5 February, 2014
In case you have been living under a rock for the past few years, I just wanted to let you know that retro is in. In a big way. Something about the 1980's just refuses to die. I wouldn't know where to even start with how much of the 80's is still being regurgitated for consumption by a willing audience. Fashion, music, nightclubs - Doc Brown did get one thing right about the future in Back to the Future Part 2 - there are plenty of 80's nostalgia places, but not done right. It seems that for all the appropriation of 80's culture, and the short amount of time since the 80's was actually the present, authenticity is still lacking. Steam, for example, is full of pixelated games that are all style, no substance, merely copying the primitive visuals of classic games. It seems easier just to go back and plug in a classic 8-bit system instead.
Fortunately, if you are still looking for authentic 80's action gameplay but have exhausted all possibilities on your original systems, Oniken is here to save the day, thanks to Brazilian indie developer JoyMasher. It seems odd to call a small team making an 80's platformer 'indie' when most developers during the 8-bit era were usually in groups of ten or less anyway. But I digress.
Oniken bares more than a passing resemblance to games such as Ninja Gaiden, Kickmaster and Shadow of the Ninja. That's no coincidence, and its inspirations are clear. A martial arts using, sword wielding badass mercenary with a murdered father and a mission to save the world from darkness. It's pretty much standard 80's action fare. Fans of 80's action and martial arts films, as well as 90's anime will find a lot to like here. The atmosphere is dark and dystopian, the hero single-minded in his determination and the gore is plentiful. One scene sees our hero punch a villain's face so hard his head explodes. The bosses are a wonderful array of biomechanical weirdness, and some fights genuinely feel like an epic one-on-one duel rather than some bloke with a sword versus an unstoppable killing machine. Actually, the storyline does its best to make it seem the other way around. It makes the protagonist feel like another John Rambo or Snake Plisskin (although I heard he was dead), triumphing against seemingly impossible odds and yet barely breaking a sweat.
Most stages are split into sections, completing one then starts you at the next one with full health. Die three times though, and it's game over. Combat mostly involves jumping on platforms and slashing enemies with your sword. Inside containers you will sometimes find a sword upgrade, increasing its strength and reach. The downside is that it has a power bar with a maximum three units. Get hit three times and it's gone. You can also use the power up by initiating Berserk mode, which makes you temporarily invulnerable with a red glow and makes your sword even more powerful. This will quickly drain the power bar of your sword until depleted, so it's best to use it only when you're in a really tight spot, and you will usually want to save this for bosses. In addition to the sword upgrade you can also find grenades. They can be tough to aim at times, perhaps due to the desire to emulate classic gaming a bit too faithfully, but their vastly superior firepower makes them useful against bigger foes. Their throwing arc can take out enemies your sword can't reach. The controls are fairly sharp playing on a controller, although I wouldn't recommend playing on a keyboard (although let's be honest, it was never meant to be played with a keyboard anyway).
This is no game for pushovers. For those convinced that modern gaming is just too easy and holds your hand too much, Oniken is a godsend. Thankfully, challenging in this case does not mean cheap. Your deaths are always self-inflicted, and there is none of the 'bullet hell' found in games such as Contra. Its all about learning enemy patterns and figuring out the best strategy to proceed. This means that the difficulty probably isn't even close to games of such legendary frustration as Ghosts n' Goblins or Battletoads. The fact it was designed with modern hardware and without the tricky limitations gives it a distinct advantage over 30 year old games too. No sprite flicker, no bugs or glitches and few re-spawning enemies. Realistically though, Oniken is not going to be for everyone. There is a good chance that those unused to this retro style will probably hate it. It was very much designed for those seeking a nostalgia trip.
If you do manage to beat the game, Oniken also features Steam achievements (including ones for
finishing each level without dying once), high scores, a hardcore mode with only one life and there are also secrets to be found in each level and a hidden stage to unlock. To be honest, though, unless you plan on tackling hardcore mode the game will probably last you only 3 hours if you are an 8-bit veteran. In that regard, perhaps it's a little too faithful to the classics. That being said, someone less familiar with this style of gameplay might spend double that time trying to get though it so it really depends on your skill level.
The action, while tough, can also be exhilarating; Oniken definitely deserves praise for its level design. Beating a level gives a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. One level involves jumping obstacles on a bike and picking up grenades to throw at a polar bear chasing you through frozen wastes, only for it to turn into a cyborg after taking enough damage. Another sees you dodging a death star-style super weapon in between taking out enemies. Oniken is full of these kind of neat ideas that complement the gameplay as well as giving it a wow factor.
Oniken is, by 8-bit standards, a good looking game. It manages to retain that classic pixelated style without overdoing it and staying clean enough that you can always tell what's going on. Some of the environments could probably use a bit more detail and variety though. The cut scenes are entertaining enough to make them more than just something annoying to skip over, and this is where the quality of the graphics is at its best. The soundtrack fits nicely with the action. Most of the tunes are catchy and the boss music creates plenty of tension. It's not quite the level of, say, Ducktales, Journey to Silius or Mega Man 2, but that's more down to the overall style of the game and the music definitely plays a key part in the overall stellar presentation.
Oniken is probably the closest that anyone besides Capcom has gotten to recreating an 8-bit game faithfully on modern hardware. It has the benefit of better hardware than the games it takes inspiration from, resulting in few glitches compared to the sprite limits and frame rate drops on the NES and Master System. However, even disregarding that fact, the level design makes it comparable to some of the very best available on those systems. While the difficulty will put some people off, it isn't up with the toughest games, and I can definitely recommend it to anyone interested in retro platforming gameplay.
+ Fantastic level design
+ Faithful homage to 8-bit classics
+ Controls fluidly
+ Presentation is excellent, especially the cut scenes
+ Good value for money
- Not as difficult as some might suggest
- Short, lasts only around 3 hours
- Some environments look a bit too similar