Monday 21 June 2021

Narita Boy Review (Nintendo Switch)


Another world, another time; the 1980s. For those of a certain age the decade is a pop culture wonderland, full of treasured films, music, TV shows and games. The team at Studio Koba clearly fall into this age bracket (and if not, at least feel as though they should be), as Narita Boy is a mash-up of so many things from the era of big hair, neon design and synth-led pop music (your memories of the 80s may vary).

Narita Boy himself is a standard 80’s gamer kid that gets sucked into the Digital Kingdom of the game of the same name, one created by Lionel Pearl (also known as “The Creator” in game). Your aim is to stop the Stallions from corrupting the digital kingdom by restoring the creator’s memories. So far, so TRON, but the best part of the story is the glimpse you get into Lionel’s life when a memory is restored. These moments drive you to discover more about Lionel, a Steve Jobs/Shigeru Miyamoto style figure whose childhood experiences add a human face to the game. Without these quiet moments to cut through the techspeak it’s likely the story would have been mostly ignored.

As for the game itself, it feels like it wants to be a Metroidvania, but can’t quite bring itself to be. Often, you’ll reach a locked door and be told to locate a Techno Key to unlock it. Cue wandering around the area looking for the next NPC who will invariably tell you to speak to another NPC in order to locate the key, then backtrack to the locked door once you have it. As such, progression feels more DOOM than Symphony of the Night, and fells like a lazy design choice. It’s a shame, as you unlock plenty of abilities throughout which are on occasion used to reach previously inaccessible areas, but more often than not they’re used briefly then forgotten. Some may lead to a Battletoads-style surfing section (although nowhere near as frustrating), or changing into an animal form to progress through a forest, but are never used again. Thankfully, most will be used in combat, and this is the meat of the game.

Initially the combat consists of mashing the attack button, and feels flat. Over time, you gain a dodge move, then a charge attack, and so on. The enemies you encounter after each combat upgrade will make you use these abilities, and by the end of the game you’ve learned enemy attack patterns, when to dodge, when to recharge your health, when to switch fire forms to deal more damage, and when to attack. Mashing the attack button won’t see you through, so pattern recognition becomes essential in making progress. The combat is easily Narita Boy’s strongest point, as the platforming doesn’t quite feel right. Narita Boy feels more sluggish and weightier that his spindly frame suggests, yet thankfully there’s not too heavy a focus on pixel-perfect jumping.

The visual design throughout is firmly in TRON territory – a little neon lighting here and there, the setting as a whole – but it’s all been animated in a traditional 2D manner, frame by frame. This makes for great looking movement of characters and environments, much like The Game Kitchen’s Blasphemous or the rotoscoped classics Prince of Persia and Flashback. The backgrounds are mostly muted tones, bringing to mind games on the C64 (although I couldn’t help but think of the classic endless runner, Canabalt). The retro design even extends to the original Team 17 logo being used at the beginning of the game, something this old Commodore Amiga fan associates with his teenage years. It’s a nice-looking game, and everything is clear even during its more chaotic fights. The CRT filter over the top of the game (including video distortion on the edges of the screen) really adds to the atmosphere.

The music is a mixture of catchy synth and bit tunes (none catchier than the closing theme, something worth completing the game for), and the sound design overall is in keeping with those 80s vibes. However, hearing “Rest in FORCE!” each time you die may lead to frustration.

Narita Boy is a challenging title, but always feels as though it can be overcome. Enemies are varied, and most will need a different approach, be it shoulder charging to break a defence or goading them into attacking first, the fights are a memory game, and all the more rewarding when you’ve figured them out. The boss battles themselves are great fun - the final boss took me several attempts, but the feeling of accomplishment once it was defeated gave me that same feeling as beating a game back in the 8-bit days. The backtracking for keys leads to the game’s duller moments, but don’t diminish from the experience enough to spoil the enjoyment.

Narita Boy displays its 80s influence as boldly as a neon green shell suit. Some of its design choices harken back to a bygone age (key collecting, no world map), but this may well be by design - older games were often obscure – but I await the potential sequel with anticipation. Whether it decides to go down the Metroidvania route further or not (play it through to the end and you’ll see what I mean), I hope Studio Koba can at least match the quality and challenge of Narita Boy. After all, “we’re only gonna fail if we give up”.


Written by Dan Gill

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