As many of you no doubt know, there’s been a growing discussion on the difficulty of video games due in part to FromSoftware’s work taking off in recent times. The hardcore audience (whether they’re of the snobby “git gud” variety or not) is most likely to argue that, by adjusting the difficulty of a game that’s meant to be tough by default, you’re trampling on the developer’s vision and taking away from the overall experience. The more casual end of the spectrum (and, of course, video game journalists) would argue that, by including an “easy mode” or changing certain elements of the gameplay, you’re opening the doors for new players and therefore increased sales.
So, what the hell does this have to do with Venture Kid, FDG’s latest release on the Nintendo Switch? Well, it’s easy to perceive this retro-inspired platformer as a Mega-Man Jr of sorts. Mega Man is a series that’s very well known for its difficulty and for being a part of the “NES Hard” lineup alongside Castlevania and Contra (but still considerably more reasonable than Battletoads or Ghosts n Goblins). While Venture Kid is clearly a love letter to the blue bomber, there are a number of things it does differently that will no doubt appeal to an audience that may find the classic Mega-Man trilogy off-putting. The question is- can an easier take on a notoriously difficult game still provide a satisfying experience?
Presentation wise, Venture Kid is your standard pixel-art affair. While all of the art is well done, it’s a bit unfortunate that it blends in with the million other 8-bit look alikes currently swamping the market. What DOES stand out in this department, however, is the music. Norrin Rad of Retro City Rampage fame composed the tracks for this game- a definite plus. I felt that every track in this game was a hit, even if some of them weren’t prone to lingering in my head after completing the game.
The protagonist, Andy, handles very similar to Mega-Man. He has a twitchy jump and starts out with a pea-shooter to dispatch his adversaries with. There are two fundamental differences to the controls between the two characters, however. For one, Andy doesn’t drop from heights like a bag of rocks. Second, and perhaps of more importance, he isn’t flung backwards from enemy attacks. This aspect of game design, commonly referred to as “knockback” was quite common in classic sidescrollers not operating under the “touch anything and the character dies” rule. On paper, it was meant to keep players from bum-rushing through obstacles. In execution, however, it often equated to the occasional cheap death since you often didn’t control over the hero while in the knockback state. This, I would argue, is a far more archaic means of punishment than the lives/continue system many of the more popular reviewers bring up when covering older games. Suffice it to say, I think axing knockback was a smart deviation from Capcom’s blueprint.
Venture Kid also decides to use a linear progression system, meaning that you’ll be taking down levels in order (unless you’re playing “Adventure” mode anyway). This means that you won’t have to worry about what order to play the stages in, nor will you have to worry about coming into the stage or following boss battle at a disadvantage . Personally, this was refreshing on two fronts. While I have finished a handful of the classic Mega-Man games as well as Megaman X, one aspect I never cared for was picking the “wrong” order (since I always aim to play games blind/without walkthrough assistance as much as possible) and then getting my ass handed to me until I stuck it out or used trial-and-error to determine the right route. Second, with non-linearity being more or less all the rage in the indie scene, it’s refreshing to see a retro-inspired game that plays out in this way.
At this point, you might be wondering if Venture Kid actually has any merit to it other than being an accessible retro platformer. The level design is standard fare, and while you might not see any mechanics or obstacles that weren’t in some other game you have played before, it’s serviceable enough to keep you engaged throughout the one to two hours it may take to finish it. It’s worth noting that you’re going to need to do a bit more in order to fully complete the game, and that’s picking up all of the treasures. There is a hidden treasure in each level before the penultimate “fortress” wave of stages. Usually, they’re tucked behind phony walls or require you to find a switch off the beaten path to unlock a door later on down the road. They’re not the most deviously well-hidden secret items, but they do encourage a bit of poking around in levels that are otherwise a straight shot to the boss room. In addition, they’re a boost for the replay value of the game seeing as the player can’t take on the true final boss and see the “good” ending without obtaining every last one.
It’s also worth noting that, while Venture Kid does a lot to be accessible, there is still some challenge. Venture Kid has a solid difficulty curve, surprisingly enough. I found the last leg of the game kept me on my toes consistently due to the vast array of one-hit-wonders such as spikes, ball-and-chains and platforms that zipped around at high speeds. You are going to die a number of times, and you’re probably going to see at least one Game-Over screen. It never quite gets to the point of the average NES game, but there’s just enough going on to where the game doesn’t get boring. Boss fights are, with the exception of the final confrontation, all on the easy side of things though and won’t test anyone with a pinch of experience in the genre.
Of course, a 1-2 hour runtime can’t really justify a $10 pricetag in today’s market. Fortunately, Venture Kid features an Adventure Mode that allows you to pick the stages in whichever order you please and a Boss Rush Mode on top of some in-game achievements. Perhaps most interesting the Survival Mode, which turns the game into a rogue-lite with randomly generated enemies and platforming challenges using the assets of the main game.
In conclusion, Venture Kid is a solid love letter to the blue bomber that makes a number of changes to the formula to help ease the uninitiated into this style of gameplay. It manages to be accessible while still providing enough challenge to keep things interesting for the experienced player if playing on Normal or Hard. The additional gameplay modes, achievements and hidden treasures have a positive impact on the game’s overall lasting value. The level design and core gameplay doesn’t reinvent the wheel and, if you’ve become sick of indie titles who borrow heavily from generations past, this won’t give you any reason to jump back in. For everybody else and those who have had trouble getting into games like Mega-Man, though, I’d say it’s worth a look.