Love them or hate them, rogue-likes have been an unstoppable force in the gaming industry for the better part of half a decade. From smash indie hits like The Binding of Isaac to AAA grind-fests like Returnal, game enthusiasts all over the world can't seem to get enough of that beautiful "one more run" feeling. Devs have definitely taken note of this, as the show floor at PAX West 2023 didn't disappoint when it came to its rogue-like offerings. I was able to play three titles from the genre this year – Atari's new remake of the classic Haunted House, Batterystaple Game's new Mega Man-inspired side-scroll shooter 30XX, and finally Panstasz's unique menu-style horror game WORLD OF HORROR.
There are few names in the video game industry that carry the same pedigree as the powerhouse that is Atari. In 1977, Atari unleashed its legendary 2600 onto the general public. It wasn't the first gaming console to grace living rooms across the world, but it was the first one to do it successfully and sustainably. The 2600's faux-wooden panel front plate and blocky single joystick controller will be forever cemented in the annals of gaming stardom.
The last few decades, however, have been a bit strange for the legacy company. When approaching the Atari booth on the PAX show floor, most of the employees running the booth were wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the Atari logo. On the back of their shirts quoted the tagline "We Still Make Games," and I must admit, I (like many others) was ignorant of that fact. I frankly wasn't sure what Atari was up to nowadays, so I was really excited to jump into one of their new projects and try it out for myself.
Haunted House was originally released in February of 1982 for the Atari 2600. Back in the days of the 2600, any sort of "narrative" in a video game was much more up to the player's imagination, and Haunted House was no different. It saw the player (represented as a pair of eyes) exploring a mansion to find pieces of an urn in order to return to the entrance. Along the way, the player would be accosted by a multitude of enemies, including vampire bats, tarantulas, and a ghost. While extremely basic in its execution, the original Haunted House is deemed by many to be the first example of survival horror, and as such it garnered positive reviews from critics and players alike.
Fast forward to 2023, and Atari has dug into its vault and made the decision to remake and re-release Haunted House for a more modern audience. This new Haunted House will be realized as an isometric roguelike. The last 40 years have treated video games pretty well in the graphics department, so gone are the days of using your imagination to make something out of the five pixels on the screen in front of you. The new Haunted House is done in a beautiful, hand-drawn art style. The environments are procedurally generated, and full of old-school haunted house fun. Every room has a big, over-the-top, gothic creepy vibe that reminds me of Scooby-Doo or Haunted Mansion. It's that kind of kid-friendly spooky horror aesthetic that never gets old and the whole family can enjoy.
Haunted House plays like many other isometric exploration games – you can explore environments, pick up collectibles, evade or fight enemies, and ultimately make your way through the mansion. Stealth is the name of the game, however, encouraging players to solve puzzles and complete challenges in the shadows, away from their ghastly adversaries. Along the way, you will find other kids to unlock and play as, with each kid bringing their own flavor and stats to the gameplay, giving you the ability to customize your experience. On top of this, there are items that you can purchase that stay with you through each run to better help your chances on the next one. If you are beset by enemies and your life gets to zero, you are knocked out and sent back to the start to do the run again.
The visuals are appealing, the gameplay is fun, and the themes are well-executed. There's plenty of challenge and definitely that "one more run" feeling after each time the ghosts get the better of you. If you or your family want a game to play around the Halloween season (or just a spooky game to hold you over through the summer months,) check out Atari's Haunted House, due out sometime in 2023.
Batterystaple Games has done something truly special with their newest side-scrolling action roguelike 30XX. The follow-up to their 2014 indie hit 20XX, 30XX takes the series in a more refined, more pixelated direction, while retaining the roguelike aspects that 20XX is remembered so fondly for. Both of these outings are heavily inspired by the Mega Man series, mechanically and visually. 20XX felt like a well-crafted love letter to the Mega Man franchise, and 30XX feels like a professional editor took a second look at that love letter.
I was able to sit down with Batterystaple Game's creative director Chris King and – in a PAX West first for me – actually play through the entire demo in co-op with him as we discussed the game and gaming in general. Visually, 30XX looks like it was ripped straight from the SNES. Beautiful and vibrant 16-bit pixelated sprites fill the screen, each with its own gorgeous and smooth animation. Colorful particle effects scream across the screen as you are bombarded with enemies, each of which is designed distinctly and interestingly. It seems obvious, but the problem with many hectic side-scrollers is that enemy design can sometimes blend into the background, making it tough to quickly pinpoint where the enemies are on screen. 30XX has no such issue, and multiple times I could feel myself sitting in front of my chunky tube TV as a kid playing my SNES while Chris and I decimated our run.
