Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Oniken - Thoughts

While I contend that Shovel Knight is the best 8-bit style game made in the post-NES era (that doesn't begin with "Rockman"), Oniken deserves an honorable mention. Whereas the cerulean crusader took his laurels from the likes of Mega Man and Ducktails, Oniken looks towards Ninja Gaiden and Shadow of the Ninja for its oldschool training, being more concerned with execution than flexibility. This means that game offers the player only a few methods to tackle its obstacles with, forcing them to hone their reflexes and learn pattern recognition on the fly.

The story is your usual fare of a violent loner taking down a tyrannical madman fueled by gasoline and a thirst for power. It's nothing to write home about but gets the job done; notable is the violence displayed in both the cutscenes and gameplay. It can be quite jarring at times as it's not often you see a little 8-bit head getting chopped in half. This minor detail adds a lot more "grit" to the world of Oniken, and I think it nails the hyperviolent anime aesthetic it aims to emulate despite the bright colors.

The color palette itself stays close to the limited selection the NES is privy to. I would hesitate to call Oniken a looker even by NES standards—some of the levels fare nicely on the visuals, while others (the boat, the forest) can look pretty silly. There is a solid amount of variety in the game as it takes you across eight (mostly different) stages, so I don't really hold the lack of better visuals against it. Plus the grotesque mechanical design of the final two levels reminds me of Sunsoft's Batman, which is always a great thing to strive for. The music is neither here nor there unfortunately.

But enough talk of the pleasantries—the action is what Oniken was made for! To get this off my chest, my biggest complaint is that I couldn't get any controllers I had to work properly with it. I had to fiddle around with some Joy2Key configurations, so at times I felt that my jumps were a little imprecise or that I wasn't attacking as fast as I should've been able to. Besides that though, the game plays as smooth as it needs to be—the Strider-esque blade is fast and has a good reach, though I found myself most indebted to the grenades in tricky situations. The randomized drops from item containers can be frustrating at times (especially if you don't get health before a boss) but it at least keeps you from completely memorizing the stages and treating them like an exercise in muscle memory.

I'm not one to achievement hunt anymore, but I confess that it was a lot of fun obtaining the "no-death" accolades for each of the stages (my first playthrough naturally netted me around half of them). Even while replaying stages I've already beaten before I found the gameplay exhilarating, certain aspects of the level design continuing to impress me. Sure, there's a lot of moments near the end that require a bit of foreknowledge, and a few of the bosses (I'm looking at you Hackan) were more about going all out rather than dodging, but the vast majority of the game is well-crafted, smart, and cool. I think it's a game I would've loved to design back in my adolescence, especially regarding the ominous-yet-rad final boss design.

Oniken's ride is a simple & short one, but it's a helluvalotta fun. It's one of those titles that after the credits began rolling, I knew I would return to at a later time. Oniken isn't as polished as the games that inspired it, but if you want some classic NES action on the PC, there's rarely better places to look... well, besides Shovel Knight.

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