Narita Boy Review
I nearly put the controller down and walked away for good. I just couldn’t nail a precision jump. It’s not that I don’t relish a challenge, but every so often and out of the blue, Narita Boy would throw something at me that felt like a relic of a bygone era – instant spikey death or precision timing to defeat a dive-bombing enemy – and would make me question why on earth I was doing this to myself.
This is the sort of gameplay that will fill you with dread or with joy, because for all the beautiful pixels on display and a synthwave soundtrack to die for, you probably already know if this is the game for you.
Lionel Pearl – the creator of the massively popular Narita One console and its Narita Boy game – is missing! The Digital Kingdom is in danger, and with the Silent Eclipse weakening their defences, with the return of HIM and the Stallions, a hero is needed. You are that hero.
The first major character you meet – well, receive a pre-recorded message from – is Motherboard, the Supervisor program of the Digital Kingdom and your spiritual guide on your adventures.
Here’s the deal
She begins by explaining what you’re seeing and why you are here: a visual representation of the Trichroma, the source code of the Kingdom. This is made up of three beams from that source code, each with a specific function and occupying a region within the Kingdom and creating entities around them, the Houses of the Trichroma: Yellow House, of the Desert simulation; Blue House, of eternal rains and the Blue simulation; and finally the most powerful of all and the source of all the issues, Red House.
The supervisor program, HIM, craved supremacy, and while he was defeated along with the Stallion programs, they have returned. Our only hope? Narita Boy, the hero that can wield the Techno-Sword, forged with Trichroma beams and the only weapon capable of defeating the Stallion code.
Still with me? There’s a lot more to it obviously, but how the story unfolds in these conversations and situations with Motherboard and the various inhabitants of the Kingdom, plays a massive part in just how charming and engaging a world has been created here. Some just chat about the world around them, others pass on detail on what you have to or go to next, and some tell personal tales of how devastating the recent events have been to them. It’s superb world-building, and none of it is a chore.
Jump before you can walk, or something
The early part of the game is a tutorial of sorts, teaching you how to navigate the world – jumping and climbing – and recognising what can and cannot be fought. Simple puzzle elements are introduced that initially are straightforward enough, but later become more subtle, requiring rooms and areas to be cleared, buttons to be found, and the solution for the correct symbols hidden behind exploration and locked doors.
Combat is ramped up in a similar fashion, as once you have retrieved the Techno-Sword, the base enemy, the Zombie, appears. Not only do you have the sword, you’ve been gifted three moves: Home Run (a baseball bat-like swing), Shotgun (the sword also shoots) and the Ultra Beam (a massive screen-clearing beam that can only be fired after filling a meter). You have a quick battle to try out each of these before moving on. Each area you arrive in will add more to your move set and arsenal, while also placing new obstacles in your path you can die to and new enemies to be killed by: Skull Code wields a massive sword that needs to be dodged before you can attack; Bads (ha!) are small, flying irritating creatures and can be devastating in large groups if not dealt with.
There are environmental hazards that require deft jumping skills coupled with mid-air dodging: Dodge and Shoulder Charge, for example, become very useful, not just in combat but in navigating the world too: in fact, simply getting from one area to another is often part of the puzzle-solving joy of the game. That’s not to say some combat and navigation difficulty spikes don’t feel jarring, they can be frustrating in places, but apparently impossible bosses and out-of-reach areas become navigable with some patience and timing. Thankfully, whether you are exploring or fighting, the controls are taut and responsive; not once can the game be blamed for your failure.
Occasionally you face bosses that you are either tasked to defeat by the inhabitants or need to clear before moving on.
I’ve got love for you…
Keeping with the 80’s theme, one of the first is Lord VHS. And yes, one of his attacks is a ground-based VHS cassette. More complex and difficult bosses require more creative solutions. Glaucoma, for example, blocks your every hit, has a screen-wide attack, drops bugs and jumps off-screen to often land on your head if you’re not nimble enough. Watching for environmental aids and looking for an opening and timing your attack, become invaluable. The character design is outstanding, and while bosses like Black Rainbow can be terrifying, you are often left picking your jaw up off the floor at the beauty in their design or an area you discover. That happened more than once.
There are twenty moves and attacks to unlock, and with each comes new enemies and even buffs to find solutions to. A personal favourite: reaching the Desert you find Tanyo-Beam, one of the “three legendary Trichroma dudes” (it says here) who then fuses with you to give you the Tanyo-Beam attack and the Yellow Wildfire: it deals more damage to enemies who have a yellow flame over them, but you also receive more damage in return. These yellow-flame enemies are mixed in with regular enemies to add another layer of strategy to your gameplay.
Kobe has realised a world alive with tiny beautiful details, from the naming of areas like The Gallery of the Cosmovisions, Binary Pastures or the Techno-Fathers Castle and the understated semi-religious themes; Narita Boy himself is all flailing arms and legs, distinctly different to all those he sets out to help; to the creatures that make the world feel alive, sheep and rabbits with digital faces, the massive toad fashioned from old PC screens and bodies; the keys shaped like floppy discs, the save icon that looks like a Walkman; discovering your animal form – I won’t spoil that here -then taking it for a run; filling the back story and providing a “palate cleanser” from the main game are the 13 memories of the creator these areas are beautifully rendered in washed-out tones, providing details of the sometimes harrowing personal life of the Narita Boy creator; and that’s all before we talk about the superlative soundtrack by Salvador Fornieles, never intrusive, always atmospheric and that battle theme, not tired of it yet!
I’ve reached an age where the games I would have enjoyed 20 years ago and more are a distant recollection of quick wits, skill and muscle memory, of the ‘how-on-earth-did-I-play-that?’ variety. Yet here we are, four years on from Studio Koba’s Kickstarter launch and while it feels like a lifetime has passed in the interim, not just in videogames, I find myself playing a game in a genre that I had all but given up hope of finding any kind of pleasure in again. In Narita Boy, beating seemingly insurmountable odds can still be fun.