It’s safe to say that if your system is remembered for introducing or perfecting a genre during its lifespan, you’ve clearly made a huge impact on games. Much like how the PC is recalled for inventing the first-person genre and setting the template for much of its life, or how many RPGs nowadays intentionally harken back to the 16-bit era, the Nintendo Entertainment System can be arguably best given credit for perfecting the action platformer. Untold numbers of titles took the formula Super Mario Bros created and ran with it, adding their own tweaks here and there and (generally) being looked upon fondly. It is perhaps this era that informs the recent indie-game explosion more than most, and standing tall amongst these homages is Oniken.
Oniken is the newest title from Brazilian developer Joymasher, creator of the similarly retro-tastic Castlevania tribute Odallus. Like its predecessor, Oniken is a throwback to a very specific era in video games, designed specifically around the limitations of the average NES game. The control scheme is intentionally limited to simulate the interface of the NES’ Control Pad, the graphics are done using the same color palette and sprite limits, and it’s also surprisingly difficult. For gamers of a certain age, all of that sounds pretty rad, right?
And for the most part, it works. Despite the presence of grenades, your attack options in Oniken are generally limited to your trusty future sword. Sure, you can collect power ups to increase the blade’s reach, but this focus on agility and melee combat brings Oniken closer in spirit to the NES port of Strider or the underrated late-release Shatterhand. The rest of the game is designed very closely around your abilities (or lack thereof) in the same way that all good platformers of this time were. Most of your enemies brought guns to a knife fight, and while you can (usually) jump or duck out of the way to a degree of success, you still have to get much closer to them than you would like. Enemies and power ups are frequently placed just out of the way of your sword strikes, encouraging nimble jumping, and if that isn’t enough to keep you hopping around, the numerous platforming challenges likely will. Bosses such as a rampaging polar bear and an insectoid robot-snake straight out of the Michael Bay Transformers movies help break up the jumping and slashing. There’s even the occasional vehicle segment!
The precise combat isn’t the only part of Oniken that will made you feel like you’re back in grade school. As mentioned, the presentation adheres pretty faithfully to the original NES hardware. Enemies are simple but evocative, often resorting to that ‘detailed-guy-drawn-in-one-color’ look many NES titles went for, and the stiff animations wouldn’t look out of place in any number of Konami games. The backgrounds are atmospheric and colorful without seeming too nice, and the overall look is right up there with plenty of later ‘red-band’ NES games like Kirby’s Adventure that pushed the already-aging hardware to its limit. Cutscenes are presented before and after each level in a very Ninja Gaiden fashion, although the colors are still limited and there isn’t much going on, animation wise. Mention should be made of the occasional blood splatter and character death in cutscenes. Except for one or two examples, the violence isn’t especially heinous, but it’s a stretch to imagine Nintendo of America letting it slide back in the day. Then again, this is the company that let Abadox and Golgo 13 slip by, so who can say?
The music is perhaps the only area where it falters. The compositions are great, don’t get me wrong; each one suits the levels they play in and you’ll be humming many of them for some time afterward. My only complaint, and this is a complaint you won’t hear too often for anything, is that the music is almost too good. While the majority of Oniken’s songs fit right in with the overall vibe, some recurring pieces sound closer to the Genesis’ sound chip in tone and composition; for example, a synth sound occurs during each level’s introduction that sounds much closer to Splatterhouse 2 than anything the NES would have been capable of. But that’s splitting hairs, and who knows? Maybe the Nintendo version of Oniken would have shipped with the special sound chip Castlevania 3 used.
Even if deliberate throwback platformers like Oniken aren’t your cup of tea, credit at least needs to be given for Joymasher’s desire to reproduce such a specific experience. As blasphemous as it may sound to many of us, not all gamers will share the same love and fondness for Nintendo’s heyday that I do and you might. Even with as much fun as Oniken is, much of the effect will be lost unless you were right there in the thick of it back in those wondrous days of tube TVs, two-button controllers, and juiceboxes. For anyone who wishes to be 8 years old again, or just anyone in the mood for a good swordfight, Oniken is right there. The rest of you whippersnappers can go back to your damn iPhones and get the hell off of my lawn.