Indie Excavation No. 3: NES Throwbacks

On display — Crypt Stalker, Super Cyborg, Gunmetal Arcadia

Indie Excavation No. 3: NES Throwbacks
Source: Gunmetal Arcadia.

These days, digital marketplaces are bursting at the seams with retro platformers presenting themselves as “spiritual successors” to something on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Most of them are adequate at best, but there are some fantastic platformers that can be had at a tiny price. Today’s exhibit features three such titles that deserve just a little bit of your attention.

As always, if you want to clue me in on an overlooked indie title, you can leave a comment here or send me a message on my site.

Watch the games in action:

Source: YouTube.

Crypt Stalker

Sinclair Strange — 2020 — US$2.99

It is a season of evil. A portal to the world of demons has opened, as tends to happen in the world of old video games. And, as is tradition, it falls to the latest in a long line of heroes to fight back the demons and seal the portal for another age. This time, that hero is Gladys — no last name given, though it could be either Belmont or Jones, depending on which whip-wielding protagonist you think she better resembles.

First, I should mention a quirk of the title: Crypt Stalker is actually two games in one. The title screen allows the player to select between console and handheld modes, but these aren’t just graphical settings. In the tradition of the NES-to-Game Boy port, the handheld mode features a completely different set of levels with slightly different mechanics to reflect the variation between the systems.

As to the game itself…it’s about what you’d expect. Crypt Stalkers is, essentially, Castlevania (or Castlevania: The Adventure, depending on which mode you select). The player is sent through a series of side-scrolling and vertical-scrolling levels, armed with a whip and a sidearm that loads various types of ammo. There are a total of thirteen stages across the two modes, each of which has its own level gimmicks to keep things fresh — everything from platforms that are periodically swallowed by lava to player-controlled moving floors that only occasionally glitch out and trap the player (Oops!).

All in all, Crypt Stalker packs in a lot of content for its low price. Once you’ve finished both campaigns, there are still challenge levels and the obligatory boss rush to get through. Recommended for anyone who really values authenticity in their neo-retro games.

Super Cyborg. Source: YouTube.

Super Cyborg

Artur Games — 2015 — US$4.99

Sometimes, a review can be very, very simple. Take Super Cyborg, for example. Did you like the original Contra? If the answer is yes, then you’ll probably like Super Cyborg, which is so close to Contra that it feels like a level pack.

The story is a familiar one: A scientific installation is being consumed by an awakening alien menace, and it’s up to you to put a stop to it. The early levels are a fairly typical fight through a jungle and a fortress, but this swiftly gives way to more organic sci-fi horror. By the end, the player is left crawling through the guts of a great biomechanical terror, with the bosses being its terrifying mutant organs. Apparently, some species have fully-formed eyes on their stomachs — who knew?

Mechanically, Super Cyborg will be familiar to a lot of people. It is Contra with a few twists, such as the ability to charge up any weapon and a save system to restart at the beginning of the last level played. You will need this feature, by the way, as Super Cyborg is hard. None of the games on display today are particularly easy, but this one definitely puts the most effort into earning that “Nintendo Hard” label.

I would recommend this game for anyone who loves run-and-guns and doesn’t mind an old-school “try and die” gameplay loop.

Source: Gunmetal Arcadia.

Gunmetal Arcadia

Minor Key — 2017 —US$9.99

Give a moment’s thought to Minor Key, those pioneers in the faux-CRT effect that we’ve all come to tolerate. They had some success with the free platformer You Have to Win the Game and its premium follow-up Super Win the Game, but received little attention for titles that came out after that. It’s a shame because Gunmetal Arcadia brings a few interesting things to the table.

It might be best to clear up a little confusion because it’s very easy to conflate this game with its prelude, Gunmetal Arcadia Zero. Both games feature shared assets, comparable mechanics based heavily on Zelda 2, and a fundamentally similar story. However, while Zero is a traditional, linear six-level platformer, this title has roguelike elements. Each run is four levels long, with randomized chests and shops giving the player different weapons, sub-weapons, and power-ups.

A key twist here is the “Legacy” system. Once a run ends (whether by victory, death or running away like a coward), the game makes a record of your achievements, the time you took, and how you interacted with NPCs. The game will then modify the next run based on those legacies, ranging from starting off with some minor power-ups to changing how the dungeon is generated or even ending the new run with a different final boss.

Finally, I should at least make note of the aforementioned CRT simulation effect, as it is a hallmark for Minor Key. While many games feature effects like this, this game goes the extra mile by making it fully customizable. If you have the time and the wherewithal, you could probably recreate whatever aging monitor you played video games on back in the day. Lower the bitrate on the sound — another option provided — and it can make for the most realistic retro experience you’ll ever find on a game made in this century.


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