Hidden Gems of Game Design: Volume 14

Unearthing gems with Pharoah Rebirth +, Dink Smallwood, and Star Wars: TIE Fighter

Hidden Gems of Game Design: Volume 14
Source: SUPERJUMP.

There are plenty of amazing games that go unnoticed and are not played widely, for one reason or another. Maybe it's a diamond in the rough, or the marketing wasn't there, or it could be a game ahead of its time. For this monthly series, I've asked my fellow writers on SUPERJUMP to pick a game they think is deserving of a chance in the spotlight. Let us know your favorite hidden gems in the comments.

Josh Bycer

Pharoah Rebirth + (2016)

Source: Game Chronicles

I’m getting better at finding all kinds of games during sales. While looking up the name of a Metroidvania that I thought was already out, I stumbled on another one out of the blue that wowed me with how great it was to play. Pharoah Rebirth was a Metroidvania game made by solo developer Krobon Station in 2015 in Japan and then was ported and re-released globally with the "+" addition in 2016.

We play as Jonathan, an explorer who, thanks to his former partner turned rival, has been cursed and transformed into a half-man, half-bunny, creature. While trying to figure out how to remove the curse, he is unfortunately cursed again and given seven days to find magical artifacts before the curse kills him.

The game is played like a traditional platformer with each stage having its own environments, puzzles, enemies, and a boss to go through. Where the Metroidvania aspect comes in is that every stage can be replayed to find hidden and not-so-hidden treasures. As you accumulate more treasures, you’ll start to receive passive bonuses for them, and there are major treasures that unlock new abilities and features. The level design is well done, and since you can replay the levels, there is always a reason to return and try to find something that you missed.

Returning to the treasures themselves, I really like the design of them as a way of incentivizing someone to repeat stages and be rewarded for them. While you’ll get a lot of treasures that just raise your stats, there are those that give you new abilities or quality-of-life features like automatic mapping. If you’re playing on normal difficulty they are nice to have, and on hard, they will help you even the odds against the enemies.

Source: Steam Community.

The + in the title also means that there was a new level added with the Steam release that is also the most platformer-centric one in the game that will test your mastery of movement. All-in-all, the game is not on the difficult side, and there are enough items and abilities that should carry any player through to the end.

With that said, this game definitely qualifies as a hidden gem as I literally stumbled on it while looking for games on sale and most of my contacts have never heard of it. The name doesn’t exactly scream Metroidvania and it's easy to write this one off as just yet another modern retro platformer if you only look at screenshots. While Pharoah Rebirth + may not move the genre forward in a new way, it is an exceptionally well-executed take on it and an easy must-play for anyone who enjoys a good Metroidvania.

Gavin Annand

Dink Smallwood (1998)

It could be argued that Dink Smallwood was one of the earliest examples of the modern “indie” game. Not in the strictest sense of just being a game from an independent studio (they had existed long before 1998), but in its game design sensibilities. From the outset, you get the impression that this is a game that was cobbled together by a small team of passionate developers.

Source: GOG.com

Dink Smallwood is a quirky Action RPG with simple mechanics and gameplay but filled to the brim with irreverent humour. It tells the story of a pig farmer named Dink, who is unwittingly pulled into a quest to defeat an evil cult that seeks to destroy the kingdom. What follows is a Monty Python-esque tale of silliness and fantasy satire that will give you more than a few chuckles along the way. Developer RTSoft released the game as freeware in 1999 and open-sourced it in 2003. Since then the game has garnered a small but loyal community who have continued to produce mods to this day. The remastered version is available for free on GOG and has even made the jump to iOS and Android mobile devices.

Antony Terence

Star Wars: TIE Fighter (1994)

I found a dusty copy of TIE Fighter in my primary school library next to a copy of an old Star Wars film. As a kid, the film barely stayed on my mind. Playing as a TIE pilot in the Imperial Starfleet, however, was far more memorable. At the time, I didn’t know I was playing as one of the bad guys. With over a hundred missions and “up to 640x480 resolution for combat sequences,” this space combat simulator was the first time I felt helpless in space.

Source: DigitalTrends.

Reviews today tell me I’d have been better off with a controller or a joystick. But with a bargain bin keyboard and a trackball mouse, I struggled with even the basic escort missions. The game’s complex commands, despite being a mystery at first, slowly opened up to me. While it felt tedious, it captured and held my attention in a Force choke as I tested the TIE Fighter’s traversal and combat options via trial and error. Here’s a list of the commands I had to work with.

I miss the days when my attention span could account for the several systems aboard my craft. Keeping tabs on the recharge rate of my lasers, shields, and engines, was crucial. It was a delicate balance that I usually abandoned in favour of purely offensive or defensive manoeuvres. I could even prioritize repairing specific parts of my craft. But unlike my enemies, one silly move could tear my flimsy craft apart. It’s a perfect representation of the hapless TIE Fighters you’d expect from the movies.

While I remember engaging in starfighter dogfights, I don’t remember the stories that accompanied them. I’d speed up to catch Rebel A-Wings and power up my lasers against stationary defence platforms. The inertia I experienced as I hunted down Rebel targets added a sense of realism and weight to these encounters. Seeing them break out of formation as I fired at them felt incredible.

Returning to the star destroyer after missions felt like a mechanic from a different time, back when film tie-ins fretted over the details. You could even dock to a friendly spacecraft to restock on supplies mid-mission. Players could pick between TIE Fighters, TIE Interceptors, and TIE Bombers, with unique weaponry and mobility. I remember the game’s lasers and voice acting feeling particularly potent.

TIE Fighter also had pixelated cutscenes that must have looked impressive nearly three decades ago. Like most games at the time, its missions slowly became nigh impossible for me to beat. It remains an engrossing experience, particularly for Star Wars fans. I’m still surprised that TIE Fighter was built for joysticks first. I guess people were just into inaccessible flight sims at the time. While I may not remember why I flew a TIE Fighter, I’ll never forget wrestling with its controls until I got my craft to weave through Rebel forces.

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Thanks for reading, come back next month for another entry and more great hidden gems to check out! You'll find all previous Hidden Gems stories here.

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