Raider: Episode 1
Have you been hankering for a two-fisted retro platformer you can sink your teeth into? If so, Raider: Episode 1 from Pseudolonewolf may just hit the spot.
Anyone who has traveled the breadth of the galaxy has heard the stories before. Stories about ghost starships or whole civilizations that have wiped themselves out through non stop war (and, amongst the most cliche, both). These are the stories told in the seediest of back-galaxy starship stops and they always seem to end in some vague reference to treasures unfound that the bravest of explorers still chase after to this day. Entertaining, sure. They definitely serve to pass the time while you wait for your star-cruiser to finish fueling up. But no one takes them seriously, right?
Only, this time the story doesn't stop with the vague reference to massive treasure. It keeps going and even includes coordinates. This is enough to make any space pirate reconsider the veracity of a story, but for you, Arkus Zei, a mixture of curiosity and empty coffers practically guarantees a quick jaunt to the specified coordinates. Even if it's just to prove that the story was nothing more than a story after all.
The funny thing is that when you get to the location in question, there is in fact a starship there. Correction, a ghost starship. Well, you've made it this far, it'd be a waste to turn back now, wouldn't it? Once you board the deserted vessel, the [up], [left] and [right] arrow keys move you in their respective directions whilst the [down] arrow key lets you crouch. [A] lets you jump, [S] swings your sword, and [D] shoots your blaster. Explore as much as you can and don't hesitate to pick up whatever treasures lay hidden in the labyrinthine corridors of the ship, but be careful. No end of spikes and monsters await you and they're none too eager to let their spoils go so easily. Also be sure to keep an eye out for the checkpoints sprinkled throughout the game. These handy stopping points allow you to respawn at their location should you die, but watch your lives in reserve as well for once they're all gone, it's back to the beginning for you whether you like it or not.
Keep your wits about you, watch your jumps, and you just might survive long enough to reach the greatest treasure in the galaxy.
Analysis: The first thing that should be mentioned is that this game is hard. Maybe not I Wanna Be The Guy hard, but even on the beginner difficulty, Raider: Episode 1 will prove to be a hefty challenge for many gamers. This works, though, considering that this game intentionally hearkens back to a time when the good games were the ones that made you throw your controller against the wall in frustration.
As Pseudolonewolf points out, the one departure from those games of old is that Raider has a far more developed story, and a considerably well told story at that. True, most of the plot is revealed in moderate sized text sequences at the beginning and the end of the episode, but there is a great deal of personality and character expressed in those well written lines. Your anti-hero, a grizzled lone space pirate, is suitably cynical with a nicely dry wit about him. While it's never animated, as you read some of his reactions you can practically see his little alien eyeballs rolling sarcastically in their sockets. Ultimately, when it comes to plot, what you have is something that is engrossing and well told, but doesn't get in the way of the game in the least.
Raider not only tells a decent story but looks and sounds pretty solid as well. If you like pixels, you're sure to love Raider's style which hovers somewhere in between latter-day NES and early SNES. Meanwhile the music represents the best of the era in that it is well orchestrated, perfectly matched for the game's content, but also easily tuned out. Maybe it's just me, but this is one of those rare games where I just stopped listening to the music after a while as opposed to scrabbling for the mute button.
You can't talk about a platformer without analyzing the controls, though. At first, jumping in the game may feel a little awkward but it shouldn't take you long to acclimate yourself to the feel. Once this minor hurdle is overcome, Raider exhibits some remarkably tight controls. You'll face no end of tricky challenges but the precision and consistency with which your character responds creates a sweet spot in platforming. Yes, it's hard, but at least you're given the tools to overcome.
But the true brilliance in Raider stems from two related principles. First, as hard as everything is, you still get the sense that it's possible. There's a school of platform game development in which the games are only possible in the academic sense. Raider manages to swoop in just a little bit underneath that. This makes it both addicting and frustrating in such a way that if you are playing on a laptop you should bolt it down to something (unless you don't mind it being shattered against your wall, but then you won't get to play any more). The second thing that really makes this game work is that accomplishing anything, maybe even a small sequence of jumps, feels like pulling off a death defying, jaw dropping feat. Largely because you just did. Thus, perhaps Raider's greatest strength is a level design that is both the biggest challenge and reward in the game.
Counting against Raider are few minor flaws. From an aesthetic point of view, the game lacks variety a bit. Yes the graphics are beautiful if you appreciate pixel art, but the backgrounds never change. The platforms you face on the first room are the same type and color as those you'll face all the way to the boss battle. This lack of variety extends to the enemies of which there are only a handful. Even some basic color swaps might have spiced things up a bit. But, to be fair, if you're in the zone you'll probably be too busy jumping and shooting and slashing to worry much about this.
The other problem is so small it's almost a nitpick, but after playing through the whole game, it stands out as the one thing that really seemed to bother me. If the base of a ladder is on a platform as opposed to free floating, you must physically jump off of the ladder once you get to the bottom. I know, this seems small and petty, but in a game that is otherwise exceptionally well executed this stands out like an off note in a beautiful symphony.
In the end, when you load up Raider: Episode 1 in your browser you can expect solid controls, a good story, and magnificent level design that will put your platforming skills to the test. This first in a series of five episodes sets a high standard for the four episodes to follow, and I can't wait to see what Pseudolonewolf has in store for us next.