Indie Excavation: The Other 8-bit Age
Featuring Adventure Bit, Super Win the Game, and Black Jewel
The neo-retro craze that started with titles such as Shovel Knight is very much alive in the indie space, but it is ever-expanding. After all, the NES doesn't speak to nostalgia for everyone, even for those alive during its heyday.
Whether it's Europeans who bought 8-bit computer systems at times when consoles were prohibitively expensive or Americans who recall playing games on their obsolete classroom desktop machines, a lot of people have much stronger memories of early home computers. Today's three games all aim to capture the design and aesthetics of those systems.
Watch the games in action:
SEEP - 2021 - $1.99
Developer SEEP has a few things in common with Sinclair Strange, whose games I looked at a while back. Both specialize in short, fun games that are easy on the wallet and very authentic...perhaps obnoxiously so. SEEP's Retro series is a diverse collection featuring titles in different genres with different graphical styles, all priced at $5 or less. We'll start with Adventure Bit, a game meant to recall the exploration-focused platformers of the MSX.
Adventure Bit is a simple game at heart, something that will be a running theme in today's titles. The player character can jump, attack, and throw certain objects; it is this skill set that must guide the player through four stages with three levels each. The objective in each level varies - you may have to defeat all enemies, find a hidden key, or solve some kind of puzzle to advance. All of the action is confined to a single screen, so you'll only be expected to use what you can see.
The game starts off pretty easy, but don't expect it to stay that way. What appear to be difficulty settings on the main menu are actually different sets of levels - six in all. The hand-holding stops at set three, and by set five, the game is actively out to get you. It would be wise to get the hang of the controls as early as possible, as the later levels can get increasingly technical.
That's going to be the other recurring theme: controls. Adventure Bit is designed to replicate some of the limitations of those 8-bit computers, and that means that your movement might not be as fluid as you'd expect from a recent title or even something like a Mario game. Twitch reflexes won't save you here - early platformers like this are about moment-to-moment strategy. Get your tactical brain ready, and you'll be good to go.
Super Win the Game
Minor Key - 2014 - $7.99
For our second title, I'm pulling out something that's a little bit older. I mentioned Super Win the Game in passing while discussing Gunmetal Arcadia, another game by the same developer. In sum: Minor Key's most popular game to date is a free title called You Have to Win the Game meant to resemble an exploration game on an 80s-era desktop machine. Super Win the Game is the premium follow-up, and while it was fairly popular, it seems to have been forgotten. Let's amend that.
Our protagonist is the Wayfarer, a man with no past behind him but a quest in front of him - to track down the Arcadians and figure out how to drive the evil out of the land. Unfortunately, he's not quite equipped for the task. All the Wayfarer can do is jump - he has no means to defend himself and will die immediately if he touches anything harmful. Being a hero is tough.
Stylistically, Super Win the Game is something of a hybrid - it has some technical features that were beyond computers of the era (read: horizontal and vertical scrolling), but under the hood, it's another exploration platformer in the vein of You Have to Win the Game. The Wayfarer starts in an open world and it's up to the player to find clues and powerups to advance through the story, though the game is pretty generous with its signposting.
Difficulty-wise, Super Win the Game starts off pretty casual but it can show its teeth. The endgame gets very technical, but it's the bonus content where things get cute, requiring the Wayfarer to weave through a screen full of bouncing projectiles (which, again, kill him in one hit) or scale a wall of spikes using only narrow blocks that wink out of existence every few seconds. You may have to win the game, but you don't have to achieve 100% completion.
As I mentioned last time, Minor Key was a pioneer in the fake CRT effects that are now standard in just about everything. Super Win the Game introduced this feature, which isn't a mere toggle but a full submenu that allows the player to tweak a range of settings - everything from saturation and persistence to FOV and barrel distortion and even simulated glare. If you really want to emulate a specific monitor without the hassle and expense of tracking it down in real life, then knock yourself out.
Oscar Celestini - 2017 - $1.99
Our last game is an action sidescroller designed to emulate the games of the Commodore 64 (not the Amstrad, as I said in the video), and it is not based on Conan the Barbarian. The main character's name is Ryan, not Conan. He's also not meant to be He-Man, and I don't care if you think the villain looks like Skeletor. Totally different character.
Black Jewel is another simple-at-heart kind of game: Move left to right through a series of screens, kill monsters when necessary, avoid traps when necessary, and recover the titular jewel. As with the protagonists in Adventure Bit, Ryan is limited to a jump and an attack, but that's all you needed back in the day. Monsters aren't big talkers, but they do understand steel.
On paper, Black Jewel is a short game, but as with many titles of the time, it might take you a while to finish. It is not an easy game, and Game Over is just that - no checkpoints, no continues. Once your life bar empties out, it's back to the first screen. This harkens back to an era when finishing even a brief game was a real accomplishment.
As with Adventure Bit, the real challenge here is mastering the controls. Barbarians aren't known for being nimble, and Ryan is no exception. Dodging projectiles requires fast planning and a good understanding of the mechanics. Combined with the rarity of healing items and the aforementioned lack of checkpoints, you can see that Black Jewel is a game meant for the hardcore nostalgist looking for a bona fide challenge.
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