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Retro Game Crunch Review: Get your turbos out, boys!

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Retro Game Crunch
Price: $14.99
System(s): PC, Mac
Release Date: March 4th, 2014
Developer: Retro Game Crunch
ESRB Rating: N/A

Another child of the great wave of indie game jams, Retro Game Crunch was conceived as Super Clew Land during the 24th Ludum Dare game jam. In those 72 hours, the team built up a chemistry that had highly reactive results. They took that energy to Kickstarter, and so Retro Game Crunch was born, a series of community chosen games that burst forth from a three day crunch, and refined over the next month.

Finally complete, Retro Game Crunch brings together six games in the style of the NES games of yore. In doing so they will of course crib from, and draw comparisons to the classics, and fight modern audience’s expectations and nostalgia. Have the crew built something that can withstand the judgment of today? Or have they built something that will be lost to the void of time? Find out in today’s review of RETRO GAME CRUNCH!

A Modern Classic?

Retro Game Crunch isn’t exactly an “authentic NES classic”. Too many colors, too many sprites, and for the most part too detailed to exist on that hardware. It does however, crib the system’s audiovisual and gameplay aesthetics while bringing the actual form of the game up to modern standards. The challenge is still there, so it feels in part like a set of arcade games from the time. In the package are seven separate games, tied together by a single launcher. These range from puzzle games, scrolling shooters, card games, and Metroid style exploration games.

Retro Game Crunch smartly eschews some of the era’s less charitable mechanics. Gone are limited lives and (for the most part) heavily punishing checkpoints. It’s happy to use more than two buttons when it needs to (you’d think that would be obvious but there are still some retro style games that adhere to that absurd rule). It’s also full of detailed and charming spritework, with upbeat music to match. This ties the disparate styles of games together, giving it a unified aesthetic that crosses genres. But what about the games themselves?

Get your Turbos out, boys.

In running down the individual games, it only makes sense to start with the game that started it all:

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Super Clew Land

An evolution centered exploration platformer, Super Clew Land conjures up fuzzy memories of Kirby’s Adventure and E.V.O. The Search for Eden. You’ll chomp down on food and play a little color matching game inside your stomach to progress towards your next state of evolution and gain a new ability. Tying progression to character evolution in both appearance and ability is a smart move. It compels you forward to unlock new parts of the map and see what comes next. The puzzle matching is less compelling, mostly there to engage you by breaking up the pace of the collecting. Messing up means that you’ll simply have to search for new food while waiting for the one you messed up to reappear, meaning a small loss in time. It’s paced well enough with just enough challenge to keep your attention.

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End of Line

A puzzle game where you outsmart repair bots in order to destroy yourself in each stage. Aside from the novel idea, it’s full of the usual switch turning, block pushing, and conveyor belt shenanigans. There are some clever bits, such as requiring you to kill yourself to respawn in another area, but for the most part it’s conventional stuff. The puzzle difficulty is tuned to challenge you without turning frustrating. In that aspect, it works well, but otherwise it feels like something you’ve done before. It’s definitely no Karoshi 2.

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GAIAttack!

Single-screen platforming beat-em-up. It employs the old jump/attack/special move trinity against a formidable number of foes rushing in. Likewise, it uses employs enemies with the same behavior and different skins for most of the game, leaving the challenge in navigating the changing level designs and setting a high score. There are some clever layouts here that take advantage of your limited abilities, but it never fully explores the scope of design in the way something like Bubble Bobble or Buster Bros does.

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Paradox Lost

A Metroid style exploration game involving a cool chick and a gun that shoots time travel. It keeps up the excellent design and character that is shown off in the other games, but it feels more limited. Despite taking place across three different eras and having a relatively large map, it never feels truly exploratory. A lot of the layouts consist of prescriptive corridors that funnel you towards your destination. While it helps cut down on the aimlessness that plagues some of the genre, it doesn’t leave enough breathing room to simply take in the scene.

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Wub-Wub Wescue

A single-screen platformer in the style of the early Donkey Kong. You play as an adorable puppy trying to save his master from the natives. You’ll do the usual ladder climbing and trap jumping as well as picking up songs that let you do things like slow down time a bit. It has the strongest rhythms of the group, with many small audio touches in the back to complement the beat and absolutely charming visuals. Sadly, it places a lot of emphasis on precise movement. Combined with its more considered pace and vulnerable protagonist it ends up becoming punishing, in an unenjoyable way.

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Brains & Hearts

A two player card game that involves trying to line up number cards in sequential order. There’s a reasonable amount of depth here, and it goes without saying that it’s best played with another person rather than against the CPU. Still, it doesn’t feel suited to the format and limitations placed upon the project. It lacks the tactile feel that gives weight to card games in both digital and analogue forms. It’s also heavy on numbers and calculation. The real drama of card games often comes from the decks, characters, and players, and despite nailing the characters it doesn’t have much space for the rest.

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Shūten

A scrolling shooter with an upgrade system and a quite punny name, Shūten works best given the format. Unsurprisingly (given how enamored I am with the genre), it is also my favorite. It gives off the flair of early entries in the genre, with its looping backgrounds and enemy formations calling to mind the enemy waves of Galaga or the vertical sections of Life Force. Its hectic, relentless pace had me breaking out an actual turbo arcade stick to keep my thumb attached. It does recycle bosses multiple times however, with a few new attacks thrown in each time. The upgrade system can get a bit problematic as well, as later levels are nearly unsurvivable without grinding levels for gold. It wasn’t entirely egregious, but it did become tiresome after a while.

The Next Level

Retro Game Crunch is a good example of both the strengths and weaknesses of the game jam creation process. There is a wealth of interesting ideas on display, and a strong creative vision from the team. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the games don’t feel fully fleshed out. While they have a solid read on what made older titles classics, they leave a lot of territory unexplored. They feel constrained by the format. This hurts especially in the more exploratory games, which lack the proper open ended feeling that is integral to the genre’s success.

What the team has done is craft something remarkable solid. While it isn’t authentic to the experience of an NES game it manages to evoke the same feeling of the era in a more modern and immediate way.

Site [Retro Game Crunch]

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