Sunday, June 26, 2016

1001 Spikes - Thoughts

The PC version of 1001 Spikes is not my first rodeo with the title. While the Xbox Live Indie Games marketplace was rotten with a whole lotta junk, there were a handful of great gems if you dug deep enough: They BreatheAstroman, Cthulu Saves the World, VolChaosSoulcaster, and Radiangames' numerous arcade titles were among the best. A less-than-stellar entry was the aforementioned (minus one spike) 1000 Spikes, a retro-styled game that takes a page from Prinny's book and hands the player 1000 lives to finish it with. Some parts were clunky while others were overtly cruel, but at the end of the day it was a kinda fun experience. Lo and behold... my opinion has not changed.

"Mean-spirited" is the best way to describe 1001 Spikes. It looks like a simple pixelated platformer but has a lot more DNA in common with I Wanna Be the Guy than Mario, keen on killing the player in indefensibly cheap ways. Of course not every death you'll suffer is cheap, but foreknowledge is your greatest weapon here, and the only way to acquire it is to die, die, and die again. It's not a crushingly difficult game—there's only five or six levels in the campaign that'll truly test your resolve—but it's definitely an experience that prioritizes memorization and repetition over reflexes. Because of that, it's a hard game to recommend unless you have a stomach for punishment or penchant for masochism (or, like me, both).

Having been reared on NES games, I'm beyond pleased with the presentation in 1001 Spikes. Both the music and graphical fidelity are fantastic, respectfully borrowing from the 8-bit era while keeping the controls buttery smooth and responsive. The antiquated style feels like it works in service of the gameplay, but I have to confess that the "oldschool" design could use some improvements. Trap inconsistency really grinds my gears: for instance, the spikes that pop out under your feet can have a range of timings before they recede yet all share the same sprite, and dart traps are a few pixels too thin while the flame traps are a few pixels too long. Crumbling platforms sometimes look the same as regular platforms, and there's no rhyme or reason to the location of hidden spikes. These grievances are central to the "gotcha" style gameplay, which isn't too egregious during the main campaign (where the levels are two screens long) but is constantly vexing during the larger levels post game. That, and some sections are frustratingly obsessed with unevenly-timed patterns (dart traps above hopping statues, penguins running into spike switches), further obscuring the path to the finish line.

The most surprising thing for me was that the PC edition of 1001 Spikes is far and away superior to the XBLIG version. There's a ton more content, new modes, goodies to buy, characters to unlock, and multiplayer! All of these features don't allay the misgivings I have with the game's design, but they are a nice inclusion that help to beef up the title, easily tripling its length. The one addition that feels completely unnecessary is the new narrative; the story told here is absolutely asinine and longwinded, taking up minutes of your time to say something that a single splash screen could handle. It can be thankfully skipped, so it's not quite as detrimental to the game as the nefarious trap placement is.

1001 Spikes provides a pretty decent package if you're up for the challenge. I think the game's greatest strength is its sheer simplicity—there's no mechanics to master or upgrades to choose between. The only thing stopping you from getting to the exit are the innumerable deaths you must suffer to learn the lay of the land, which... admittedly doesn't sound that appealing. For that reason alone I certainly wouldn't classify it as an excellent/must-play experience, but it does what it sets out to do, and I kinda admire it for that. Well, also maaaybe because I have a soft spot for good-looking 8-bit art too.

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