The indie scene isn’t short on homages to games of the past. When done well we’ll throw around words like "retro," "old-school," and "throwback" as a form of flattery for their insistence on celebrating the past. We adulate their decision to thumb their nose at what’s “modern” because we associate the old years with something pure and what the internet would describe as “hardcore,” and there are plenty of examples of games that know how to put a spotlight on the past, and make a just argument for why maybe it was better back in the day.

Other times you get a relic, an archaic piece too busy with being old, and not even remotely considering if what it’s doing is fun, entertaining, satisfying, or engaging. In an attempt to pay homage to their inspirations, some developers accidentally insult said inspiration, making a poor retread of that old classic without ever showing how it learned and evolved from the games that came before it. 8-Bit Boy is old not because it’s brilliantly designed to showcase the better aspects of retro game design. It’s old because it’s unabashedly Super Mario Bros. done all over again 2014.

The setup for the game is a 32-year-old man who is freshly out of college facing a mid-life crisis. He’s unhappy because he’s unemployed and hasn’t accomplished very much. He’s a man who, in his soul-searching, tries to dig deep to the last time he was happy. In his case ,it was remembering what it used to be like to play a video game, and it’s a sentiment that is easy to buy for a lot of us older gamers. I can assure you I also look back fondly at going to Sears (back in my day Sears had this great game shop on the 2nd floor), getting my game, and then quickly ripping that box on the drive home so I could read over the instruction booklet.

Sappy as it may sound, I can buy the sentiment behind the game. It yearns to turn back the clock to yesteryear when games featured a sense of wonder, joy, and hey, a challenge. So our young man (hey, 32 is still relatively young) finds his old video game console downstairs, and a mysterious cartridge. Before long he's pixelated into the 8-bit game as a video game boy who needs to tackle each obstacle like he did in the platformers he played when he was a child. 

The game offers two difficulty levels: “Kiddy Mode” and “Retro Mode.” Kiddy mode is essentially the game auto-saving after completing every level, and Retro mode works on a lives system or by manually saving after you find a save token. Essentially, retro mode is like Super Mario Bros.: you keep going until you lose your lives. Along the way, though, the player can find these hidden tokens in the environment that allows him to save his progress. A lot of these are hidden behind secret walls and require some out of the box thinking or a leap of faith that can otherwise cost you a life if you misjudge it.

It certainly provides you the most challenging experience the game can offer, but ultimately I find that system to be more arbitrary and cheap. It doesn’t quite have the benefit of a rogue-like of keeping some kind of progression, and more importantly 2D platformers in the modern era have shown you can provide challenging levels without resorting to the old lives system. However, I can’t argue Kiddy Mode is the more ideal way to play this game, because without the added spike of difficulty the game has no hook.

You see, if try to play the game with modern saving conventions you get what I described as a relic. It’s not just inspired by Super Mario Bros., it’s a copy and paste of job of Super Mario Bros.: same basic set of rules of hitting blocks, getting coins, power-ups, and fruits (instead of flowers) that shoot projectiles to defeat enemies more quickly. Mild changes like enemies that move quicker after being hit are few and far between in what is a game aping everything Mario Bros. did almost 30 years ago. The controls themselves, which might have been precise in 1985, are simply dated now, especially in comparison to how Mario became a looser game over time, or how fast Sonic moved, or the sheer precision found in the likes of Super Meat Boy or even something floaty like Rayman simply feels better from pixel to pixel. All it has going for it on a gameplay level is that it can be a hard game.

That’s not to say there isn’t a place for a difficult game. There absolutely is a place if games like Hotline Miami, Super Meat Boy, and Vvvvv are any indication. But those games don’t rest all their hopes on the difficulty department. They have more inspired aesthetics to go along with their game. They aren’t just 8-bit and call it a day. They evoke an era, a time period, a specific group of films or imagery to convey to the player. The movement is deliberate and purposeful or quick, efficient, and precise to compliment the many obstacles those games will through at you. They are simply more daring than what Awesome Blade Software created in 8-Bit Boy.

Those games weren’t afraid to be modern in areas where it mattered, and it was the little things that helped their cause. Take for instance 8-Bit Boy’s Kiddy Mode. In theory, it autosaves after completing every level. In practice, what happens is it saves the same amount of lives/power-ups you had going into that new level for the first time. On one hand, it can make it so you can retry levels back with full upgrades if it cycles back. Now, if you go into a level with one life it brings you to a game over screen ever time, which is followed by a delay between when you are finally asked if you can retry from the same level, and the game loading through the level again. In comparison, Super Meat Boy asks you to press a button, and you are right back in the action.

All in all, it was a game that irritated more than it satisfied. On a gameplay level it provides nothing you haven’t seen before, and certainly nothing you haven’t seen done before, and better. It’s not cute when Nintendo goes back to the well too often with Mario and comes back retreading old ground. It certainly isn’t flattering when someone builds a game around those old game ideas. Thematically? Maybe the game did have a point to go along with the game mechanics. By the game’s end our young man is no longer a man who feared the hurdles he was going to through at the time. He was over it.

Which is where I was at the end of the game as well. I was over it. Instead of finding happiness or joy, I got irritation and boredom. I got a game that was uninspired, unimaginative and flat. 8- Bit Boy wasn’t an homage as much it was a glorified fossil being dug up years after everyone who could possibly give a damn stopped caring. Instead of making me yearn for the past, it made me apathetic towards it. This isn’t retro. This is a relic. 


Final Score – 3/10

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