That doesn't mean that 30XX plays like an SNES game, however. Movement is smooth and satisfying, with small quality-of-life improvements making it easy to pick up, but difficult to master. Things like timing on wall jumps not being precise, easy double jumping, and dash jumps make traversal easy enough to understand, but difficult enough to overshoot your jump or get too excited with button presses, keeping it challenging. There are two playable characters in 30XX - Nina and Ace. Nina is the character I played during the demo, and she is basically a clone of Mega Man. She is the distance fighter of the two, with one of her arms being a large cannon. Ace, on the other hand, is the melee-focused fighter, being a clone of Zero from the Mega Man games. They both have their own unique playstyle and offer the ability to work in tandem to overcome certain enemy types and obstacles.
The roguelike experience can be tailored as well. While there is the standard "die once, start back at the beginning" formula, you can also choose to play in a more traditional sense, with level progress being saved on each run. Regardless of your choice, the levels are still randomly generated in such a way that it feels cohesive and pointed. This doesn't even get into all of the powerups that are included, or the stacking powerups that create crazy weapon combinations. There really is a ton here to enjoy.
It's a blast to play, especially in co-op, and with a price of only $19.99 USD, it's a bargain's worth of content. Thanks again to Chris and the people at Batterystaple Games for the opportunity to give 30XX a try!
WORLD OF HORROR
One of the reasons I adore the indie game scene is because – unlike their AAA counterparts – indie developers aren't afraid to try new things and push the boundaries of what games can be and what they represent. In my opinion, indie games are where real innovation happens in the games industry. This isn't to knock all the hard work the individuals throughout the AAA space put into the massive blockbuster games we all know and love, but it would seem that stripping away all the red tape and limiting the interference from big-name publishers and massive development teams gives developers the freedom to try something truly unique and original. This is definitely the truth for panstasz's roguelike horror game WORLD OF HORROR.
When WORLD OF HORROR was originally released in early access in early 2020, its unique and disturbing art style definitely turned heads and got serious attention. The main inspiration for the game's art direction is Japanese Manga horror icon Junji Ito. Junji Ito is most well known for his frightening and gruesome depictions of body horror and surreal imagery. His art style is instantly recognizable, and WORLD OF HORROR wears its inspiration on its sleeve.
Every piece of art within WORLD OF HORROR is deliberately gritty. The entire game, from start to finish, was done in Microsoft Paint. While that may initially raise some questions, when you see how fantastic the artwork is, it all starts to make sense. The jagged, pixelated lines that are created through Microsoft Paint lend themselves perfectly to the otherworldy and offputting nature of the artwork itself. It gives the visuals an unsettling and aged look like finding yourself in a world that's frozen in time. It elicits memories of playing around in Microsoft Paint as a kid, making doodles that never look quite right. There's a multitude of filters to choose from as well, changing the color scheme from the traditional black-and-white to anything from Gameboy colors to everything having a bloodred hue.
None of this would mean much if the game itself wasn't fun to play, and I'm happy to report that it's a tense, strange, entertaining, and interesting time. WORLD OF HORROR is a menu-based roguelike, meaning that the entire game is manipulated through various menus with accompanying artwork. Everything from the dialogue to the combat is handled in this manner, and it allows for some seriously tense moments within each run.
Each run starts by selecting a character (who all have their own stats) and then selecting a scenario to investigate. I don't want to give away too much about these investigations, but they bring you to some seriously strange places. Most of the lore is based on various Japanese horror mangas or different legends, and there are some seriously scary situations you can find yourself in. If horror and roguelikes are your jam, then I cannot recommend WORLD OF HORROR more. I was able to get a sneak peek of the version set to release on Switch, and it looks incredible on the little handheld.
WORLD OF HORROR is available now on Steam, with a PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Switch, and Mac release on October 19th, 2023.
Like everything else I experienced at PAX West this year, the roguelike offerings were fantastic and extremely varied. Whether you want to curl up with some family and play a spooky game this Halloween, you want to work with someone close to you to best a side scroller, or you want to scare the pants off yourself while enjoying incredible imagery and story, there's a roguelike coming out soon that will help get that fix.
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