If there’s one thing my time with the early build of 20XX reminded me of, it’s that I apparently have to be tricked into playing anything with roguelike or RPG elements (or both). Regular roguelikes? Pass. DOOMRL, a primitive ASCII-graphic roguelike set in the DOOM universe? I played that thing for hours. Paying careful attention to a limited selection of powers that I need to develop and upgrade through my adventure? That sounds like a lot of work. Doing that exact same thing in a FPS like System Shock 2? Where do I sign up?
I explain all this to justify, at least to myself, why I found myself having this much fun with 20XX. On the surface, it’s not much different than a lot of other throwback-styled action-platformers released these days. You’ve got mechanics stolen from Mega Man X (which is a change of pace to the games that just rip off Mega Man), you’ve got a fun 2D art style (that isn’t so slavishly pixelated), you’ve got thumping pseudo-chiptune music, you’ve got everything you need to make it look like 20XX is simply another “oh, I remember the NES!” kind of platformer. And yet…it’s so much more.
Described by the developer, newcomer Batterystaple Games, as a “co-op-friendly roguelike that plays like Mega Man X”, 20XX does much to set itself apart thanks to the simple addition of roguelike elements. I say ‘simple’ because on the surface it all comes together perfectly, before you stop and think about exactly how different this makes the formula for Mega Man X, or retrogames in general.
The game places you in the shoes of either Nina or Ace, a boy/girl robot team with extremely familiar looking colors (one red, one blue) and play mechanics (one shoots, one…swords). You start every game on a ship called the Ark, where you can choose different passive powers to begin your run, switch playable characters, or even compete in masochistic daily challenges to earn…what, exactly, I don’t know, because I never actually completed one, but that isn’t the game’s fault.
I used the term ‘run’ a moment ago to describe the progression of this game because it’s both the way the game itself describes what you do, and probably offers the easiest explanation. The game progresses in the linear level-to-level fashion like you’d expect, but befitting anything claiming to be a ‘roguelike’, you only get one shot at it. Each ‘run’ is a test to see how many of the game’s randomly-generated levels you can make it through before dying, a death equally likely to come from either a level’s end boss or merely some fiendishly placed platforms and traps. Dying sends you back to the Ark to peruse the items you picked up and spend any nuts you collected on items for the next run, and any Soul Nuts you find can be spent on unlocking new and different items to collect along your way.
These items often present the biggest difference between life and death. During your run, you’ll be able to collect both special offensive powers (think of a cross between Mega Man’s powers and the sub-weapons from Castlevania) and passive abilities that perform ‘stat boosts’ like increasing your movement speed or boosting your health for the duration of the run.
The fact that these items don’t stick around, though, really helps add to the frenetic pace and overall chatoic feeling of the game. Even if the handful of levels available in this early build did start to look a little same-y – albeit gorgeously drawn and well-crafted – the random nature of the level design and power-up distribution does a lot to ensure the game never really plays out the same way twice, and does a lot to stop the game from having a consistent ‘feel’, which, in this case, is a good thing. Unlike typical platformers, you really can’t rely on any one weapon or power-up, nor can you get too comfortable with a level’s layout. There’s something to be said for the art of fine-tuned level design, but 20XX manages to keep things both unpredictable and well-designed, making sure each level feels coherent even if it is generated on the fly.
I personally can’t wait for the further additions and refinements 20XX will see along the way. The tight controls and fun combat will scratch the itch of anyone who prefers their games a little more 1990s, but the roguelike elements, refined presentation (including the amazing music that recalls the best of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), and chaotic randomness do much to set it apart from the recent indie pack, and will help to entice gamers who don’t just want another Mega Man/Contra retread (although if I HAD to say it, this game reminds me a lot of NES Sunsoft titles like Batman or Journey to Silius more than many others). It’s out on Steam Early Access now, and even in this fledgling state, there’s still a ton of robot-blasting, jump ‘n shoot fun to be found with 20XX.