots of spikes. And Scorpions. And darts. And boulders. But mostly spikes. It’s very Super Meat Boy—in that it’s a super tough platformer—but this one demands rote memorization in addition to keen reflexes.
It is indeed, as its trailer proudly proclaims, a “hardest extremest craziest platform adventure.” The optional tutorial exudes its not-just-for-posturing principles, with delightfully sloppy English letting the player know that newfangled ideas like checkpoints are a crutch, and they simply won’t be having any of that nonsense in this experience. It’s try or die—or rather try and die, because our hero starts out with 1000 lives, most of which will be depleted over the course of the emprise.
Games like Aban Hawkins and Tempura of the Dead offer refreshment for both jaded gamers wary of anything with the term “8-bit” wantonly slapped on its cheesy, grinning grill, and pretty much anyone else looking for something with a pulse on their Xbox 360’s indie channel. You’ll know if it’s for you the moment you press start.